Game 111, Braves at Mariners
King Felix vs. Alex Wood, 7:10pm
It’s nice to be back, and it’s nice to start a series like this one with so much importance to both the AL and NL wild card races. Like the M’s, the Braves begin play two games back of the 2nd wild card spot, and like the M’s, Fangraphs’ playoff odds thinks they’re a better club than the team immediately ahead of them. The M’s case gets trickier because of the number of teams in the race, but the point is the same: these are two extremely evenly matched teams with a lot to gain.
The Braves are coming off of a dispiriting sweep in Los Angeles, while the M’s are probably just as frustrated about how they dropped a series in Baltimore. The M’s at least get to turn to their ace, and the prohibitive favorite for the AL Cy Young race, Felix Hernandez. The Braves counter with the underrated Alex Wood, a lefty with a 90mph four-seam fastball, and a solid change and curve. I say underrated because Wood’s had to work as a swing man with the Braves this year; just a few weeks after being one of the starters in the best pitcher’s duel in years, he moved to the bullpen. Think back to April/May and how dominant the entire Braves rotation was* – Julio Teheran was emerging as an elite starter, Ervin Santana looked like the FA pick-up of the year, and Aaron #@%ing Harang had turned back the clock to 2006.**
Alex Wood is an object lesson in the value of consistency. Despite being bumped around from rotation to the pen in both 2013 and 2014, he’s shown nothing in the way of a performance drop in the rotation. His OBP against as a reliever was .315, but as a starter, it’s .314. Sure, he’s been hit harder, as his SLG% against skyrockets from .360 all the way to .369, but still. His OPS against vs. righties is .685, and against lefties it’s .673. At home, it’s .674, and on the road, it’s .689. He’s pretty much exactly what he is, whatever role the Braves ask him to perform in, and who he’s facing, and where. How? Again with the consistent thing. There’s nothing you can really point to and say, “there, THAT’s the pitch that’s made him a success.” His FB was never overpowering, and he – somewhat worryingly – lost about two MPH from 2013 to 2014, but just about nothing else changed. The pitch has a great deal of horizontal movement to it, and thus he’s got an above average whiff rate with it. By BP’s Pitch FX leaderboard, he ranks 56th of 156 pitchers who’ve thrown a four-seamer at least 200 times this year. The change-up’s even better, with a 33% whiff rate, good for 26th out of 60 starters. Wood’s curve ranks 33rd of 72 qualified starters. There’s no obvious, game-changing weapon in his arsenal, but there’s also no just-get-it-over, “I wanted to give them a different look” style bad pitch, either. Roenis Elias’ curve AND change rank far better than Wood’s, by either pitch-type linear weights or whiff/swing, but Elias’ fastball(s) aren’t all that effective. Erasmo Ramirez’s change-up STILL turns MLB hitters into Mark Reynolds, but that fact hasn’t helped him become a reliable big league starter, which, when you think about it like that is kind of remarkable.***
Anyway, I think my favorite example of Wood’s consistency has to do with his curve. Like many pitchers, he throws it to righties and lefties alike, and like many pitchers, he prefers to keep it down. But unlike most pitchers, he doesn’t care about batter handedness or tendencies or “soft stuff away” or any of that. Instead, he throws the pitch to his designated curve ball spot. Seriously. Here’s his curve heat map to lefties:
And here’s his curve ball heat map to righties:
When a guy’s really getting hit hard, the color guy will often chide him for “aiming the ball.” That’s a wider, more nuanced definition of the word “aiming” perhaps, but this…this looks like the real thing. Alex Wood throws some pitches, and then essentially attempts to play darts or horseshoes with his curve. This is taking the guesswork, the over-analysis and the over-thinking out of the enterprise and replacing it with clean, unbending simplicity. A simplicity that starts with not trying to do too much – with a recognition of one’s own fallibility, and in the end looks inseparable from an almost overbearing confidence. This is Bauhaus baseball.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: FELIX HERNANDEZ DULLS PAIN AND MAKES YOU MORE ATTRACTIVE TO OTHERS
Taijuan Walker got roughed up a bit in yesterday’s start in Albuquerque, giving up 8R in 2 1/3 IP, including a grand slam to Carlos Triunfel. Dosger prospect and Miguel Olivo chew toy Alex Guerrero also homered in the game, that one coming off of Blake Beavan. Jordan Pries starts tonight for the Rainiers in Albuquerque.
* An underrated part of the Braves’ pitching is their primary catcher, Evan Gattis. Gattis is in the line-up for his bat, and his wRC+ is the best on the team, ahead of Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman. Gattis was always seen as a bat-first guy, and someone other teams might look to run on when they got on base. And those teams aren’t wrong! Gattis leads the league in wild pitches allowed despite not qualifying for the batting title because he’s played in dozens fewer games than the guy he’s tied with, Tyler Flowers (who two weeks ago started wearing glasses). But framing, man, framing. The Braves probably expected a massive decline from Brian McCann, reliably among the league leaders in framing runs, but they’ve instead replaced him with yet another elite framer, if various metrics are to be trusted, and, critically, if they’re isolating just the catcher and not some other, more global factor.
** Harang’s start, and his entire 2014 season, is one of the reasons I imagine the gap between the AL and NL is larger than it seems to be statistically. I *saw* Harang last year. I know what he can do, and what he can’t do. If Harang’s a well-above average SP in your “major league” then I’m at least a utility infielder or situational right hander. Yes, yes, I know there’s some kid in Arizona who probably thinks the AL sucks because Brandon McCarthy’s tearing it up with the Yankees, but his underlying peripherals clearly showed he was undervalued, and you have to account for defense and park and I am now arguing with a hypothetical child.
*** Maybe Erasmo is the Craig Hodges of baseball. Or the Billy Hamilton, if Billy Hamilton was more like the plus-plus run, absolutely-no-hit-at-all player we thought we were getting.