Remember Alex Wood, once a Brave and lately an All-Star? A check of more current events offers two revelations: First, that Wood’s once-mighty team had, before Clayton Kershaw beat the Giants on Tuesday, lost 16 of 17 games, and that – more to our point – Wood has contributed to the slide.
Not so long ago, we wondered if the Dodgers might win 120 games. (Last month, Sports Illustrated asked on its cover: “Best. Team. Ever?”) Today they’re no lock to break 100. They’re 93-52 with 17 to play. Tuesday’s victory broke an 11-game losing streak. Over those 16 losses in 17 games, they were swept in three series by Arizona and Colorado, one of which L.A. will almost certainly face in the NLDS. As noted by David Schoenfield of ESPN, the Dodgers are the first team to win 15 of 16 games in a season and also lose 15 of 16.
Nearly everything that had been going outrageously right has gone egregiously wrong. Cody Bellinger, still the presumptive National League rookie of the year, has hit .211 with two homers over the past four weeks. Corey Seager, last season’s NL ROY, has hit .238 over the past fortnight. Chris Taylor, a happy surprise, has hit .200 over the past week. Yasmani Grandal has hit .213 since the All-Star break. Curtis Granderson, imported because Joc Pederson had become a liability in center field, has hit .111 as a Dodger. Even Justin Turner, who was hitting .371 on July 21, has slipped to .326.
That’s the hitting. The pitching has been worse. The Dodgers have had 10 different pitchers make starts, which is a lot for a team that played .717 ball over its first 127 games. (Then again, Dodgers president Andrew Friedman told Jim Bowden, then of ESPN, in April that, when it comes to starting pitchers, “quantity is just as important as quality in today’s baseball.”)
Which brings us to Alex Wood, starting pitcher. Over his first 16 starts this season, he yielded more than three earned runs twice. Over his past eight starts, he has yielded more than three earned runs four times. He’s still 14-3, which is great if you believe in W’s and L’s for pitchers, but his ERA has climbed from 1.56 to 2.81 in eight weeks. And if you’re saying, “Hey, 2.81 is still doggone good” … take a look at this.
From Dave Cameron of FanGraphs: “Early in the year, Alex Wood was throwing harder than ever and getting better results than ever. But he hasn’t been throwing in the mid-90s for a while now, and he’s not missing bats anymore, either. Those things are related. Unless Wood somehow finds 94 again, the guy who was one of the best pitchers in the NL in the first half of the season probably shouldn’t be a starter in the playoffs.”
From Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times: “Wood, who was chosen an All-Star after his strong start to the season, has seen his fastball velocity decrease. He gave up two home runs in the first half; he has allowed 11 since the All-Star break. Wood could be shifted to the bullpen for the playoffs.”
A velocity drop can mean you’re tired, which can happen, but Wood has worked 134 1/3 innings this season. He worked 171 2/3 in 2014, his second season in the majors. A velocity drop can also mean you’re hurt, which is always a consideration with Wood. He has done two stints on the 10-day disabled list this year; last year he logged just 60 innings.
When Wood was having his All-Star first half, the masses wanted to know: How could the Braves give up on this guy? The reason was health. A few years ago, I asked a man who was in a decision-making position for the Braves – he works elsewhere now, which should narrow it down for you – if he’d consider trading Julio Teheran. “No,” he said, “but I might trade Woody. He scares me.”
If Wood never throws another inning, it wouldn’t make the Hector Olivera trade a good one. That was and will remain a terrible deal. But the Braves lived in fear that Wood, who’d already had Round 1 of Tommy John surgery as a Georgia Bulldog, was never far from a physical breakdown. (Those “funky mechanics.”) And when a sinkerballer sees an in-season drop of 3 mph off his signature pitch — and starts yielding home runs by the bushel — that’s a warning light.
This isn’t to suggest that Wood’s arm is toast or that the Dodgers are done. Baseball is, we say for the millionth time, a funny game. The 2006 Cardinals went 12-17 in September; they finished 83-78 and crept into the playoffs without injured closer Jason Isringhausen. With the rookie Adam Wainwright, once a Brave farmhand, doing closing duty in October, they won the World Series.
As mentioned by Cameron and McCullough, Wood could be relegated to relief come October. Kershaw, Yu Darvish and Rich Hill figure to start the first three postseason games, with the Dodgers choosing among Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Wood for a Game 4. Back in July, you couldn’t have imagined Wood — presuming he wasn’t on the DL — not making L.A.’s playoff rotation. You can now.