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I love Alex Wood.
My reasons are partly sentimental. He broke in for my favorite team after attending my alma mater and, lacking a top-prospect pedigree, was ripe for the taking in so many of my Fantasy leagues as he was rounding into form. He won me championships, to put it bluntly, and that sort of contribution you never forget.
But what shouldn't be overlooked here is that you, too, love Alex Wood, whether you know it or not. We all love that guy who comes out of nowhere and flat-out dominates.
Dominates, I said and repeated for emphasis because it's easy to forget how good he was those first couple years, when he was getting shuffled between the starting rotation and bullpen. Here's what he did over 24 starts in 2014, his first full year in the majors:
You see there? Domination!
I'll admit last year's struggles, which culminated in his move to the Dodgers, strained the relationship, and then when this year began much the same way, I did what any spurned lover would do: preyed on his insecurities through a series of half-truths (not that he noticed or cared -- typical).
The gimmick is over.
The Braves must have seen this coming.
He was never that good in the first place.
I say half-truths because, yeah, they're all plausible explanations in the absence of real evidence. Again, he wasn't considered a top prospect despite some stellar minor-league numbers, and he didn't look dominant out there, topping out in the low 90s. But when he strikes out nine, who cares how he looks doing it, right?
It wasn't really about looks for me anyway -- not at first. But then when the strikeouts faded (he averaged 6.5 per nine between his 32 starts last year and first four this year), that's all it became.
And I didn't like what I saw.
But then, just when I had almost forgotten about him, he climbed to the top of a hill in the middle of a crowd -- where he knew, just knew, he'd be the center of attention -- and did the one thing that me fall for him in the first place.
He struck out nine ... for the first time in nearly 40 starts.
Granted, it was against the Padres, who have already made a 16-strikeout man out of Vince Velasquez and an 11-strikeout man out of Jon Gray this year. Nonetheless, I was intrigued, and when I leaned in for a closer look, he whispered these sweet nothings:
"When I stride out, my foot off the ground has been fairly higher than it has been in the past," Wood told MLB.com, citing the need for a mechanical adjustment. "It's something that I thought was the last piece of the puzzle, in terms of my timing and getting my consistency back."
Granted, I didn't know he had me yet, but then when he struggled the next time out, serving up three home runs to the Rays, there I was joining in the defense.
"I felt last start and this start as good as I have in a long time," Wood told MLB.com. "It's working pretty good for the most part. The mistakes I made, they put it out of the park, and that doesn't usually happen to me."
Naw, man, it doesn't! He's a ground-ball pitcher, yo. Had allowed just one home run all year until then. It's a fluke, man. Forget it. Just focus on the strikeouts. The strikeouts!
Yes, man, the strikeouts. Wood continued the trend with seven over five innings in that start, but the coup de grace came Monday against the Mets, when he struck out nine (there it is again) over 6 1/3 innings, allowing just one earned run on four hits with two walks. That math you're attempting is 25 strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings, and that sound you're hearing is my heart aflutter.
He's back, baby.
Wait, really? Because of a simple mechanical change? It doesn't sound like much, but against world-class hitters, the smallest changes can have the biggest impact. Manager Dave Roberts put it this way:
"He's been down in the zone consistently over his last three starts," he said. "When he's down in the zone, then his secondary pitches come out of the same window and it looks like a fastball. Now, when his release point is right, his fastball, slider and change all look the same. That's where you get the swing and miss."
So then, Wood's mechanical change served to normalize his release point? Well, yeah, if it's visibly different for certain pitches, that's almost like tipping his hand. No wonder he stopped missing bats.
With modern technology, we can verify Roberts' claims with the help of our friends at FanGraphs.com:
The image on the left shows Wood's release point for all of his pitches in his first four starts (the bad ones). The one on the right shows the same for his last three starts (the good ones). To the untrained eye, the change is negligible, but when I showed both images to colleague Al Melchior, who's more familiar with this form of analysis than I am, he noted the difference before I even told him what he was looking at.
He's like the friend of dubious origin in this little romcom of ours who, through subtextual cues and prodding, brings to light my true feelings: I'm still head-over-heels for Wood and can only express that sentiment by rushing out to the waiver wire and adding him for ... uh ... someone of little consequence, like Collin McHugh or something. I don't know. Check the rankings.
The flame is rekindled. The faith is restored. We may have had our ups and downs over the past two years, but if you were to visit my home, you'd once again find Wood's picture hanging on my wall. And if you were to visit his ... well, he'd wonder why you were there and act like he doesn't know me.
Such a kidder, that Alex.