The pitching universe revolves around Clayton Kershaw. The three-time Cy Young and 2014 is roundly considered to be the best pitcher on the planet, and in LA you’re more likely to find a flat-earther than someone who disagrees. Except, perhaps, in the Dodgers clubhouse.
You see, something very strange is going on. Kershaw is not the best pitcher on the 2017 Dodgers. The best pitcher is Alex Wood.
More than the record
Alex Wood is a perfect 10-0. Kershaw has two blemishes on his record. However, this goes well beyond a win-loss percentage. In 13 starts (15 appearances), Wood has a magical 1.67 ERA, with a FIP of 2.04, and a WHIP that is just a hair above Kershaw’s (0.892 to 0.893).
While he doesn’t quite qualify for the ERA title thanks to missing time on the DL, this season has been one of sheer brilliance for Wood. There were flashes of this kind of quality in Atlanta, but never to this extent. In 2014 he posted a 2.78 ERA through 24 starts, And in 2013 (31 appearances, 11 starts) he had a FIP of 2.65, but 2017 is something completely different.
The emergence of a strikeout artist
Pitchers who throw 50% sinkers are rarely strikeout machines, but Wood is. In Atlanta, he had a solid 8.9 K/9 rate, which for a sinkerballer was good. This season that number is a massive 10.8 K/9, and a touch more than Kershaw’s.
A big reason for this uptick is an increased velocity of his sinker. After being at an average of 89.7 mph in 2015 and 91.3 in 2016 it is up to 92.5 this year, and topping out a 95.4. This is where it was at in 2013 when he debuted. However, he is combining that increased velocity with improved command and better pitch selection.
Where in 2013 he was throwing his sinker 64% of the time, now it’s 50. Where he was throwing his changeup 7% more frequently than his curveball, now they are almost identical. The more varied selection, along with the uptick in velocity and better location has resulted in hitters simply being lost against him.
He is registering swinging strikes at a career-high 13.5%, and is getting hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone a massive 37.3% of the time. Both those figures are better than Clayton Kershaw this season.
With hitters so uncertain of what they are getting and where it is going, Wood is drawing a lowly 21.5% of hard contact, and just 15.9% line drives, explaining why his home runs per nine innings rate is a minuscule 0.2. Hitters want to take him on, but when they do they are just rolling grounders to the defense behind him.
Wood isn’t going to the All-Star game, in part because he doesn’t have the innings to qualify for the leaderboards. Being off that list of the best performers has kept him out of the public eye, however in his performances have been so incredibly good that the fact he won’t be in Miami next week is just ridiculous. Max Scherzer is attracting all the attention on the east coast, and Kershaw is continuing to dominate when he takes to the mound, and seemingly there is no room in the public consciousness for another elite pitcher. Which is a shame, because while he doesn’t have the knee-buckling slider or huge curve of Scherzer or Kershaw, Wood is finding a way to strike hitters out, keep them off the basepaths, and stop them from scoring. He has been every bit as impressive, and then some, as the biggest names in baseball today, but for most of the country, they simply don’t care. Well, they should.