Hits keep coming on inconsistent Wood

ST. LOUIS -- All the talk surrounding Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija early this season has allowed starter Travis Wood to fly under the radar.

Considering Wood might still be the best bet to stick in the rotation whenever they plan on contending, he probably deserves more start-to-start scrutiny.

Last season he broke out to make the All-Star team as the lone Cubs representative. So far this year it's been an up-and-down struggle.

"Right now it's kind of been a back and forth," Wood said recently. "Good game, bad game, good game, bad game. Hopefully we can iron that out and get on a roll."

Wood takes a 2-4 record with a 4.75 ERA into his start at the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday night coming off his worst outing since July 2012.

He lasted just four innings against the White Sox, giving up eight runs on eight hits and five walks. The whole outcome might have been different if not for the strike zone of home plate umpire Tom Woodring, but that only explains one portion of the rough start.

The bottom line for Wood this season is that he's simply giving up too many hits.

"It's just been a battle so far," Wood said. "Breaks aren't going my way, and I'm not making the pitches when I need to."

The breaks he's referring to might reflect his batting average against on balls in play (BABIP). Last season it was .251; this year it's shot up to .344. That's a huge jump.

On the surface it means opponents are simply hitting the ball where Cubs fielders are not. But Wood is giving them better pitches to hit, and the results are more hard hit balls and line drives.

Wood isn't overpowering and his off-speed pitches aren't considered among the best. But when he's hitting his spots, he can be as effective as anyone.

His fastball is about the same as last year, coming in at about 88.6 mph compared to 88.9 in 2013.

According to ESPN Stats & Information data, one of his issues is where he's putting his breaking pitches.

Last season, Wood threw off-speed to the middle third of the plate 22 percent of the time. This year he's at 35 percent. Often in 2013, he talked of using the inner and outer half of the plate while working up and down as reasons for his success. That hasn't been the case in 2014.

This season he's striking out more per nine innings (8.6), but he's giving up more hits per nine (10.4) than he ever has. In at-bats that end in an off-speed pitch, opponents are hitting .229 this season; last year it was just .191. And a key statistic -- line drive percentage -- is up for Wood this year to 23 percent from 19. All those numbers point to Wood simply getting too much of the plate compared to last season.

If you're slotting Cubs pitchers moving forward, Wood might be best as a solid No. 3. Last season he threw like a No. 2 or even an ace at times, but that's probably not what he is for a contending Cubs team.

He's only 27, so age isn't a big factor. And with two more seasons of arbitration, the Cubs can wait to lock him up for a long-term deal.

But he needs to get back to being what he was last season: a pitcher working the inner and outer thirds of the plate.

The good news is he's keeping the ball down more this year, but hitting the corners is still crucial for him.

"No overhaul or anything like that," Wood said. "Just a few pitches can make all the difference."