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travis wood beardTravis Wood was a deserved All-Star in 2013, and, in total, put together a fantastic season.

Sure, even a cursory look at Wood’s peripheral statistics last year told you that the ERA was probably going to regress some this season. Although it stood at 3.11, he gave up a ton of fly balls without giving up a ton of homers (that tends not to sustain consistently over time), he stranded an unusually high number of runners, and his BABIP against was about 30 points lower than his career mark.

Still, Wood did a lot well, if you actually watched him: working the corners with excellent pitch sequencing and command, Wood kept batters off balance, no doubt contributing to a career-best 14.2% infield fly ball rate. His strikeout rate was slightly below league average, but so was his walk rate. In total, although the results he got were close to a front of the rotation guy, his underlying performance was at least that of a middle-to-back of the rotation guy. So, yes, regression was to be expected, but Wood was still a guy – especially when you considered his offensive and defensive contributions (worth nearly 1.0 WAR last year, and more this year) – you wanted in the rotation.

Standing now at a 5.15 ERA, a 4.51 FIP, and a 4.60 xFIP, can you say the same thing this year? Among qualifying starts, those figures rank third from the bottom, 10th from the bottom, and fifth from the bottom, respectively, in all of baseball. Wood’s 2014 season has been ugly.

What do we make of this? Is Wood just having bad luck this year, in reverse of his good luck last year? Is he still a guy you can project as a quality starter in 2015? What happened to him this year?

In short, a whole lot of stuff happened. Some of the things contributing to the down performance:

  • Without even digging into the statistics, I can tell you that his command hasn’t been nearly as precise this year. Pitches that last year barely clipped the corners are catching fatter parts of the plate. Or they’re not catching the plate at all.
  • To that end, it’s also possible that scouting caught up to him a little bit this season. Have you noticed that Wood’s worst starts this year have come when teams jump all over him early in counts? I won’t pretend to know all of the layers behind that, but when you see it so consistently, you have to wonder if the league is collectively figuring something out.
  • More on the command question: Wood’s walk rate is up from 8.0% last year to 9.7% this year. That’s a really significant increase (imagine it as an increase in a batter’s OBP from .300 to .317 (that’s not a precise translation, but provides a little context), and you can easily see that a couple percentage points in walk rate make a big difference).
  • Wood’s HR/FB rate regressed, as expected, to 9.1%, which is actually still below average. But it’s far higher than his 6.9% rate last year.
  • Although we expected some regression in Wood’s BABIP this year, it’s arguable that things have gone a little too far in the other direction: the .319 he sports for the season is more than 40 points higher than his career average (as a fly-ball pitcher, you’d expect him to have a lower BABIP than most). That came without an unusual spike in line drive rate or change in other batted ball rates, so there’s probably a touch of poor luck in there.
  • When you look at Wood’s pitch mix, you immediately notice that his cutter use is down this season, which sends you looking further into its effectiveness – and it’s not a pretty picture. Last year, batters did absolutely nothing with his cutter (16.6 runs above average last year!), whereas this year, it hasn’t been nearly as effective (8.1 runs below average). Wood’s velocity is also down about 1.1 mph on his cutter this season versus last. If one of Wood’s most effective pitches isn’t working as well for him this year, you can see why its usage would be down, and why it would be hurting his overall performance. (Anecdotally, it feels like, with respect to the cutter, in particular, Wood hasn’t been able to locate it as well as he did last year, when he was especially good at busting righties in side with it.)
  • You also notice that Wood’s fourseam fastball usage is way up (from 35ish % in 2012 and 2013 to 42.5% this year) at the expense not only of the cutter, but also his slider and changeup. The slider, in particular, is way down, from 10.3% to 7.8%. Given that it is, according to FanGraphs, one of his least effective pitches, that makes sense. Then again, the less you’re able to vary your pitches successfully when you’re not an overpowering guy is probably not a good thing (see, for example, Wood’s fastball effectiveness dropping from 9.8 runs above average last year to just 2.8 runs above average this year).
  • Overall, Wood’s velocity on his hard pitches is down about 1 mph this year, which is both expected (happens to most guys as they approach 30) an unfortunate, given that he didn’t have a huge velocity baseline from which to fall in the first place. Worse, Wood’s velocity on his soft stuff (primarily slider/changeup) has actually increased by about 1 mph. That means the speed variance that hitters see has shrunk by two MPH. That convergence, as pointed out by Harry Pavlidis many years ago with respect to Carlos Marmol, can hurt a pitcher’s effectiveness much more than if you were solely looking at a drop in velocity, and can make a guy much more hittable.

In sum, what has happened to Wood this year? It looks like an ugly combination of statistically expected regression (previously good luck turning into even or bad luck) and actual performance regression.

On the latter portion, Wood says he feels good, physically, and recognizes that might not actually be a good thing (Cubs.com). If there were a mild physical issue to which to point as an excuse for the velocity and command issues, then maybe we might feel like the sudden performance decline makes more sense. As it stands, maybe there’s a mechanical tweak that could help, together with an offseason to reset the spools.

But the question on tendering Wood a contract for 2015 has suddenly become a much more difficult one than anyone expected just a few months ago. At $3.9 million this year, Wood could make $4.5 to $5 million 2015, his second go-around in arbitration, if the Cubs tender him a contract.

With a roster suddenly burgeoning with promising back-end options, and an offseason plan that will almost certainly be devoted to picking up front-end pitching, it isn’t hard to imagine scenarios where Wood’s spot is squeezed out. Does that make a non-tender the right decision, though? Even with many pitching options, isn’t Wood still worth having around at $4.5 to $5 million? We recently discussed how it made sense to keep Tsuyoshi Wada at that rate, and Wood certainly has a longer track record of big league success (albeit now with a season of big league failure). And it’s not like the Cubs don’t understand the importance of depth.

The tender decision for Wood comes in early December, and the Cubs may decide that, at worst, Wood is worth the dice roll as an asset and as depth, depending on what they’ve done in the offseason to that point. Even with his rough pitching, Wood has still been worth nearly 1 win this year thanks to his offense and defense. I’m not so sure I’m ready to say the Cubs should cast him aside for nothing at all, especially when the downside risk is eating just a few million bucks (or less, if they were to part ways in Spring Training or find a well-suited trade partner).

But, even if he’s tendered a contract for 2015, his status as a sure-thing starter for the Cubs that season is now in doubt.

Wood has a few things going for him, however, as he tries to work through these issues: he’s just 27, hasn’t had any serious arm problems, and is a hell of an athlete. That tends to be the mold of a guy who has the ability to turn things back around. Expecting Wood to be a true-talent 3.00 ERA guy going forward is not realistic, but believing that the potential for a mid-to-back rotation guy is still in there is completely realistic.

He may just have to work hard, prove it, and win a spot. That’s the way it should be on the kind of “good” team we hope the Cubs will soon become.

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