Welcome to Player-A-Day. The purpose of this column is to identify interesting major league players who may be fantasy relevant in 2014. We will discuss the real-world roles that the player may fill, set a range of potential expectations, identify any wild card factors in play, and comment on how this affects the player’s fantasy value.
The high level
In a sense, Travis Wood was excellent in 2013. He pitched to a 3.11 ERA and threw 200 innings for a bad Cubs team. It was the best performance of his young career, and it came just in time to help him earn a couple of extra shekels through arbitration.
Wood is guaranteed to have a starting job in 2014, but he’s not so far removed from a swingman role that he can feel safe. The diminutive lefty averages a shade under 90 mph with his fastball and lacks a standout secondary offering. His bread and butter is a solid cutter that generates plenty of weak contact.
For reasons that will be described in the details, it also wouldn’t be surprising if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer shopped Wood over the offseason. Such “sell high” gambits rarely work, since most clubs are run by smart individuals, but Wood does come with three seasons of club control, and plenty of teams would be happy to slot him into the back of their rotation. For what it’s worth, I don’t see him being traded unless it’s part of a deal for a superstar.
Wood will be a polarizing player for fantasy owners. He should come cheap in drafts and auctions, but there’s little doubt that he’ll be rostered frequently—at least to start the season.
Some fantasy owners will view 2013 as a breakout season for Wood. After all, his ERA and FIP both drastically improved.
For those who do their statistical analysis purely through Yahoo’s interface, a pitcher with a 3.11 ERA will look like the kind of late-round, undervalued asset that every owner brags about as March turns to April. But look at what happens when we add xFIP along with some predictors like strikeout rate, walk rate, swinging strike rate, BABIP, and home run-to-fly ball ratio (HR/FB).
Now we see the story of a pitcher who merely threw more innings and benefited from some fortunate outcomes. The chart does highlight some interesting tendencies. In three of four seasons, he’s had either a low BABIP, low HR/FB, or both. He also saw his swinging-strike rate tick up a point in 2013 despite no change in his strikeout and walk numbers.
Wood’s career BABIP against is .264 over a reasonable 564-inning sample, which definitely marks him as an outlier. It ties him with Clayton Kershaw as the fifth-lowest BABIP against since 2010. You can view that leaderboard here. If we limit things to the past two seasons, he features the lowest rate.
That leads us to some combination of the following explanations: he’s lucky, he generates weak contact, or his defense is superb. Without HITf/x and FIELDf/x data, it’s difficult to empirically test which, if any, of those factors are at play. But we can smell the data.
Defense may play a role. According to UZR, the Cubs saved 37 runs in 2013 compared to average and 30 runs in 2012. This is not elite defensive efficiency, but it is enough to explain part of Wood’s low BABIP. Interestingly, the 2010 and 2011 Reds performed similarly to the Cubs, yet Wood delivered a sky-high .324 BABIP in 2011. His 2010 BABIP was still quite low at .259.
Wood’s pitch usage certainly jibes with the theory that he may generate weaker than average contact. Consider the following charts together.
Against left-handed hitters, Wood’s approach was quite straightforward, but he’s developed a very nuanced attack against right-handed hitters.
He likes to start right-handed hitters with sinkers to force a quick outcome. Wood will continue using it against righties when behind or even in the count but largely abandons it once he’s ahead. He rarely uses the pitch against left-handed hitters. Aside from a seldom-used curveball, it’s his only pitch that went for hits at a league-average rate.
Wood used his cutter most frequently, and it was his pitch of choice when batters were ahead in the count. Against right-handed hitters, Wood used sinkers, cutters, and changeups early in the count but turned to his four-seam fastball with two strikes. He generally hid that pitch from righties. Presumably, he used the different movement and slight uptick in velocity to catch hitters off guard. This may also explain why his strikeout rate remained static despite an increased whiff rate.
Good defense and a carefully formulated approach against right-handed hitters probably go a long way toward explaining Wood’s BABIP success. It’s also a good sign that he could continue with that success, although replicating his .246 BABIP over the past 350 innings seems like a stretch.
So we determined that it smells like Wood is a natural low-BABIP pitcher. The degree to which you trust this smell will determine your willingness to buy him heading into 2014.
Playing time isn’t a concern here, but wise owners will use Wood selectively. This makes him a better candidate for streaming than owning. If he see substantial regression in his BABIP or HR/FB rates—which is a very plausible—he could leave some serious scars on your pitching numbers. On the positive side, the Cubs are expected to be aggressive spenders this offseason, which may translate to more wins for Wood.
My advice is to leave Wood undrafted in standard 12-team roto leagues (both shallow and deep formats). He becomes more palatable for owners in 14-team roto leagues or 12-team H2H formats where damaging outings will only hurt one week.