Braves pitcher Alex Wood; starter or reliever? Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The Alex Wood Debate–Closing Argument


For the past three days my colleague Ben Chase and I have discussed the relative merits of keeping Alex Wood in the Atlanta bullpen as opposed to returning him to the minors to hone his craft. The premise Ben puts forward is that Wood is already too good for the minors and that sitting in the bullpen pitching an inning or two every other day will be more beneficial than going down. I contend that 52 2/3 innings in A ball last year and 57 innings with the Mississippi Braves this year doesn’t make anyone ready. . .well, freaks of nature like Chris Sale perhaps, but the average college pitcher takes longer to make that transition.

A Short Rebuttal – No really it is short…

It’s short because Ben made no attempt to respond to my position. Instead he spent his time countering my position on the Rays and suggesting that 200 college innings should be added to Wood’s resume. Okay I can live with that.  Without belaboring the point, discussing whether innings totals for completely different types of pitchers are similar isn’t why we’re here.  All of this minutia misses the point.  Is Alex Wood a starter or a reliever?

Starting Is Staring And Relieving Is Relieving

Starters are more valuable to a team than relief pitchers, even closers. It’s a simple premise and I’ve not heard an argument otherwise that makes sense; Craig Kimbrel on the Astros would be trade bait and the Astros would still finish last.  Even without a closer the Tigers are in first place. So if you don’t believe that premise leave now.  Still here? Good. Now think back just a couple of years. The Yankees had a young starter with a live fast ball and a hard slider. If they could add a change or sinker they would have a starter but the bullpen needed help woodslider1and Joda Chamberlain was called up and put on a show setting up for Mariano Rivera or working the seventh inning, it made no difference; for one inning two pitches worked. A starter not names Sandy Koufax needs three.  So the next year they said were making him a starter but the bullpen faltered again and soon he was called back. Thus the seemingly idiotic Joba Rules took root and now the promising pitcher is trade bait.

In Baseball America’s 2013 Prospect Handbook the scouting report on Alex Wood starts and ends with potential and superlatives but it also has some caveats.

Scouts have two concerns with Wood: his breaking ball and mechanics. He struggles to throw his below-average slider for strikes and may need a better third pitch in order to remain a starter.

Looking at the pitch F/X chart from Baseball Prospectus you can see that his slider sits right out over the plate’s still true. While his slider can bite hard towards a right handed hitter’s back foot, it doesn’t do that consistently.  Because it isn’t a well developed pitch he doesn’t trust it. we saw that in his third inning of work last Friday. The slider wasn’t working and they had hit his change, al he had left was an attempt to throw a fastball past the hitters. When Fred Gonzalez saw that Wood was gone.

If Wood is to become a reliever he can stay. His fastball and change can get him through two or three innings if needed. ASll he has to learn is how to get ready in 10 pitches and like all good relievers have a short memory.

If Woody is a Starter he needs three the can throw for strikes. Otherwise major league hitters will sit on his fast ball.  He’ll need to refine his slider or develop a split or a hook that is good enough to be number three. he can’t do that working from the bullpen. Practice makes perfect game speed practice in this case against live hitters and he won’t get that in the bullpen..

If Woody is a starter he needs to learn how to gut it out when he is down to two pitches and one of them isn’t very good. Gonzalez can’t leave him in to work that out with the game on the line. They do that in the minors

If Woody is a starter he can’t allow frustration to make him throw the wrong pitch. We saw his obvious frustration last Friday when he couldn’t seal the deal in his third inning of work. On a losing team he might do that in the bullpen but on the Braves he won’t get that chance. We in it to win it. .

If Woody is a starter he needs to pitch not an inning or two one week then three single innings back to back the next week, then nothing for 10 days. He has to take the ball every fifth day because you can’t learn to start without starting. You can’t learn to use all three pitches without using all three pitches in the right sequences to carry out your game plan. That doesn’t happen in the bullpen.

If Woody is a starter he should be at Pearl or Gwinnett not Atlanta.

 

That’s A Wrap

The debate got a little bogged own early in numbers – probably my fault Ben, sorry – and drifted off course. This whole thing does indeed come down to how you see Alex Wood’s future; starting or relieving. In today’s sabermetric world we all seem to get a bit bogged down in numbers and forget these are people. Comparing Woody to Clayton Kershaw is futile, Kershaw is simply a superior talent and tall else being equal with a good work ethic and barring injuries, Kershaw will always be the better pitcher.  There zre some thinsg we can look at of course that don’t need a spreadsheet to understand. The people who players for major league teams know what works and what works is starters learning to be better starters by starting. In the past 4 years we’ve seen a few players bouncing from bullpen to starter and back; Joba, Neftali Feliz and C.J. Wilson.  Usually that move ends up in injury and return to the pen.  Wilson was successful only because of his background as a successful minor league starter where he developed three solid pitches and because he wouldn’t leave Nolan Ryan alone until he was allowed to give it a shot.  In spite of his very good 2010 C.J. is at best a number three starter but that’s a valuable commodity for any team. Alex wood can be a three and maybe a two if he develops that slider and maybe adds a hook. He can also end up like Joba “The What” Chamberlain, caught in between with nowhere to go.

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