Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.
- Fiona MacLeod, “The Lonely Hunter”
Like dead Scottish poets and their verse, Hunter Wood is tough to figure out.
He has three pitches that verge on elite, and one that is pretty poor yet he still insists on throwing over five percent of the time, even if as a reliever he could get by with just his “good” pitches.
His traditional stats look solid as a reliever and shaky as an opener, but his advanced stats look reversed (small sample size alert). And he has an alarming propensity to groove even his plus-est offering more than you’d expect.
Late Round Flyer
Wood was drafted out of Howard (Texas) Junior College by the Rays way down in the 29th round of the 2013 draft. Originally slated to be developed as a reliever, by 2015 scouts realized that he had “the raw stuff to fit in the rotation, with a plus fastball that sits in the low to mid-90s, and he shows the ability to navigate both sides of the strike zone with his fastball. Wood also has a promising curveball, which some scouts feel could be a plus offering.” (Source: Baseball America 2015 post season report $$)
Per Baseball America’s report on Wood after the 2016 season, he added a slider/cutter hybrid that impressed several scouts. He also continued working on a developing change per both the 2015 and 2016 reports — we’ll see later why it was and is still “developing” — during his rise through the system, where he found success in both starting and relieving. Twice he was listed by Baseball America in the Rays Top 30 prospects, and once in the Top 20 of MLB Pipeline.
In the Show
After a one-batter cup of coffee in 2017 and an April 2018 cameo, he emerged as a regular contributor to the staff during the summer months, putting up a 3.73 ERA / 3.70 FIP / 3.92 xFIP in 41 innings across 29 appearances (eight times as an opener). His K/9 sat at a healthy 9.22 and his BB/9 at a tolerable 3.95. The athletic Wood even got into a couple games as a pinch runner, and on occasion flashed nice leatherwork in the field.
Woody has six outs, but this is our favorite. pic.twitter.com/eQF5gyWivy— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) August 2, 2018
As for his arsenal, the movement on three of his four pitches is eye-catching:
The plus rise on the fastball — which Wood threw over half the time — led to a whiff rate north of 13 percent on the pitch. That’s a better whiff rate on the heater than either Ryne Stanek or Diego Castillo.
The pitch labeled here as a slider here doesn’t really have true slider movement, but is still interesting. In fact, Brooks Baseball labels it a cutter instead, though it doesn’t really move like a cutter either. Sitting in the high 80s, it has a lot more sink than a standard cutter and more cut than a standard slider. Regardless of what you want to call is, it produces a ton of ground balls, clocking in at over 50 percent, and a fly ball rate of just two (TWO!) percent.
Rounding out his toolbox is the curve that Baseball America scouts mostly liked, and the very meh changeup. You can see for yourself the deep 12-6 action of the curve, which Wood throws a little slower than average. But the change ... well, it just sort of sits there. The movement isn’t all that distinct from his fastball, so he relies solely on the eight mph of separation from the heater. The result in the small sample we have on the change is a pitch with a crazy whiff rate that also gets hit around (more on that in a second).
You would expect a guy with three really good pitches and one rarely used meh pitch to get better results than Wood’s so-so 2018. But digging deeper, we maybe find the culprit. It appears that what vexed Hunter Wood during his debut season and kept him from enjoying greater success was a problem with grooved pitches, especially fastballs:
To be fair, it’s also wasn’t helpful that Wood didn’t have a ton of luck with his offspeed and breaking pitches. But a .373 BABIP against non-fastballs (including .571 on his little used change up!) might be chalked up to the work of nefarious Luck Dragons, especially since he kept those BIPs in the park. No, the true problem seems to lie in that often-grooved four-seamer, where Wood’s BABIP was a respectable .296 but got hit around for a .206 ISO.
There be no dragons there. That’s just poor execution.
Hunter Wood has the stuff to succeed in the bigs. So here are some easier-said-than-done tips for the righty:
1) Stop grooving fastballs.
That’s it, really.
Well, maybe ditch the change up too? Seriously, who needs four pitches to get six outs? Especially when one of them is so-so. But really and truly, just, like, don’t throw that good fastball straight down the middle so often? It’s a good pitch, but it ain’t that good.
If Hunter Wood could manage that, he might feel a little less lonely out on that hill.