The Chicago Cubs lost their home opener to the Philadelphia Phillies, 7-2 yesterday. Travis Wood, the Cubs’ lone All Star in 2013, started the game and took the tough luck loss, due to a Chase Utley home run and later the bullpen’s fragility.
But make no mistakes about where to place your vitriol. Regardless of his strong start and other factors unrelated to his performance, the loss was all Wood’s fault. Take, for instance, the last few seconds of this video of his first pitch, and the first at Wrigley Field in its 100th season. Notice anything? I sure did.
His beard, perhaps the 2013 Chicago Cubs’ greatest asset, has been cropped into a frazzled goatee. Take a look at what once was.
Now it’s a shadow, a nothingness devoid of (agreeable) personality.
Wood looked like a prospector in 2013. He projected an image of gruffness, the visage of a grizzled man who loves lifting heavy objects, big tires, and whiskey. Now he looks like he should be hanging out on the set of Justified.
Of course, we’ve been down this path before. Wood surprised everyone last year at the All Star Game by appearing clean shaven to the media. It was a bad idea then and it’s a bad idea now. He changed things up to look presentable for the national stage, but he was foolish to choose this path. He had been extraordinary, but opted instead for plain.
It matters because, for all the importance of mechanics, health, mindset, and preparedness, getting in the head of your opponent can give you the slightest advantage you need. When a guy who looks like he’s seen some rough times throws a hard object at 90 miles per hour near your body, it makes you focus just a little bit more. You’re more alert, but also more on edge. “Will he try to hurt me just for fun?” the batter thinks, worried about the hungry looking caveman 60 feet and six inches away.
This is only partly in jest. Of course, Wood’s natural gifts combined with some good luck (if his 4.50 xFIP is to be believed) last year and he broke out as a legitimate middle of the rotation threat for the Cubs going forward into their expected window of contention. It’s mostly due to gained experience, confidence, and working with a catcher, Welington Castillo, who seems to have a good sense of sequencing.
But the beard’s cool, too. Grow it back, Travis. The Cubs — and my fantasy baseball team — depend on you.