April 1, 2014

Loran Smith: Wood rises to success with Braves

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Baseball is different from many other professional sports in that almost everybody spends time in the minor leagues. If you are good enough in football and basketball, you can leave your college campus and play immediately in the NFL or the NBA.

If you warrant a sizeable bonus for signing with a pro baseball team, you must nonetheless ride the buses in the bushes and work for a minor league salary.

When your name is affixed to a big-league roster, you make the minimum salary ($500,000 in 2014) until you become eligible for arbitration after three years. (Most players, however, are signed to top-dollar contracts before entering into arbitration.)

While Alex Wood was not a celebrated prospect when he signed with the Atlanta Braves after being drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft, there was one Braves official — then-scouting director Paul Snyder — who was keen with respect for the former University of Georgia pitcher.

“If you sign him, don’t change him,” the sagacious Snyder advised the Braves.

Snyder was referring to Wood’s unorthodox pitching motion, which has a lot of arm and leg action.  

“It is so unusual,” Braves announcer Joe Simpson said, “that he confuses the hitters. He hides the ball so well.”

It is a natural pitching motion that Wood developed growing up in Charlotte, N.C., where his father Richard spent countless hours with him, teaching him the fundamentals of the game and encouraging him to take time to practice every day — even when he didn’t feel like it or the weather was nasty.

“He really pushed me, and it paid off,” Wood said earlier this month as he prepared for his last start of the spring, a spring of overachievement.

Wood went 2-0 in Grapefruit League action this spring — he also pitched in three other games without figuring into the decision — and allowed just one earned run in 20 innings on the mound. That’s heady stuff, but it has been a heady start for the precocious left-hander who was walking the campus in Athens two years ago dreaming about a future in the big leagues, never thinking that it would be so sudden.

Wood played for the Class A Rome Braves in 2012, posting a 4-3 record and a sparkling 2.22 ERA with 52 strikeouts. He began the 2013 season with the Double-A Mississippi Braves. Conventional thinking would suggest that a good year there would have been likely get him to Triple-A Gwinnett to bide his time until he got the call from the Braves.

A funny thing happened in Jackson, Miss., however. After pitching in 10 games in the first couple of months, Atlanta took note of his 1.26 ERA and sent for him on May 29, 2013. He was advised to pack his bags and head to the airport the first thing the next morning.

With very little sleep, he flew to Atlanta. Almost as quick as you could snap your fingers, he was working out with players he had followed in the sports pages but never met.

That was not the end of it. That night, he was called in from the bullpen in the ninth inning. He gave up one hit but retired the side. The Braves won 11-3. Serendipity reigned. He wasn’t even sure of the names of some of his teammates who were offering congratulations.   

He was briefly sent down to Gwinnett last summer but had the distinction of posting the third lowest ERA in the month of August of any rookie since 1955.

It was more heady stuff for a young pitcher who seems built to manage whatever comes his way — except that he has experienced little bad news when it comes to his big league baseball career.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.