When Your Best Pitch is a Snowball

Agonizing over a title is probably one of the benefits of having an editor. I’ve never had one so I wouldn’t know, but I digress. While I don’t plan on writing all about the Cubs here, even though they are the team I follow the closest, my first actual post happens to be on a Chicago Cub. My first endeavor back into baseball writing happened to be Travis Wood about a year ago and I’m coming back to him today.

This particular post will explore what happens when a pitcher loses his best pitch (hint: very bad things), and more specifically, when a pitcher with a thin margin for error loses his best pitch.

There’s never going to be a point in time when Travis Wood, or any soft tossing lefty that primarily relies on weak contact, is going to be the best pitcher on a staff for a competitive team. In 2013 Travis Wood was the best pitcher on the Cubs and it was due in large part because he had worked his cutter into his arsenal the season prior and because the Cubs were downright terrible. In 2013 his usage of that pitch was high, his velocity was consistently in the high 80s and his effectiveness with that pitch was strong based on outcomes.

In 2014, everything came crashing down and it all starts with that cutter.

When I first looked at Wood after the 2014 season I was convinced that it was his complimentary pitches that were at issue because the usage rates in every pitch with the exception of his cutter had gone up from the 2013 season in which he was an All-Star. I poured over those pitches examining sequencing, usage, velocity, movement, location… pretty much every facet. While it is true that his curveball got hammered in 2014 because he left it in the middle of the plate far too often, his other pitches were not the genesis of the problem with Wood.

via brooks
via brooks

In 2013 Wood utilized his cutter exactly 33.33% of the time against right handed hitters. I’m only examining righties because Wood’s never really had issue with left handed batters in his career whereas his splits in 2013 & 2014 could not have been more starkly different against right-handed batters. At the start of the 2014 season Wood continued to use his cutter at a very high rate. Then it dropped off suddenly. Also dropping off was his velocity with the pitch.

via brooksbaseball.net
via brooksbaseball.net

A ~2 MPH difference is incredibly significant when you’re only averaging 87.5-88 MPH. Especially, when like Travis Wood, you work the inside part of the plate almost exclusively with that pitch.

via brooks
via brooks

The balls not put in play don’t really see that much of a difference in outcome with walks and strikeouts remaining relatively constant. The ones that were put in play see a jump across two facets of the triple slash line. The reason for that is the tremendous spike in hard contact due to the loss in velocity.

wood line drive rate 13-14

In the first half of 2013 when his velocity was the highest with that cutter Wood’s line drive rates were among the best in his career with the pitch. As the velocity fell off the line drive rates went up, even in the 2nd half of the 2013 season when he was mostly successful. Especially in 2014 when he was not. As that velocity fell off and the results went with it, Wood went to other pitches in his arsenal that simply just were not as effective. The aforementioned curveball that players slashed a ridiculous .546/.636/.727 on. But moreso, since he’s mostly a fastball pitcher, he went to his sinker. The slash line against his sinker in 2014 was .359/.453/.573 as it comprised 28% of his overall pitches against RHB as opposed to just 22% the year prior when hitters slashed a still respectable .284/.363/.409.

The cutter usage went from 34% in 2013 to just 26% in 2014.  The difference in slash lines there is the most significant with batters putting up a .331/.462/.462 in 2014 compared to just .222/.328/.338 in 2013 when it was one third of the pitches that Wood threw. The loss in velocity and subsequent usage changes bled into his changeup (which he threw harder in 2014 than 2013 for some reason) as well. The deception that created weak contact in 2013 was gone. Batters went from .183/.233/.317 in 2013 to .312/.328/.443 in 2014.

When the cutter stopped being effective, Travis Wood stopped being effective. That loss of just a little velocity allowed batters to square up Wood’s best offering forcing him to go to pitches in his repertoire that were never responsible for his success.

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