Travis Wouldn’t: How the Diminution of the Cutter Led to a Lost Season

In 2013, Travis Wood was a revelation. Here was a cost-controlled left-handed starter who set career marks for innings pitched (200), wins (9), ERA (3.11), and WHIP (1.15), all while pitching for an abysmal team. That’s not too shabby for a guy earning 16.4% of the average MLB salary.

Yes, you read that right; in 2013, Travis Wood earned $527,500 as compared to the league average that year of $3.23 million. At Wood’s salary, you could have filled out an entire rotation, along with 1.24 relievers, for the cost of an average player. I know, that’s insano-cheese, right?

The Cubs were able to avoid arbitration with a $3.9M offer in the offseason, but even that massive raise seemed like a bargain. Until, that is, the 2014 season began. Of course, you could poll 100 people and 99 of them will say that Wood is still a better deal than Edwin Jackson (with the 100th person being Jackson’s mother).

But what makes Wood more valuable may also make him more expendable. The Cubs were left with quite a bad case of heartburn after have to eat huge amounts of cash remaining on the contracts of Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano and they may not have enough Tums left to choke down that E-Jax pact.

If the front office believes that this season is par for the course, they could simply non-tender Wood, who is arbitration-eligible and not up for free agency until 2017. On the other hand, it’s not as though this performance will net much of a raise, so the Cubs could hold onto the lefty at a still-reasonable price. Offseason moves will go a long way toward determining the course of action.

Anyhow, back to the lecture at hand. How did Wood go from being so good to being so bad? Let’s look first at the good last season. During one of WGN’s radio broadcasts early in the 2013 season, I remember (at the time) color man Keith Moreland remarking that Wood had rediscovered the cutter, a pitch that had served him well a couple years prior in Cincinnati with the Reds.

Sure enough, you can look at Wood’s 2010 numbers over 102.2 innings in Cincy and see how much better they were than his 2011 stats over 106 IP.  For a more comprehensive look at those seasons, and the most recent two as well, take a look at this post from my colleague Nate Schmidt.

While it’s probably dangerous and irresponsible to narrow my focus to just one pitch, I’m going to do it anyway. You probably think I ramble on too much as it is, so in addition to being very indicative of Wood’s overall performance, this is also my nominal effort to keep myself in check.

All through this season and last, Zonk’s words stuck in my head. Baseball is a complicated game and the subtle nuances of the physics involved can have a great impact over the course of a season or a career. Mastering a swing or a grip can mean the difference in a cup of coffee and a Hall-of-Fame career.

Take, for instance, Chuck Knoblauch. Once dubbed “Fundamental Chuck” by some SportsCenter anchor or another, the second baseman contracted a virulent strain of the yips while playing for the Yankees. His woes reached a peak during a game against the White Sox in 2000 when his throw to first base sailed into the stands, hitting Keith Olberman’s (formerly of ESPN) mother in the head.

Talk about ironic. Actually, it’s just coincidence. Or maybe it was ironidence…or coincinic. Moving on.

So, the cutter. I’ll leave more in-depth descriptions to the pros, but suffice to say the cut fastball is thrown with a grip similar to that of a 4-seamer, but with your index and middle fingers slightly off-center to the outside of the ball. Thrown with the same arm speed as a standard fastball, the cutter should trick the hitter into sitting dead red while the ball darts slightly (3-6 inches, max) in the direction of the pitcher’s glove hand, missing the bat head.

When thrown correctly, it’s a devastating pitch; just ask all of Mariano Rivera’s victims. But absent the proper grip and movement, it’s just a slightly slower fastball just waiting to be crushed. Could it be that the efficacy of Travis Wood’s cutter is at the root of success, or lack thereof? Let’s take a look.

Cut Fastball


GIF by AtomicRED

For the purpose of my research, I’m looking at FanGraphs’ pitch values for Wood’s cutter. This statistic measures how many runs a pitcher has saved using a given pitch. A score of 0 is average, with most pitches falling in the range of +/-20 and some extremes landing as high as +/-30.

In 2010 (3.51 ERA/3.42 FIP), Wood’s cutter had a pitch value of 1.4, which is to say that he saved just over 1 run. His performance faltered in 2011 (4.84/4.06), which is in direct correlation with the value of his cutter (-4.6). These number compare nicely because Wood used the pitch with nearly the same frequency from one year to the next (16.4% in 2010 vs. 16.8% in 2011).

As they’ve been wont to do, the Cubs saw a cheap, young pitcher with a better FIP than ERA and they swapped an expensive reliever for him, hoping they could turn things around. 2012 was a so-so year for Wood, who saw a slight reversal in the two pitching metrics I’ve been referencing (4.27/4.84) while throwing 50 more innings (156.0) than the previous season.

2012 also saw a huge increase in Wood’s use of the cutter, which he threw 30.3% of the time. This is a direct reflection of the influence of pitching coach Chris Bosio, who has been a huge proponent of the cutter. As evidence, see Jake Arrieta, who after never throwing a cutter with the Orioles used it 6.1% of the time last year with the Cubs and is at 28.4% this season.

But Wood wasn’t just throwing the cutter more often, he was throwing it more effectively; at a value of 5.6, the pitch saved 10.2 more runs than it had in the prior season. But that was nothing compared to 2013, when the lefty showed opposing batters the cutter 34% of the time, saving 16.6 runs in the process. This massive improvement matches up with those career-best numbers we looked at earlier.

So what about 2014? Well, I’m glad you asked. Wood’s usage of the cutter actually dropped for the first time in his MLB career, down more than 5% to 28.6. The pitch’s efficacy took a nosedive along too, down to a value of -9.4, a career worst and a drop of 26 runs over the previous season.

It should be noted that all of Wood’s other pitches, save the fastball, had negative values this year. It should also be noted that the curve, change, and slider–none of which he uses with great frequency–have all been below-average pitches (with a few minor exceptions) throughout his career.

The cutter has often been taught to or adopted by pitchers in order to compensate for a loss of velocity on the 4-seamer. And while Wood hasn’t seen a rapid drop-off, his velocity has been falling by about .5 mph in each of the last 4 seasons, from 89.9 to 89.4 to 88.9 to 88.3. Likewise, the cutter’s velo has dropped, but to a greater degree this season.

In 2013, Wood’s cutter averaged 86.6 mph, only 2.3 mph slower than the fastball. In 2014, however, the cutter has averaged only 85.4 mph, nearly 3 ticks slower than the heater. In his previous 4 seasons, the velo gap between the two pictures had never been greater than 2.6. Three tenths of a mile per hour may seem negligible, but when a hitter needs only .25 seconds to see the ball and react, each fraction matters.

The drop in velocity could simply be a matter of age, but it might also be a grip issue. An imperfect grip would lead to less movement, which, when combined with reduced speed, means an infinitely more hittable pitch. So were the drops in velocity and usage the result of a loss of confidence in the pitch or did using it less lead to a degradation of muscle memory for the grip? Perhaps it’s a little of both; only Travis Wood can really answer that question. Or can he?

Earlier this month, Tony Ginnetti wrote that Wood himself was just as perplexed as the rest of us when it comes to the diminution of his cutter:

“It’s nothing that I can feel,’’ he said of a difference from last year. “Obviously, it’s something different, whether it’s the hitters’ approach to me or not being able to execute pitches like I did last year. It’s definitely something to take into my last starts and the offseason [to work on].

“I feel great [physically]. That’s one of the bad things about it. I feel great. but the outcomes aren’t what you want.

“It wears on me pretty heavy, especially when you get the chance to look back at it and think about what you could have been doing differently.’’

If Travis Wood is to regain even some of his 2013 form, he’s going to have to find some answers and rediscover the cutter…again.

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