News of the Alex Wood trade, as it started to come down Wednesday night, disappointed me greatly. Micah Smith offered an incredibly good opinion on the validity of the trade from a team building standpoint. I’m not here to try to argue the other side of it, or even address the value of the trade from an organizational standpoint. Instead, I offer my perspective as a fan of both Georgia and the Atlanta Braves, and my thoughts on why some of the concerns regarding Wood’s mid range potential are misguided.
I was fortunate enough to see in person every start that Alex Wood made for the University of Georgia. Not just the home games, but every game. I was in Los Angeles, seated on row 1 just above our on-deck circle. the night he beat Gerrit Cole. I was in Columbia, South Carolina the next weekend when we out dueled Michael Roth and the defending (and soon to be, repeat) national champion South Carolina Gamecocks. When UGA needed to win their first of three games in the SEC Tournament to finish above .500 and secure a bid to the NCAA postseason, I was there, seated on row 1 above our on deck circle, for Alex Wood’s first complete game as a college pitcher in a win over Auburn. I was in Corvallis, Oregon when Alex Wood took the hill against Arkansas Little Rock in another “win or go home” game. In 2012, I was there in Fayetteville, Arkansas when Alex threw a complete game and out pitched Arkansas ace Ryne Stanek. I was there in Baton Rouge a few weeks later when Wood squared off with Kevin Gausman. The picture of Wood pitching for UGA that Micah included in his write up yesterday? I don’t know what game that was, but I know I was there.
One thing that always struck me about Alex through his career was that he was a “gamer”. In matchups against marquee opponents and elite starting pitching, he was at his best. Making only his 3rd and 4th career starts, he beat Cole and Roth, both on the road. UCLA and South Carolina were the two teams who met in the College World Series the previous June (several weeks after UGA completed a historically poor 16-37 campaign). Wood’s combined line between those two starts? 13 1/3 innings, 11 hits, 3 runs, 17 strike outs, 2 walks. To borrow a cliche, he showed up when the lights came on. It’s fair to say that he continued to demonstrate the trait with the Braves during his tenure with the organization.
I’ll give one more story that I have enjoyed recounting the past few years. I typically stay at the team hotel for Georgia baseball away series. At Arkansas in 2012, I was getting ready to head over the field a few hours before game time for a tailgate with the small UGA contingent that made the trip. UGA, in their infamous penny pinching fashion, flew the team to Arkansas on US Airways. The team bussed to Atlanta, flew to Charlotte, then took a connecting flight to Northwest Arkansas. The next season when the Razorbacks came to Athens, they took a charter flight from Fayetteville to Athens. I was staying on the top floor of the hotel at Arkansas and was on the elevator heading to the lobby. The elevator stops on the 3rd floor and Alex Wood got on. He’s not in uniform. He’s wearing an unbuttoned short sleeve shirt, cargo shorts, and socks. I commented on the team’s itinerary to Fayetteville and we chatted for a moment about that and about Baum Stadium, where the Razorbacks play. I was struck by how relaxed he was, and how, if I didn’t know who he was, would never guess that he was about pitch in what was probably UGA’s biggest game to date of that season. Wood would go the distance that night, striking out 11 Razorbacks, while allowing 2 runs on 7 hits. A few weeks later, UGA is playing the Florida Gators in Gainesville. I arrive at the hotel around 4:30pm, check in, and head over to the elevator. The team bus was around 10 minutes from leaving and players were filing through the lobby at this point. The elevator door opens in front of me and several players, including Wood, get off. Alex has his uniform on and has in ear buds, so loud that I could hear his music before the elevator doors even opened. He locks eyes with me and makes a fist with his right hand. I raise my right fist and he crashes his into mine, surprisingly hard. I thought to myself “I get it now. He flips that switch when the uniform comes on.” In case you were curious, the Dawgs lost a heartbreaker that night in 16 innings on a “walkoff strikeout” (runner on 3rd scored the winning run on an errant throw to 1st after the catcher dropped the third strike, with two outs). Paco Rodriguez, one of four eventual major leaguers on that Florida Gator team, pitched 3 innings of relief.
Brian Billick wrote in his book “More than a Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL” that one rule exercised by successful front offices is “never fall in love with your players.” I’m sure this maxim applies to Major League Baseball front offices as well, though baseball has always seems less cut-throat to me than professional football. Regardless, John Hart owes no obligation to Wood for Wood’s college days. Further, “butts in seats” argument that I’ve seen advanced about Wood does not seem to resonate when one considers the sparse midweek crowds Turner Field has seen this season during Wood’s starts. If the Braves did have concerns about Alex Wood’s mid or long range future and if they valued him and Jose Peraza less than what they received from the Dodgers, the Braves were correct in making the deal.
I have seen the breakdown of Alex’s velocity drop this season and his increased “contact rate” and decreased strikeout rate. I would argue, though, that Alex’s performances this year have not come in a vacuum. The Braves never had a lineup this year that could consistently score runs. Further, the bullpen issues of this Atlanta team have been very well chronicled. Not only did the Braves’ offense score struggle to score runs, but the bullpen struggled to protect leads. If I am keenly aware of this reality sitting in section 403, I’m quite sure Alex Wood is aware of it too. I honestly believe, but admittedly do not know, that his mentality each time was simply to pitch as deep into the game as he possibly could, just to give us a chance to win. How does one go about doing that? I would suggest that one would conserve effort wherever possible and “pitch to contact” in order to keep a handle on the pitch count. Consider too that Alex took the mound the day after Julio Tehran for most of the season. This typically, though not always, meant that Atlanta had thrown most or all of their “A” relievers the night before. Again, pitching starts do not happen in a vacuum. On April 29th, Wood started in the rubber game against the Washington Nationals. The night before, the Braves blew an 8 run lead on two different occasions and suffered a crushing 13-12 loss. Luis Avilan, Jim Johnson, and Jason Grilli all pitched in that game, with only Johnson turning in a clean inning. What do you think is Wood’s mentality when he takes the mound the next night? I assume the task was simply to “pitch deep” (which, unfortunately, did not happen either). On June 12th, Alex Wood started the opener of a three game series in Queens against the New York Mets. The day before, the Braves played an extra innings game with the Padres that saw Atlanta use 6 relievers (though four of those were used in one inning). Alex Wood’s June 17th start against the Red Sox and June 28th start against the Pirates in Pittsburgh both came after poor outings in a losing effort from Tehran as well, and neither Johnson nor Grilli were used in either of those Tehran starts. It is noteworthy that Wood collected 15 strikeouts over 13 1/3 innings of those two starts, a far better strike out rate than his overall season total. Maybe the Pirates and Red Sox are overly prone to strikeouts. Or maybe Wood is less concerned about pitching into the 8th inning with a fully charged bullpen at his disposal.
For my two cents in my admittedly biased opinion, Alex Wood pitched very unselfishly this season and it may have skewed his numbers in a troubling direction. Or maybe not. I have yet to hear anyone from the Braves suggest that the K-rate and velocity dip was an actual concern. It could simply be that the Braves felt they had a deal that was too good to pass up.
Either way, while I still do not like the trade, I am certainly grateful that I was able to witness so much of such a promising and inspiring career. For the sake of the Braves, I hope that we never have to see Alex Wood pitch against us.