Q&A: Braves’ Wood ‘curving’ up Southern League

By Jake Seiner

Atlanta prospect Alex Wood is dominating Double-A with a 0.82 ERA through his first four starts. In 22 innings, he’s struck out 25 batters and walked just four. Opponents have a .182 average against him, and he’s induced a 2.17 groundout-to-flyout ratio. Monday night, he struck out eight Mobile hitters over six scoreless innings, allowing four hits and two walks.

Ranked sixth in the Braves’ farm system by MLB.com, Wood was expected to do well in the Minor Leagues. Drafted in the second round last year out of the University of Georgia, the left-hander came into pro ball already boasting a plus fastball and plus changeup, with the command to let both pitches play up. Despite that, he dropped into the second round because he lacked even a projectable breaking pitch, and many had concerns over his unusual mechanics.

Alex Wood posted a 2.22 ERA with Rome in 2012. (Ed Gardner)

Alex Wood posted a 2.22 ERA with Rome in 2012. (Ed Gardner)

I chatted with Wood on Tuesday, and in the quotes below, you can hear him talk about those mechanics. In short, he thinks those concerns were overblown and hasn’t adjusted much of anything because, though his process is unusual, he feels very comfortable with where he is upon releasing the ball.

The real story is that Wood has finally found a formidable breaking pitch. Atlanta invited Wood to Major League Spring Training, and in camp, Wood adopted the same knuckle curve thrown by Braves relievers Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters.

As Wood says below, the pitch immediately became the best breaking ball he’s ever thrown, and he’s thrown it regularly this year while dominating the Southern League.

Here’s the full transcript:

On what’s led to success at Mississippi:

I definitely think it’s because of my breaking ball. In terms of pitching and getting out there, my breaking ball has been very, very good so far this season. I’m using it to get more strikeouts, and I’m throwing it more consistently. It’s allowed me to take that next step in terms of going from A ball to Double-A. That’s definitely allowed me to have the success I’ve had here.

I’ve always felt that I had a real good changeup, and it’s been a blessing because, even with just two pitches, I was able to go out there and have success in school and even in pro ball. Having that good breaking pitch to throw with consistency in Double-A has definitely taken me to the next level. I’m really excited about where I’m headed.

On the knuckle curve:

I pretty much played with everything, every grip there is to play with for a breaking ball and slider, and I never really found one that stuck with me or that I had consistent success with and had the break you look for in a breaking ball. It just happened. I was lucky enough to go to big league camp with all those guys. I went in having a plan to ask those guys some things along those lines, and Craig [Kimbrel] and Jonny [Venters] showed me how to throw that spike curve, the knuckle curve. I tried it and I haven’t really looked back since.

Throwing a knuckle curve, it allows me to get on top of the breaking ball without thinking much about it. It’s one where, when you have consistent velocity, around 80-81 mph in my case, with that break, I can just throw the heck out of it. I guess you could say that I’m a power guy. I like to grip it and rip it, and I can do that with that breaking ball and get the speed difference and break. It fits right into my repertoire of pitches.

On how often he throws each of his pitches now:

I’m kind of different every time out, every start. I’m fortunate to get to watch — J.R. Graham throws the day before me, and he throws sort of like me with a lot of fastballs, and he has a good fastball. Based on what their lineup does against him, and how aggressive or patient they are with him — whether their going after his fastball — it gives me a good baseline about how I’ll go out the next day.

I threw last night against Mobile, and I opened the year against them, and in that game I probably threw 75-80-percent fastballs. Last night, they were a lot more aggressive and really were the whole start of the series. It really just depend on how the game goes, how aggressive they’re being.

I usually probably throw like 65-70-percent fastballs with a solid mix of the changeup and curve.

When I was in Low-A, I started with a different grip than I’d ever had. It was really inconsistent. Some days it would be decent, and some days it’d be all over the place, end up high and tight on lefties or just all over. This one, when I miss, I’m missing with a strikeout breaking ball. I might get swings and misses even when I miss. I’m throwing this one much more consistently. I can throw it for strikes or I can throw it out of the zone for a strikeout pitch. Definitely the difference for me is the consistency of it.

On slipping in the Draft amid concerns over his delivery:

In terms of the Draft and all that, I told my dad after it happened, I definitely felt that I have a little chip on my shoulder and felt like, there are all kinds of different things that go into it, but I shouldn’t have gone as low as I did. I thought I should’ve gone on the first day. My delivery is a little different, and teams didn’t know if I’d be a starter or a reliever. I never let what people think affect me. I just use it for extra drive. I’m a firm believer in everything happening for a reason, and I couldn’t be more happy with where I’m at with the Braves. It’s worked out great so far.

They haven’t messed with [my deliver] a whole lot. The thing is, you have people, when they’re talking about my mechanics and saying things about me, when you break down my mechancis on film, I have a different way of getting where I need to be, but if you break me down, I’m in about as good a position as you can be. When my foot lands, my arm is way above my shoulder, and I have good timing and hip rotation.

The people who got scared about my mechanics or say I have crazy mechanics — not that they don’t know what they’re talking about — but I’d compare it to in pre-Draft stuff, when they see hitters who do crazy stuff, but still end up in a good position to hit. When the results are there, you don’t care, just so long as the results keep coming. With pitchers, you see something out of the ordinary, and folks get scared. Just because it looks pretty doesn’t mean it’s good mechanics and doesn’t mean you’re going to get better results. That’s how I look at it.

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