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July 2014

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Who Is the Real Travis Wood?

Written by , Posted in General

Travis Wood was one of the few bright spots for the 2013 Chicago Cubs. Wood was the Cubs’ lone All Star in 2013, when he posted a 3.11 ERA in 200 innings over 32 starts, good for 4.4 rWAR, Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculation. Wood was also the Cubs’ most consistently good pitcher by a significant margin, particularly after the trades of Scot Feldman and Matt Garza. This led to some talking about Wood as a potential rotation cornerstone, maybe a solid 2 behind whomever the Cubs find to be their ace in 2015 or 2016. It was hard to find a Cubs fan who didn’t think Wood was at least a very good 3 in most rotations.

Unfortunately, 2014 has not been as kind to Wood. In 116 innings over 20 starts he pitched to a 5.12 ERA, a below replacement level performance (-0.4 rWAR on the mound). So which is the real Travis Wood? The one who looked like a potential near piece to build a rotation around in 2013, or the one who has provided more value in the batter’s box than on the mound and looks like he perhaps should face competition heading into 2015 to earn a spot in the starting rotation?

The answer is neither. A pitcher’s ERA correlates highly with 6 peripheral statistics: strikeout rate, walk rate, ground ball rate, home runs per fly ball, bating average on balls in play (BABIP), and left on base rate (LOB%). A pitcher with high strikeout, ground ball and left on base rates, along with low walk and HR/FB rates and a low BABIP will have a very, very good ERA. But the ability of these statistics to provide information regarding what to expect from a pitcher going forward varies greatly.

Strikeout. walk, and ground ball rates are the most predictive of these peripherals. Unless a pitcher’s stuff improves or declines, or if a pitcher meaningfully changes the way he pitches (which few do successfully), the variation in these peripherals tends to stay fairly small on a season to season basis. The predictability of HR/FB seems to depend on the pitcher. Some pitchers have an ability to control whether their fly balls leave the park, although a majority do not. BABIP and LOB% tend to not be predictive season to season, although some pitchers do have lower natural BABIPs than others.

The sabermetrics community developed two statistics to use the more predictable peripherals to determine, given an average BABIP and left on base rate and a neural ballpark environment and defense, what a pitcher’s expected ERA is. The first, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) looks at K/9, BB/9, and HR/FB. FanGraphs later developed xFIP, on the basis that most pitchers exert greater control on whether ball are hit on the ground or in the air than they do on whether the balls that are hit in the air clear the outfield fence or not. The question of whether FIP or xFIP is more predictive for any particular pitcher rests on the question of if the pitcher has that ability to induce fly balls that do not become home runs at a reduced rate, or if he is allows balls to fly out of the ballpark with abandon.

In 2013, Wood’s FIP was 3.89, and his xFIP was 4.50. So Wood outperformed his FIP by more than 3/4 of a run, and outperformed his xFIP by over 1.25 runs. As Wood’s BB/9 is a a full walk higher in 2014 than it was in 2013, those numbers have gone up in 2014, but not drastically so: his FIP is 4.29 and his xFIP is 4.69.

So what’s causing the 2 run difference between Wood’s 2013 ERA and his 2014 ERA? BABIP and LOB%. In 2013, Wood posted well batter than average in both of those peripheral statistics, putting up a .248 BABIP (league average hovers around .300) and stranding 77.4% of base runners (league average hovers around 70%, with a few percentage points making a big difference in ERA).

To this point in 2014 Wood has a .315 BABIP and stranded just 66.2% of men who get on base. With 7% more of the runners he faces getting on base, and 11% more of the runners who get on base reaching home plate, Wood’s ERA has ballooned.

It’s not all bad news, though. Wood continues to show an ability, like many left handed pitchers who induce more fly balls than average, to limit the number of home runs he gives up on fly balls, consistently keeping that number between 6.3% and 7.4% (league average is around 10%, with, again, small changes resulting in big ERA differences). This means that Wood’s FIP, which for his career is about 1/3 of a run lower than his xFIP, is a better indication Wood’s true talent.

In other words, Wood’s expected ERA is between the high 3s and low 4s, not the low 3s  ERA he posted in 2013 or the low 5s ERA he currently has.. That turns Wood into a solid, innings eating, 3/4 type in a starting rotation… just like the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed Edwin Jackson prior to 2013. But he’s not a 2, and no one should expect him to be.

So what does this mean for the long term with Wood? Well, if he is willing to sign a long term extension well below market value for a pitcher like him (say $10 million per year in the free agent seasons he would give up), it would like still be worth it for the Cubs to do so. But if he’s looking for a big payday, the Cubs should go year to year with him through arbitration and let him leave via free agency or trade him if they have better options.

  • Darlin_Starlin

    Word

  • Dork

    Nice article Noah. This is also why Hendricks and Wada deserve the rotation spots both have better k and walk rates and therefor better FIP over beeler

    • Noah_I

      Yeah, I prefer Hendricks and Wada over Beeler as well. People forget with Wada that he was signed by the Orioles to be a starter just a couple of years ago, but TJS derailed that. He’s more than two years out from the surgery, and could at least be a solid back of the rotation pitcher.

      I feel the same about Hendricks, who probably doesn’t have the stuff to be more than a 4/5, but his solid command/control combination could make him very valuable in that role for as long as he’s inexpensive.

      Beeler to me is another Rusin: a guy you like having available to flip between MLB and Triple A as needed, and a guy who you can flip between the pen and the rotation, but probably not someone you’d want to count on as a starter through the season.

  • Doc Raker

    Silly me, I just thought Wood was making bad pitches.

    • Dork

      Nice observation, at first it was probably unlucky, now he is probably trying to be too careful. Especially with men on base.

      • Eddie Von White

        There should be a sabermetric for lucky and unlucky. Those two seem to come up in conversation way too often. Is there really such a thing?

      • Noah_I

        Left on base rate and BABIP essentially are that. Whether you want to call it luck, randomness, whatever, the real question is whether a statistic is predictable from one season to the next. Pitchers generally lack control of whether the ground balls or flairs they induce find holes or gloves. When you see a pitcher with extreme positive or negative left on base percentage or BABIP, regression to the mean should be expected. Wood, however, has gone beyond that this year.

    • Noah_I

      Wood’s control is clearly worse than it was last year, as he’s walking a batter more per 9 than he was in 2013. But is he missing in the zone that much more? A look at the stats says probably not. His HR/GB rate has ticked up only slightly from 6.9% to 7.4%, both numbers well below league average. His line drive rate is actually down (21.1% in 2014 to 22.3% in 2013), although that number is subject to some subjective determinations, so we should probably just call it even. His IFFB rate, a good indicator of a fly ball pitcher like Wood inducing weak contact, is even with 2013.

      Now, Wood is struggling with runners on base this season, and particularly runners in scoring position, walking nearly as many as he strikes out in those situations, so maybe there’s something mechanical he can fix out of the stretch. But Wood wasn’t great with runners in scoring position in particular last season, where he had a walk rate over 5, and Wood’s numbers with the bases empty are very similar, aside from the BABIP, in 2013 and 2014.

      Like I said, Wood isn’t this bad. If there’s something mechanical they can fix to make Wood more successful with men on base, they should try it. But the difference between 2013 and 2014 is more than just Wood not pitching as well as he did a year ago. It’s not pitching as well plus the things that are out of his control not going as well for him as they did a year ago. A part of this is just how darn good his ERA was a year ago. If Wood pitches to his FIP in both seasons, you’re looking at any ERA between 3.8 and 3.95 in 2013, and 4.25 and 4.35 this season. There’s something else that describes the additional 1.5 earned runs per 9 innings he’s giving up.

      • That being said, Wood still pitches hard.

      • Seymour Butts

        Good Wood is hard…I believe the old saying goes.

      • Eddie Von White

        In the north woods, we say hard wood is good.

      • Eddie Von White

        In the north woods, we say hard wood is good.

      • Noah_I

        I feel like an Ed McMahon “hey-yo!” is necessary here.

      • Doc Raker

        Maybe this season the weather has been more conducive for hitters. The stats are really good at pointing out the problem, I want to know the adjustment Wood needs to make to fix the problem.

        Maybe Len Kasper will comment on Wood’s needed adjustment during his next start…………………….then again maybe not.

      • Doc Raker

        Maybe this season the weather has been more conducive for hitters. The stats are really good at pointing out the problem, I want to know the adjustment Wood needs to make to fix the problem.

        Maybe Len Kasper will comment on Wood’s needed adjustment during his next start…………………….then again maybe not.

  • Dork

    This got me thinking about Straily. Walk rate is his issue, just like Arrieta. Throughout his minor league career he has had low(er) walk rates generally around 2.5/9, but this has not translated to the Majors. Even in his year of 2013 with 27 starts his walk rate was 3.37/9. This year in both the majors and minors his walk rate is over 3.5/9. Until this comes down, I don’t know that he deserves a spot. This is probably the number to watch with him. He had 2 walks 7k’s in 6 innings last night or 3/9 walk rate.

    • Noah_I

      Yeah, Straily will have to limit walks to be successful. He doesn’t have Arrieta’s stuff or ceiling, either, so you’re looking at a guy with 3/4 ceiling anyways, so to reach that he is going to have to prevent giving hitters a free pass on base. I agree, for a guy like that a BB/9 of 3 or below is the number that can bring that sort of success.

  • Kac

    Really nice article, Noah.

    Statistics, in and of themselves, don’t always provide answers. Rather, the statistics tell you where to go start looking for possible solutions and/or useful inferences. The article (and comments by all!) have illustrated this extremely well.

    • Thanks Kac. We do what we can.

  • Looks like the Darwin Barney era has ended. DFA, and I’m guessing someone will take that glove.

    • Noah_I

      Cubs still have 10 days to trade him, if they can get that done, but yeah, he’ll probably end up on a contender that has a defensive weakness at 2B and could use a late innings defensive replacement.

      • Dork

        I am surprised, is villanueva soon to follow to make room for some of the other pen arms?

      • Noah_I

        Possible, but Vizcaino is struggling enough in Iowa that he may not be a priority right now for the Cubs to feel the need to bring him up this year. Rivero is a more likely candidate, but it’s also possible the Cubs could trade. I’d give a 50/50 shot of Villanueva being DFA’d or not DFA’d. The Cubs might see better odds of being able to make a deal trading Villanueva during the post-deadline waiver period than they did with Barney.

      • Dork

        You certainly can see the shift coming in the cubs moves.

      • Noah_I

        Possible, but Vizcaino is struggling enough in Iowa that he may not be a priority right now for the Cubs to feel the need to bring him up this year. Rivero is a more likely candidate, but it’s also possible the Cubs could trade. I’d give a 50/50 shot of Villanueva being DFA’d or not DFA’d. The Cubs might see better odds of being able to make a deal trading Villanueva during the post-deadline waiver period than they did with Barney.

      • Dork

        You certainly can see the shift coming in the cubs moves.

    • Buddy

      And hit him over the head with it until he learns to swing the bat?

      • We’ve missed you, Buddy. Don’t be a stranger…CAPS is peddling insurance to help people, Joe is trying to sell prom dresses, and someone thinks we commenters are insightful. It is a lot to keep up with. You wouldn’t be my first choice for a batting coach though, because that comment makes zero sense.

      • Buddy

        “I’m always around, Lois.”

    • Buddy

      And hit him over the head with it until he learns to swing the bat?

      • We’ve missed you, Buddy. Don’t be a stranger…CAPS is peddling insurance to help people, Joe is trying to sell prom dresses, and someone thinks we commenters are insightful. It is a lot to keep up with. You wouldn’t be my first choice for a batting coach though, because that comment makes zero sense.

      • Buddy

        “I’m always around, Lois.”

    • Jerry in Wisconsin

      We better enjoy this time as it happens, with the quality of rookies on their way up it will not be long before we run out of replacements for the Japanese sitcom.

    • Jerry in Wisconsin

      We better enjoy this time as it happens, with the quality of rookies on their way up it will not be long before we run out of replacements for the Japanese sitcom.

  • lifepainter

    Wood simply doesn’t have good stuff, PERIOD. Why does he walk more? Because he knows he has to throw around the corners because he can not go right after the hitters. He can not throw the ball by the hitters and he doesn’t have enough movement on his pitches to pitch to contact and get jam shots or alot of ground ball outs. You can throw out all the numbers you want but that does not explain what he is ACTUALLY doing incorrect. Sabermetrics is not going to fix what is wrong with Wood.