Curve third baseman Wood much improved

Not a single player who has ever played for the Curve has improved more from one season to the next than Eric Wood.

A third baseman with good power potential, Wood also has one of more interesting backstories of any Curve player.

“It’s good to see that a guy that’s put in the work and doing everything right is getting the results,” manager Joey Cora said.

Wood, a former pitcher who came upon hitting late in his baseball development, did very little to be impressed about last season. He hit .237 with just two homers, 28 RBIs and a .608 OPS in 101 games for Altoona, and he struggled defensively, too, with 21 errors.

This year, Wood looks like a totally different player.

He’s also one of the Curve’s best and most productive players.

The 23-year-old Canadian not only leads Altoona with 13 homers, he’s also tied for the Pirates’ minor league lead in that category.

He’s improved his OPS by more than 200 points, up to a team-high .823, while hitting .260 with 11 doubles, three triples and 39 RBIs.

A defensive liability at times last year, Wood has become one of the strengths of the defense this season, committing 10 errors but also making a much higher percentage of routine plays and a fair share of terrific ones at third base, as well.

“Baseball is a funny game,” Wood said when asked about his huge improvement. “You just have to keep playing it, and you find things that click and work, defensively and offensively.

“It’s a tough game, and that’s why there are guys that get paid so much money to do it. You’ve just got to keep playing and keep playing, and once you figure it out, you figure it out.”

Wood has been especially good the past month and a half, hitting .348 with four homers this month after belting five long balls in June.

His ability to hit the ball over the fence is the reason Wood got a chance to be a pro ballplayer, although that kind of happened by accident.

His story is one of legend, really, like something you’d see in a movie.

“I was kind of a late bloomer, so I was just a pitcher,” Wood said. “I wasn’t really big and strong enough to hold the bat. Then I grew, so I started swinging a little bit for fun.”

He was pitching for the Ontario Blue Jays amateur club as a 17-year-old when the team made a trip to New Mexico for a tournament. The coach, trying to keep everyone loose, held a home run contest for all of the players before the tournament.

“The coach said, ‘Pitchers get to hit, too,'” Wood recalled.

Out of nowhere, Wood started bashing home runs in that intra-squad contest, which he ultimately won. That was enough for the coach to start trying him as a hitter, playing various positions.

The rest is history.

“I hit when I was real young, but through high school I was just a pitcher,” Wood said.

He went to Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, where he pitched and started playing third base more regularly. The Oakland A’s drafted him in the 37th round in 2011, but he decided to remain in school, a decision that paid off big time as the Pirates took him in the sixth round the following year.

Wood threw hard – 92-93 mph – and had a shot to be drafted as a pitcher, but there was more interest as a third baseman.

“I had some people ask me what I would prefer, and I always thought to myself, if hitting doesn’t work out, I could try pitching again,” he said. “I seemed to have a lot more interest as a hitter, so I decided to go that route.”

Wood did OK early in his pro career, but the power never really showed up. From 2012-15, he hit a total of just 15 home runs in 353 games, and never more than six in a season. He did show power in other ways, including hitting 28 doubles and six triples at high-A Bradenton in 2014 to earn a promotion to Double-A.

Still, there was very little last year to indicate that Wood was developing into an offensive threat, as he hit only two homers in 334 at-bats.

This year, he has 13 homers in 250 at-bats.

“Experience a little bit, keep working on my swing and stuff like that,” he said of the difference. “Hitting’s kind of new to me still, and I’m still learning.”

Defensively, he says he’s just more relaxed in the field and credits Cora for helping in that regard.

Put it all together, and Wood has turned himself into a quality Double-A player, and one who still has a lot more upside.

“He’s a player that has a lot of confidence in himself,” Cora said. “He believes in himself, he’s swinging at strikes. He’s putting everything he has in practice, and the results are showing.”

Wood has a chance to hit 20 homers this season, which would be incredible after he had just two a year ago. The Pirates are severely lacking in power bats in their minor league system, and if Wood can continue progressing and keep playing solid defense, he could turn himself into a major leaguer.

“If he can control the strike zone, he can hit for more power, many more homers, more doubles,” Cora said. “That’s the key for him – swinging at strikes and controlling the strike zone. If he can do that, he has a lot of potential.”