As a lefty, Alex Wood is different for a Giants rotation that did not have a southpaw.
As a pitcher in general, though, Wood is different.
Sure, he’s a similar gamble to the ones that Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly were last season; a similar gamble that Anthony DeSclafani is this year. He fits the mold of a pretty high-upside arm with recent underperformance and/or injury issues that made him what the club deems as a bargain, signing for $3 million with another $3 million possible in bonuses (which would be met by essentially making 30 starts).
But the Giants did not value Wood for a filthy splitter and high-90s fastball that Gausman possesses or the live arm that DeSclafani will bring to San Francisco. A big part of the attraction was that the 30-year-old is not like other pitchers on the staff — or in the league.
His herky-jerky throwing motion starts normally enough, followed by a bend in which he nearly falls as he reaches back and his gloved arm flings out. The windup is segmented rather than fluid and finishes with his whipping the ball out at about a three-quarters delivery. As a mid-to-lower-down lefty in the rotation, Wood will be replacing Tyler Anderson. But he’s Anderson’s spiritual heir, too, as a pitcher as reliant as guile as he is stuff.
As more and more pitchers — especially Giants pitchers — focus on putaway stuff up in the zone, Wood still lives on the bottom of the zone. In an era in which faces, personalities and fire can be left out of the equation because cold, hard data rules all, Wood brings something else to the rotation.
“He’s got an unusual delivery, a deceptive delivery and a type of pitching style that’s becoming a little bit less common,” Farhan Zaidi said over Zoom on Thursday after San Francisco announced the one-year pact. “And I think all those things really work to his favor. Just knowing Alex and being around him — he’s just a really intense competitor.”
Zaidi knows the delivery firsthand, having brought Wood from Atlanta to Los Angeles in July 2015, when Zaidi was Dodgers GM, in a massive three-team, 13-player trade that also included Michael Morse and Mat Latos; “I’m glad that this time the acquisition was a little simpler,” Zaidi cracked.
The Giants’ president of baseball operations watched Wood throw a 7 2/3-inning, one-run gem in the 2017 World Series; he watched from home as Wood, in relief, threw four scoreless innings in this past season’s World Series that netted him a ring.
“I think [being unique is] what’s contributed to some of the positive playoff moments he had in LA,” said Zaidi, who nonetheless praised Wood’s stuff, with a low-90s fastball, breaking ball and changeup.
He was available for cheap, though, because he hasn’t been able to flash that stuff or delivery enough. Wood stepped up in the postseason in relief last season, but he threw just 12 2/3 regular-season innings because of shoulder trouble. The year prior, a back injury limited him to 35 2/3 innings. The year prior, he was solid; in 2017, he was an All-Star. Yet again, the Giants are of the belief their pitching and training staff can maximize results, which has worked great for some (Gausman, Smyly, Drew Pomeranz) but not for all (Derek Holland).
The last look at Wood was an encouraging one.
“Watching him pitch like that in the playoffs was really reminiscent of when I’ve seen him at his best,” said Zaidi, who saw Wood as a Dodger from 2015-18. “I think as a group, we just felt like the trend line for him from a health and performance standpoint, the way he finished the year — we have a lot of optimism that he can carry that into 2021 and be a really important part of our rotation next year.”
That rotation appears to have taken shape, if not officially completed. Gausman, Johnny Cueto, DeSclafani, Wood and likely Logan Webb figure to open the season, with Tyler Beede aiming for a May return. But Zaidi wouldn’t rule out adding another starter and figures to bring a few starter fliers to camp, especially because of how few innings pitchers threw in 2020. Teams do not know how much they can depend on arms they usually depend on.
The Giants do not know how much they can depend on much of their staff. Cueto’s, DeSclafani’s and Webb’s ERAs last season were 5.40, 7.22 and 5.47, respectively. Wood has thrown 48 1/3 innings the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, the Padres have become a monster in adding Blake Snell and Yu Darvish and the Dodgers are the reigning champs. After the Giants missed the postseason by one win, Zaidi pegged the postseason as the club’s next goal. Is that aim still realistic?
“Retaining Kevin Gausman and now signing DeSclafani and Alex Wood,” said Zaidi, after cautioning about the unknowns concerning the playoff structure. “We’re starting to build the type of rotation that we think can give us the momentum to have some of those positive stretches you need to be a playoff team.”