Arms Race: Royals Add Travis Wood

That came out of nowhere.

On Monday, news broke the Royals signed former starter, current reliever Travis Wood to a two-year contract valued at $12 million. Wood pitched out of the bullpen last year for the World Champion Cubs and hit free agency for the first time in his career. MLB Trade Rumors had Wood as the 24th best free agent on the market and predicted a three year deal at $21 million. Suffice it to say the pitching market didn’t exactly develop as many thought.

It’s early, but the Royals are making noise that Wood will enter the rotation mix. As a starter, Wood featured three fastballs: A straight four-seamer, a sinker and a cutter. Once he moved to the bullpen, he jettisoned the sinker and relied on his four-seam and cut fastball to set up his main secondary pitch – the slider.

While he may earn some Cactus League innings, Wood seemed to find a home in the bullpen last year. That seems to be the best option for his role going forward. Last year, pitching exclusively out of the bullpen for the first time in his career, Wood threw a fastball (either four-seam or cutter) 81 percent of the time to left-handed batters. Righties saw the heater 84 percent of the time. He leaned on the fastball on the first pitch of the plate appearance and when he fell behind. Once he jumped ahead in the count to lefties, he would throw the slider 28 percent of the time. A healthy rate, but still well below the four-seamer they would see just over half the time when Wood was ahead in the count.

Against right-handed batters, he would mix a change from time to time, throwing it one out of every 10 pitches when he held the advantage with two strikes on the batter.

All in all, it was an effective pitching cocktail for Wood as he posted a 2.95 ERA and limited the opposition to a .211 BA against his four-seam fastball, a .190 BA on his cutter and a .194 BA on his slider. Sounds great, except when you see his 5.28 DRA (Deserved Run Average – the amount of runs a pitcher deserved to give up) and his final WARP was -0.2. That’s kind of suboptimal. This seems to be the appropriate place to note that the Cubs defense Wood pitched in front of last year was exceptional. As in, better than the Royals in either of their title runs the last couple of years. Yes, that exceptional.

For a reliever, I’m not certain we can lean on DRA in comparison to ERA and determine that regression is right around the corner. Certainly at some point, a reliever who has experienced success in the past will stop getting outs. That’s just life. It’s just that the sample size of relief innings is small enough that you can explain away the lack of correlation. Regression is likely coming, but we just can’t say for certainty that it’s right around the immediate corner.

One thing that could be a cause for concern is the drop in strikeout numbers. In 2015, Wood finished with a super-shiny 10.5 K/9 split between work as a starter and reliever. This wasn’t really a case where a trip to the pen inflated his strikeout numbers once he was free to let it rip. Wood owned a 9.9 K/9 as a starter and a 11.0 K/9 coming out of the bullpen. So it’s a legit strikeout rate. Then last year, as a full-time reliever, it fell to 6.9 K/9. Not so nice. What gives?

Below is a table comparing his 2015 swing percentages and whiff rate with 2016.

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Batters were offering at his fastballs more frequently and missing a lot less. This isn’t rocket science by any stretch. You generate more swings and if, in those swings, you don’t miss more bats, you’re going to see a lot of contact. The decrease in whiffs and increase in contact didn’t seem to deter Wood. It’s not a stretch to credit some of his good fortune to a top-notch North Side defense.

Now that he’s in Kansas City, there’s another good defense behind him. The slider will get a full share of ground balls, but Wood is a fly ball pitcher. With Alex Gordon in left and Lorenzo Cain in center, you have two-thirds of the acreage in the outfield covered. Or maybe we can be generous and say seven-tenths. That leaves outfield coaching wizard Rusty Kuntz and his work with Jorge Soler. But wait! Soler was teammates with Wood last summer and we just spent the last couple of graphs extolling the virtues of the Cubs defense. Let’s just assume Wood will be well served by his Royal defense.

There’s some more fallout to discuss. While it seems as though Wood would be a prime candidate for the top left-handed option out of the bullpen, as noted above he’s in camp to provide competition for the rotation. The Royals traded for Nate Karns and also have Matt Strahm in the mix for the fifth starter spot. While Strahm figures to make his long-term home in the rotation, the 2017 season is about winning now. This means the pitching staff sets up in a way we saw early in 2016 where there are multiple swingmen on the staff.

For the sake of argument, let’s pencil Karns in the rotation with Wood and Strahm in the bullpen. You also have Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria, Brian Flynn and as Clark wrote about on Monday, Chris Young. Then there are your non-roster invitees such as Chris Withrow, Seth Maness, Bobby Parnell, Brandon League, Al Albuquerque and even Josh Staumont. In other words, there is bullpen inventory. You’re looking at a 12 -man pitching staff probably out of the gate. Not that big of a deal since Ned Yost has an aversion to using his bench.

The other area of impact is on the financial ledger. The final contract breakdown isn’t out yet, but the amount mentioned is a $12 million commitment for two years. With the knowledge the Royals are backloading everything this winter, coupled with their lust for the mutual option, let’s figure Wood is going to bank around $4 million this year with a bump to $7 million in 2018 and a $1 million buyout for 2019. That’s like a baby Hammel contract. No matter how the numbers break down, this most certainly pushes the payroll north of $141 million. That’s a $10 million increase from last year, a nice amount given the smoke signals out of The K early in the winter that this was going to be a season of austerity.

At some point, the Glass family was convinced this was a season of opportunity. They have acted accordingly.

The bullpen may never reach the dominant heights we saw during the championship seasons, but credit to Dayton Moore for gathering a solid cast of relief arms to replace what was lost. This doesn’t mean all the questions have been answered for this team entering spring training. It’s just that the potential answers have improved.

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