Travis Wood and the Accidental Success of the ‘Cutter’
When I found out that Travis Wood had made the Cubs’ rotation, I was actually really happy. Rather than viewing it as a stop-gap measure rooted firmly in desperate necessity, I looked at it as a chance for rebirth. Maybe, I reasoned, the 2014 season was simply a pyre, the ashes from which Wood would rise like a bearded Arkansan phoenix.
Through the first four games this season, that appeared to be the case. Well, sort of. But he had gone 7 innings in two of those games and had allowed no more than 3 runs in any of the starts. Then the calendar flipped to May and the wheels fell off.
In his 3 starts this month, Wood has compiled a 10.13 ERA by allowing 15 earned runs while averaging fewer than 4.5 innings. You might attribute some of that to bad luck and you’d be right, just not right enough to save the guy’s job. An FIP of 8.16 is not indicative of good pitching.
The idea for this post isn’t entirely original, though I’m only flattering myself when it comes to imitation. Rather than rehash the information in that first post, however, I wanted to take a more visual approach in an attempt to illustrate just how bad things have gotten, with specific focus on Wood’s cutter.
Thrown effectively, the cutter has more spin than a standard 4-seam fastball and should have late darting movement toward the pitcher’s glove side. Below, you’ll find two charts illustrating the horizontal movement of the cutters of two pitchers. The positive numbers show right-to-left movement, or away from a right-handed hitter and into a lefty.
Yes, I do realize that it’s patently unfair to compare anyone’s cutter to that which may well be the best pitch in the history of baseball, but Mariano Rivera’s greatness provides a very clear example of what we’re looking at. As you can see, the cutter doesn’t have drastic movement; with that outlying 2009 season, it floated between 2 and 2.5 inches.
But looking at Wood’s chart, we immediately see a big difference in the amount of movement he achieves. There’s also a really significant aberration that forced me to second-guess what I was seeing and to seek help in deciphering the charts for veracity. I’ll address that a bit later though.
First, the amount of movement: at no point has Travis Wood’s “cutter” (that’s what I’ll be addressing) darted even as much as an inch, and even that data is subject to a larger variation given the sample size of the current season. One would imagine a regression back to the half-inch level or thereabouts.
As we all know, baseball can be a game of several feet once the ball is put in play, but it can be reduced to fractions of an inch when it comes to actually making the contact necessary to do that. With that in mind, one could argue that even a small amount of movement could still produce an effective pitch.
Here’s the thing though: major league hitters are really good, so to beat them requires an exceptional amount of deception. Mariano Rivera saw a decrease in his velocity over time, but his location was impeccable and his movement extraordinary. If you’re throwing a pitch that doesn’t move much and that lacks significant velocity, you’re going to get tuned up.
We’ve already seen that Wood doesn’t get a lot of movement on the cutter, but what about his velo?
Woof. 86 mph is gas if you’re pitching in Babe Ruth League, but not so much at the highest level. Wood’s velocity has been declining steadily, but if we compare this chart against the one that illustrates the movement of his “cutter,” that 2013 season begins to make a little more sense. Both his speed and movement dropped appreciable after that year.
More than what the pitch does, however, is what hitters do it. Over the course of his career, Travis Wood has allowed a .243 batting average against (BAA), but that number was at a career-low .218 two seasons ago. That jumped to .272 in 2014 and is at .255 this season. A big reason for that is the cutter, which hitters have absolutely raked.
In keeping with the well-established trends, we see a big dip in 2013, a season in which Wood held his opposition to a .221 BAA. That number spiked to .304 last season and is currently at .290; he is literally making average hitters look like All-Stars at this point. I suppose you already knew that, but I like the visual representation.
Now, about that other weird thing I noticed, the thing about the pitch itself and the reason I referred to it as a “cutter.” To expound a bit on what was stated above, the cutter is thrown like a four-seam fastball, but with a grip that is slightly off-center in order to impart the side spin that results in that late darting movement.
That grip, and the subsequent results, can be difficult to reproduce on a consistent basis. Those who master it can experience greatness, but those who can’t, well, they give up a .300 BAA. Pitching has always been somewhat of a mystery to me and I continue to find myself awestruck by the concept that a man can get a baseball to dance the way these guys do.
As such, I have preferred to keep the specifics of this science at arm’s length, so to speak. But I never could shake a comment Keith Moreland had made about Travis Wood at some point during that breakout 2013 campaign. Zonk was talking about the moderate success Wood had experienced as a Reds rookie in 2010 and how that had faded a bit in the subsequent season.
He went on to attribute Wood’s All-Star-worthy production in 2013 to a rediscovery of the cutter. I, being a total noob when it came to the intricacies of different pitches, took this as gospel and went about my merry way. Besides, Chris Bosio has been lauded as the best cut-man this side of Vegas, so who am I to question such statements?
But was it really true or was this one of those narratives that was tossed out and took seed in the fertile soil of my mind (it is, after all, filled with a good deal of manure) before I knew what was happening? PITCHf/x certainly seems to back up Zonk’s assertion, showing a drastic uptick in Wood’s cutter from Cincy in 2011 (19.4%) to Chicago in 2012 (32.9%).
Wood also went to the slider more heavily, moving away from both fastballs and the changeup. But as I started looking at the first set of charts over and over again, something just wasn’t adding up. Maybe it was because he was a lefty and I needed to flip my view? No, positive numbers always mean right-to-left. Here, maybe this will help:
When looking at this chart, imagine the vertical line extending up from zero connecting the pitching rubber to the center of the plate. Shortcomings of displaying three-dimensional space in two dimensions aside, I think you can see why my limited mind was so flummoxed by the paradox of Wood’s cutter.
That’s because IT WASN’T REALLY A CUTTER AT ALL. When I first saw this information, my reaction was more along the lines of “hmm…so, it’s not a cutter?” My tentative half-query was thrown out in a message to someone much more knowledgeable than myself when it comes to matters such as this.
The response: “Yeah. (Which, yikes?)” So I submitted the above chart for reviews, to which I got: “Huh. What an interesting finding. I guess he had more of a two-seamer that year; he just didn’t know it.”
Nor, it appears, did the rest of us. Far be it for me to call into question the methods of either PITCHf/x or Brooks Baseball, but the two-seam only shows a 7.3% usage on the former and isn’t available at all on the latter for 2013, the season in which his “cutter” has nearly a half-inch of armside run. Again, that’s the exact opposite of what a cutter should do.
Interestingly enough, PITCHf/x data shows that Wood has thrown the two-seam at a career-high 22.6% and the cutter at 2.18% — easily his lowest usage as a Cub — this season, which has thus far seen the greatest amount of gloveside run. What are we to make of this?
Well, setting aside the potential for fallacies in the pitch tracking services I utilized — since to do so would be foolhardy at best on my part — we’re left with some pretty unenviable explanations as far as Wood and the Cubs are concerned. That becomes even more true if we assume the pitch tracking is correct and that Wood was trying to throw a cutter the whole time.
Again, I didn’t go into this with the intent to cast aspersions on a man’s career, but it has become clear to me that there exists at least a strong possibility that the best season Travis Wood has experienced as a professional athlete was all based on a mistake. That is to say, he may have discovered a successful pitch purely by accident.
There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself though. Christopher Columbus made a whopper of a mistake, which is why we continue to refer to Native Americans as Indians. As the legend goes, the discovery of penicillin was the result of a fortuitous accident as well. But in both of those cases, the parties involved were able to retrace their steps and correct and/or replicate the results.
In the case of Travis Wood and his standout 2013 season, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the results were aberrant and probably not repeatable. I wish I could tell you that this was all due to a grip change or some other mechanical factor, but I can’t. For me to attempt to break this down any further would be more an affront to pitchniks than I’ve already committed.
But what I can do is promote my theory that the encore to that great performance we’ve so longed to see will probably never happen. It’s M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense or Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax. So I’m not saying that Travis Wood can’t continue pitching, just that expecting him to ever do so at anything more than a replacement level is probably asking too much.
That said, I think it’s high time we get the chance to see what Tsuyoshi Wada can do and whether he can be the consistent performer at the back of the rotation that the Cubs are going to need if they hope to compete.
When this post began, it was meant to be a quick look at what has held Wood back, much in the same way I reviewed the improvements of Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel. I suppose it would be a bit too self-important to hope that this can become a jumping-off point of sorts, but I would enjoy seeing what someone with a bit more acquired knowledge on the topic.
Then again — and this would be even more self-important than my previous hope — I’d love to see Travis Wood prove me both wrong and right at the same time by somehow finding that paradoxical pitch from 2 years ago. Hey, there are worse things you can fall bass-ackwards into, right?
Charts via Brooks Baseball, stats via BB and FanGraphs.