If you’re looking for the minors’ best one-two punch of starting pitchers this year, you’d probably be surprised to find them in Zebulon, N.C. In Travis Wood and Zach Stewart, the Carolina Mudcats have two starters in the top 10 in ERA in the minors. Wood leads all minor leaguers with a 1.36 ERA.
It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely devastating duo. A year ago, Wood had the worst ERA (7.09) of any pitcher in the Southern League with 75 or more innings. Stewart was closing out games in high Class A Sarasota, seemingly on a fast track to a spot in the Reds’ bullpen. Together, they’ve been the best one-two combo in the Southern League—if not all the minors.
Wood saw a 22 scoreless inning streak snapped in his start last Thursday, but he’s still continued to roll. He’s holding hitters to a .194 average with 75 strikeouts and 32 walks in 86 innings. More impressively, he’s fixed some early season command problems and has walked only three batters in his last 27 innings after walking 29 in his first 59 innings.
He’s a skinny 5-foot-11, 22-year-old lefthander whose 87-88 mph fastball is complemented by one of the minors’ best changeups. He can touch 92 with his fastball at times, but his calling card is his outstanding changeup that combines excellent deception with late sink. But those two pitches have been there all along. He’s shelved a fringy curveball and replaced it with an 82-84 cutter, which already is significantly better than the curveball ever was.
"He has the cutter that comes into righties and makes that changeup all the more effective," pitching coach Rigo Beltran said. "It’s a pitch he can throw with a high percentage of strikes that looks like a fastball that he can throw in fastball counts. He’s able to get in that kitchen and keep the ball off the barrel of the bat."
Without a third pitch, Wood, a second-round pick from Bryant (Ark.) High in ’05, was forced too often to throw his fastball when hitters were looking for it. Now he can keep hitters—especially righthanders—off balance. He added the cutter last year, but this year he’s learned how to command it and throw it for strikes.
But that’s not the only change. Last year, and even early this year, Wood was struggling at times with his fastball command. But he’s gained a much better feel as the season has gone along.
Stewart (1.70 ERA this year overall) has matched Wood pitch-for-pitch since he was promoted to Carolina on May 22. He’s allowed only four earned runs in 32 innings since his promotion. Stewart was supposed to be the Reds closer of the future. Drafted in the third round last year out of Texas Tech, Stewart started the year as the Red Raiders’ closer but moved to the rotation late in the college season. After the Reds drafted him, they moved him back to the pen, where he went 1-4, 1.09 in 33 innings. But this year he went back into the rotation, partly to give him more innings and partly to help him work on his secondary stuff.
But the move to the rotation hasn’t just given him steady innings, it’s also allowed him to develop his changeup, something he used only rarely out of the pen. Now it’s developed into a solid third pitch.
"He definitely trusts (the changeup)," Beltran said. "He throws it in counts that I didn’t think he would because he believes in it. He’s worked on it since he’s been here. He had a little cut to it, not he’s getting more sink to it, which is what we want."
The development of the changeup gives Stewart, 22, a third option to go with an average slider and a plus fastball. Stewart’s calling card is his 93-94 mph fastball that combines velocity with plenty of sink. It’s not a strikeout pitch, but it does an excellent job of inducing groundballs.
"That sinker inside is devastating when you’re throwing 90-94 with that kind of movement," Beltran said. "I really haven’t seen anyone turn on it. Even when he misses, he misses off the plate."
Since becoming a pro, Stewart has gone 5-5, 1.51 in 107 innings. He’s had success both as a starter and a reliever. Because of that his big league options are wide open. According to farm director Terry Reynolds, the Reds aren’t going to pigeonhole Stewart, as they like the fact that he has the versatility to fill either role.
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