The Braves beat the Mets 4-1 Wednesday, maintaining a staggering 15-game edge in the NL East. They’re going to the playoffs, and while the loss of Jason Heyward (on a terrifying hit-by-pitch that broke his jaw and could have done worse) was and will be the story of the game, perhaps the story of their stretch run, this game also featured a strong performance from one of the Braves’ good stories. Alex Wood threw six innings of one-run ball, dropping his season ERA to 2.50 in 57 2/3 innings.

It was Wood’s seventh start, along with 15 relief appearances, since he debuted on May 30. He’s been quite good, even in that role, and was thoroughly dominant in relief.

But good is almost beside the point.

Wood was the Braves’ second-round pick in the June 2012 draft, and is the second second-rounder from that group to reach the big leagues, along with Paco Rodriguez of the Dodgers. Only three first-rounders have reached MLB, and both Rodriguez (who actually debuted last season) and Wood have been better than anyone.

Technically, it’s Rodriguez, not Wood, who is providing the best short-term return on investment of any second-round pick in at least 20 years. He’s been worth 1.8 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, over his brief career. Wood, in roughly the same number of innings pitched, has been worth 0.8.

But that ignores a distinction I don’t care to ignore. Rodriguez is a reliever, and a reliever only. In fact, he’s so limited that in 72 career games, he has pitched only 53 innings. He’s effectively a lefty specialist. Wood was not only used for full innings, and sometimes more, when he was relieving, but is now a starting pitcher at the big-league level. Fourteen months after being drafted in the second round, that’s barely possible.

I did not have the time, and do not have the database skills, to search all of draft history for the best pitchers to turn into big-league starters within a year of going in the second round. I can, however, tell you two things:

  1. The only other player to be drafted 85th overall, as Wood was, and turn into something remotely this good, nearly this fast, was Burt Hooton, who was drafted in 1971, debuted before going to the minor leagues at all, only pitched in the minors for a couple months and threw a no-hitter in his fourth career start, his first of 1972. Wood is not that guy, but that’s the only direct comparison available at Wood’s depth in the draft.
  2. Going back to 1991 (an arbitrary endpoint, drawn simply because I have limited time and because the game was so different in so many ways going back any farther), there is no one on Rodriguez’s and Wood’s level in terms of immediate impact from outside the first round. It also bears mention that, in general, the second round starts earlier than it did last year. It’s rare that the 85th pick is even part of the second round.

It’s as if the Braves’ amateur scouting and player-development departments are playing a video game, and trying to conquer increasingly complex levels. Can we scoop a 23-year-old college drop-out out of his janitorial job, draft him in the 23rd round and turn him into a big-leaguer (Evan Gattis)? Check. Can we turn an undrafted free agent who had been an NAIA collegiate third baseman into a top-of-the-rotation starter (Brandon Beachy)? Check. Can we assemble a dominant bullpen from waiver-wire scraps (Eric O’Flaherty, Anthony Varvaro, etc.)? Check.

Nor is this an aberration, an oversight the league will correct upon its second reading. Wood may not be a 2.50 ERA guy, but he has a fastball that can sit at 92 and go higher as necessary, and two secondary offerings (a curve and changeup) that each work against right-handed batters and that he commands just fine.

I’m not sure the Braves have any clue who will be in their post-season rotation. On ESPN.com, their next six starts are scheduled to go to six different pitchers (Paul Maholm, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen and Wood), and given the cushion they have in the division, they could use all six as starters the rest of the way. Minor and Teheran have to be shoo-ins for October starts, but past that, it’s not at all clear that the empty slots have been promised to anyone. Wood could conceivably be a play-off starter this fall, or part of a tandem pairing with Beachy or Medlen.

Wood’s emergence saved the Braves, after Tim Hudson went down for the season with that gruesome broken ankle in New York. They’ll have to find an outfielder who can save them, too, after the loss of Heyward. Given the front office’s track record, though, it’d be a mild surprise if they can’t piece together a winning solution.

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