Is Travis Wood “outstanding?”

On Bleacher Nation, Brett had some very kind words to say about Travis Wood:

"I’m not sure I’d say he’s even the best starter on the Cubs at this point, but Wood’s ridiculous start to the year can’t be ignored. And, as I pointed out previously in the Bullets, it isn’t just the start of this season: Wood has been outstanding since he began his tenure with the Cubs."

and he follows it up with the necessary caveat:

"In fairness, any conversation of how good Travis Wood has been this year needs to include a conversation of what the advanced stats say. In short, they say he’s been far more lucky than good. A .198 BABIP against and an 80.7% LOB make him the polar opposite of Edwin Jackson, which is to say fortune may be smiling on Wood (his xFIP is just 4.19, even though his ERA is 2.33). In total, I believe Wood remains a very nice 3/4/5 type, and probably more of a 4/5 on a good team. Best starter in baseball? Nah. But that’s not an insult."

I'm not trying to misinterpret Mr. Taylor; he knows that Travis Wood is not dominance given flesh. The assumption that Travis has been anything more than average, though, is really interesting to me. I can't remember ever thinking "man, I'm glad we've got Travis Wood on our team" last year, and he's been tremendously lucky this year. Still, it bears looking at. How good has Travis Wood been this year (and for the Cubs)?

First, let's look at his regular stats. As a Cub, has pitched 202.1 innings for the Cubs in 33 starts, so basically exactly a full season. In that season, he's allowed 86 earned runs (93 total) off of 29 HR, and he's struck out 153 while walking 68. That's good for a 3.83 ERA and a 1.137 WHIP. Those numbers are good for a 106 ERA+, which is indicative of a slightly above-average pitcher (and his 2012 ERA+ was 96). 

Last year, his ERA was 4.27; however, his FIP was 4.84 and his xFIP was 4.62. His tERA (which is derived from batted ball rates) was 5.58, primarily due to his huge HR number (an inordinate amount of flyballs from Travis were home runs last year). Essentially all advanced stats had Wood as a below-average to well below-average player last year. 

What's changed from 2012 to 2013? For starters, his line drives allowed have been much less; they've all become groundballs. I'm not sure how sustainable a 5% drop in LD and an associated 6% increase in GB is, but I'm willing to believe it's extremely unlikely. I will say that Bosio has done some sort of magic to increase the GB rate across the board on our team. Suffice to say, the more GB (as opposed to LD), the better.

Wood has also been "luckier" in his HR/FB rate. Last year, it was 12.7%, which is atypical for him. In the previous years, it was around 6.5%, and it's returned somewhat to normalcy. These two changes have brought his tERA to 3.62 from 5.58, which is more in line with an average pitcher. 

It's hard to understate how lucky Wood has been this year, though. The average strand rate in baseball this year is 73.3%; Wood's is 80.7%. That's 28th in the league right now. His BABIP of .198 is 5th. BABIP normalizes around .280-.320 for pitchers (who can control it, perhaps, but only minutely) so that's going to go up. 

Something else to note is that Wood's opponent's contact rate is way, way down this year. Normally, it's right at 84.5%. This year, it's 81.5%. That doesn't seem like a big deal, but is. The swing rate in baseball is around 45%. That means that opponents will swing, on average, at about 45-50 offerings Wood throws each game. The difference of 3% in contact on those is an extra swing-and-miss or two a game. Depending on where those misses come, that could mean either a strikeout or just a worse count for your opponent (keeping in mind that a swing and miss isn't a foul ball and thus always changes the game state). If Wood keeps that up, it's a huge bonus; one of Wood's biggest obstacles is the fact that opponents have always made contact against him (the league average hovers around 77%, so this gain is not incredibly difficult to continue realizing).

So, we've established that batters are hitting grounders more, have a lower BABIP (which is some indication of poor contact), and missing bats more often (all great things). Why can this be this year? 

It's probably explainable with the pitches he's throwing. Wood has been using his cutter more often than in previous years. This is a good thing, because it's also moving a bit more (over 2 inches of vertical movement extra). Thus far, that's yielded a higher number of ground balls and a lower number of line drives. 

The tale is similar with his normal fastball. It's dropping 11.2 inches now as opposed to 9.8 on average and 8.8 last year. A fairly flat fastball (which he had last year) going to a fairly active fastball (which he has this year) is going to do wonders to a player's confidence. Curiously enough, he's still had bad luck with the long ball in his fastball offerings; however, he's cut his walks with the pitch in half (possibly an artifact of not throwing it later in counts), maintaing a lower BABIP (and his slash line with the fastball is .190/.244/.381), and inducing a TON more grounders (39.3%, 28.4% career average). All told, his fastball has gone from a mediocre pitch to an average to above-average one. 

I'd expect that as long as Wood has the extra downward movement on his two primary offerings, he's going to have some success going forward. Pitchers that can induce groundballs are going to have some success barring really bad pitch placement or bad luck. As Wood's balls starting falling in for hits, his numbers are going to look quite a bit worse. I'd imagine he'll settle into the 3.50-3.75 range when it's all said and done (EDIT: at the end of the year, he'll be in the 3.50 to 3.75 range, if I'm not clear), but with a distinct possibility of a low-3 average should he maintain his newfound movement and swing/miss action. His K% and BB% are essentially identical to his career numbers, so the gains are going to have to come this way. Travis Wood might not be "outstanding," but he has been genuinely good.