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Player Review: Alex Wood

Alex Wood battled injury, struggled with his offspeed pitches, lost his rotation spot, and remade himself as a bulk-innings reliever in his final year as a Giant.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at San Francisco Giants Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

2023 stats: 29 G, 12 GS, 97.2 IP, 4.35 ERA (4.64 xERA), 98 ERA+, 4.47 FIP (5.14 xFIP), 6.82 K/9, 3.87 BB/9

Alex Wood is no longer a San Francisco Giant. He elected free agency in November of last year, ending a three-season tenure that started out hot and ended out not. 2021’s shadow has been long for this organization and many in it. Certain players are still trying to make sense of what happened that year, and Wood has good reason to be flummoxed.

Sticking to the organizational philosophy between the ‘21 and ‘22 seasons, Wood very much just “ran it back”. 2021 was his first full year in which he forwent his curveball for a harder slider to accompany his sinker and change-up. The shakeup produced great results, with the slider fetching a Run Value of 4 while the fastball proved to be one of the best in the league with an RV of 12. With that success in mind, Wood kicked up the breaking ball’s usage from 31.6% to 35.9% at the expense of his change-up the following season.

Sound logic, but the tinkering didn’t work. With near identical measurements in velocity and movement, the pitch got walloped. Opponent’s batting average jumped from .184 to .254, their slugging from .313 to .381 with similar leaps with its expected stats against the pitch. It didn’t generate as many whiffs nor produce the wipe-out results Wood needed, and by season’s end its Run Value plummeted to -7. The sinker sank even lower. Their fates being tied makes sense—the sinker-slider tunnel off each other’s movements with one breaking down and in on a righty while the other stays up and wrinkles away.

The league just adjusted after a season’s worth of exposure to the new offering, or Wood got too predictable with his mix, or wasn’t locating as well, or you just can’t bottle lightning twice. Wood’s xERA over the two seasons were very similar (3.89 to 4.00) while his xFIP actually dropped (3.44 to 3.41), yet his ERA swelled from a respectable 3.83 to an unseemly 5.10 in 2022. There were other problems: an elevated HR-rate, a decreased K-rate, while struggling to strand runners with a less dominant bullpen in support.

Similar method, vastly different results—Wood’s frustration was the team’s, and it only became more exasperated in 2023, because of lack of success, yes, but also because of lack of action.

The preseason boast of the San Francisco Giants’ starting depth was undermined from the get-go. Wood logged only 10 innings across three starts in April before a hamstring strain benched him until mid-May. He’d never throw more than 20 innings in a month. He pitched through the 5th inning for the first time on May 26th earning his first decision (and win) in a rout of Milwaukee. Pittsburgh would deliver his first loss in his next start before being placed on the IL for a second time with a lower back strain.

Those outings were the only appearances of the season in which he threw more than 90 pitches, while never completing six innings in a game—a “feat” he accomplished 6 times in 2022 and 11 times in 2021.

While injury undermined his performance in the first half, Wood was just unreliable in a starting role as the season wore on. He pitched 5 scoreless innings against Los Angeles on June 17th before allowing 6 runs in 3.2 innings against San Diego five days later. Five days after that he tossed 5 scoreless in a bulk relief appearance against Toronto, but the wheels completely came off in his next game, a relief appearance that offered only exasperation. 4 walks, 1 HBP, 2 hits, 5 runs (4 earned) in 1.2 innings on a humid summer night in which he had no control over his change-up and slider and little help from his defense. His next game: just 3 hits over 5 innings of relief against Colorado.

Wood lost hold of his rotation role after a pair of mid-July starts straddling the All-Star break in which he allowed 1 run then 5 runs and managed only 7.2 innings between the two games while allowing 10 hits (2 HR), 5 BB, 1 HBP and only 2 K.

The year was a seesaw, as jolty and as uncomfortable as your crotch being repeatedly lifted-and-dropped by a two-by-four would be. As much as the veteran felt he was still a starter, he did little to prove that he deserved the ball every five-days. In 12 games, he managed only 47.1 innings with an ERA over 6.00. His K/9 was only at 7.42 with a 4.75 BB/9 with a 1.61 WHIP. He couldn’t prevent hitters from reaching base and had a hell of time stranding them there once they arrived. His first time through a lineup as a starting pitcher he posted a 5.55 BB/9. Opposing batters hit .286/ .362/ .488 when facing Wood for a second time in a game. The numbers were so bad, only 17 players got to face him for a third time in a game. Nine of those 17 of them reached base safely.

Whether Wood liked it or not, the “demotion” to the bullpen suited him. In 50.1 innings, he logged a 2.68 ERA and 3.51 FIP (4.64 xFIP). His strikeout rate dropped but so did his walk rate, and he fared much better at limiting base runners. His 1.97 ERA facing a lineup for the first time as a reliever indicates that Wood performed best in three inning or less bursts, inserted into the game to maximize effectiveness against key left-handed swings.

On September 6th, the Giants played their final game in a three-game series against the Cubs with heavy playoff implications. San Francisco had already lost three of four against San Diego, and the first two games in the series against a direct Wild Card competitor. Someone needed to stop bleeding. Wood’s last start was back in July, but he put together the best month of his season in August in which he made 6 appearances, allowing 5 runs over 14.1 innings. It was between Wood or Sean Manaea—another fallen starter—and Gabe Kapler awarded the first pitch to Wood.

He made the wrong choice. Or at least, we know Wood didn’t work out. Three runs in the 1st inning followed by another two in the 3rd and he was yanked in front of a raucous Wrigley mid-inning while Manaea went on to post a 2.25 ERA in four starts in September.

The false start in Wrigleyville was Wood’s last consequential act in the Orange-and-Black. Out of the Giant uniform but not out of the dark, he remains unsigned as of writing this. His secondary, offspeed pitches have been severely reprimanded for two seasons with more arm-side injuries accrued while posting his lowest K/9 rate since 2015, the second highest BB/9 rate of his career and his lowest inning total since he turned 30. It certainly feels like things are in decline for Wood, or reverting back to a pre-2016 self before Saint Andrew Friedman touched his left arm and said be thou more aggressive with thy offspeed...

Did the coaching staff miss something or mishandle Wood in 2023? Should they have trusted him more in August? Should they have provided more solutions to Wood’s issues, maybe advised a harder slider with a tighter break? Or work on his wind-up posture? Or is this just the natural progression of things? 11 years, 1,200+ innings at the Major League level, and the Giants were able to catch a sliver of the peak before the inevitable decline. Injuries compound, the arm tires which means location goes, and when location goes, your arsenal thins, which means you can’t keep hitters honest, which means Mark Canha can just sit on a fastball and feast when he gets it.

Or this is all just premature. Wood’s no longer a Giant—and that’s for the best—but he’s far from cooked. 33 years old, great, competitive teammate with veteran experience who has enough sense and fire in his belly to make changes when needed...

There’s still a lot to like even though these past two seasons weren’t his finest. San Francisco isn’t going to offer him a rotation spot or a multi-year deal (which might be wishful thinking), but I imagine if your Wood, your probably feeling like that’s fine, it’s time to move on anyway.