The discussion sparked by Eric's review of Alex Wood's 2016 season saw people seemingly split over his potential as a starter. Some like him as a 5th starter, some prefer McCarthy, and some feel Wood is best suited for the bullpen. I am much more bullish on Alex Wood than any of those viewpoints.
It seems pretty clear to me that he changed the way he pitched during the 5th start of the season against the Padres last year, as he went from a pitch-to-contact ground ball pitcher to a strikeout machine.
Not coincidentally, his xFIP followed suit.
In researching why this might have been the case, my initial assumption was that it had something to do with his release point that the Dodgers had been tinkering with all offseason. While it's true that the release point was higher in 2016 than 2015, it did not seem to change at all when he had the sudden spike in K%. If anything, his release point continued to slip a bit throughout the season. Then I thought it must be the amount of horizontal or vertical movement his pitches were generating. Nope. No correlation. So what was it?
It seems to me the answer is pitch location. It looks like he made a conscious decision to change the location of his curveball and changeup, specifically. Here is the horizonal (top image) and vertical (bottom) placement of his three primary pitches as the season progressed.
From what I can tell, Wood stopped throwing the curveball out of the zone and started trusting it, dropping it in for strikes by having the pitch start higher and finish closer to the center of the plate. Meanwhile, he started using his changeup as his chase pitch.
I don't usually like looking at data by using selective end points, but for this discussion it makes sense because there is a clear change in the way he pitched on a specific date. From the time Wood made that change in the way he pitches until he got injured, he posted the 3rd best xFIP in the league.
It's a small sample size, yes, but if this was indeed a conscious change in the way he pitches and is something that he can carry over to 2017, Alex has a chance to be much more than a 5th starter for the Dodgers. Putting him in the bullpen could be a huge missed opportunity to see just exactly what the Dodgers have in the 25 year old pitcher.