Going Deep: Brandon Woodruff Enters the Circle of Trust
If I were to build a prototype for a starting pitcher in a lab, I think in a lot of ways he would look like Brandon Woodruff. A 6’4″, 215-pound right-hander, Woodruff has good and repeatable mechanics, but nevertheless was only an 11th-round pick when the Milwaukee Brewers claimed him back in the 2014 draft. Over the next few seasons, Woodruff worked his way through the minors and over time he began to become a clear part of the Brewers’ plans, culminating in flashes in the majors in 2017 and 2018, working out of the bullpen. He then received his opportunity to compete for a rotation spot that he would eventually win in spring training earlier this year.
Woodruff has made good on that spring training opportunity and continued to ascend over the first half of the 2019 season, and it has been impressive to watch. Rather quickly, Woodruff went from a young player who may not even have a guaranteed spot in the starting rotation, to the most reliable and stable option of the entire rotation for a likely playoff team. He was hampered early on by some poor luck, though he was even pitching fairly well then, but has been completely dialed in over the past two months. After allowing five earned runs to the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 21st, Woodruff had an ugly 5.41 ERA through his first six starts. Since then, he has made 12 more starts and dominated his opponents to the tune of a 2.89 ERA.
Truthfully, he never should have had the poor ERA fortune he had early on anyway; he has been striking guys out and limiting free passes the entire year. He’s improved slightly as the season has progressed, but his K:BB rate was 38:10 in March and April, 37:7 in May, and 45:8 in June. In total, he’s boasting a sterling 120:25 K:BB ratio over 102 innings. When looking a little deeper at his numbers in totality, none of it is a fluke, and he honestly should only see those numbers improve as they approach his shiny 2.99 FIP and 3.36 xFIP. He’s been suppressing hard contact and per Baseball Savant, he ranks among the top 15% of pitchers in the league in allowed exit velocity and hard hit rate. As you can see on his chart below, even though spin on his pitches isn’t his primary weapon, his fastball velocity is strong and he also has been above-average in a few expected stats allowed as well, including xWOBA, xBA, and xSLG:
Woodruff has had his arsenal evolve from his limited experience in the majors last year, which is not a surprise given that he hadn’t been used as a starter in 2018 the same way he is now. He throws five pitches this year, with the fifth being the seldom-used curveball. One big way he has separated himself this year, however, is in the usage of his two-seam fastball. After barely using it at all in 2018, he’s upped the usage for it to close to 20% of the time in this season, and it’s helped make him less predictable. Back in June, Fangraphs’ Ben Clemens detailed the incorporation of the two-seamer to his repertoire, and one major takeaway is just how difficult it is it for opposing batters when a pitch comes at the same speed, but could cut slightly one of two directions and therefore make it much harder to diagnose for a hitter.
Are These Fastball Gains Sustainable?
Woodruff’s fastball dominance is well-recorded by pitch values as well. Between the two slight variations of his fastball, so far they have registered a pitch value of a combined 19.8. Additionally, in an era where starters typically throw fewer and fewer innings each year, and pitchers see their offerings diminish as they tire out, Woodruff has actually seen his fastball velocity tick up slightly despite being a full-time starter this year. His four-seamer’s increase in average velocity from 95.8 to 96.6 mph and two-seamer’s increase from 95.8 to 96.2 mph are not huge gains, but they are notable, as a concern coming into the season was that he may lose some of the velocity as he was asked to go deeper into appearances. Check out Woodruff laughing off concerns about that as he reaches 99(!) mph on a strikeout of Colin Moran from his last start against the Pittsburgh Pirates:
Baseball has seen a lot of change over the past few years in what a starting pitcher is asked to do, with one significant change being that fewer starters are asked to face the heart of the opposing lineup a third time, like so many starters used to do with regularity. The numbers whole-heartedly support the idea that having a quicker hand for the bullpen makes sense, which makes it all the more impressive that Woodruff has been pitching deeper and deeper into games as the spring has turned to summer. After failing to complete six innings in six of his first seven starts, and failing to record an out in the seventh inning or later in any of his first eight starts, Woodruff has begun to earn his manager’s trust later in games. Starting from his game against the Philadelphia Phillies on May 14th, Woodruff has pitched seven innings or more in five of his eight total chances, and only once in that span did he pitch fewer than six complete frames. He’s been slightly more economical with his pitches, but he’s also proving he can be the de-facto ace that the Brewers may need if they find themselves in a one-game playoff this year. Check out Woodruff rearing back to still hit 97 mph on his 102nd pitch here, for what was the last of his 12 strikeouts from seven innings of quality baseball against the Cincinnati Reds back on June 21st:
Where To Go From Here?
A pitcher who is given an opportunity to pitch deep into games is a valuable one, as is one who has the Brewers’ bats behind him. That combination for Woodruff gives fantasy owners an excellent shot for the elusive pitcher win (and quality start for those in leagues that count them); it’s no coincidence that he’s already racked up a tidy 10-2 record in decisions and supplied a QS in eight of his last ten times out. Add in a 10.59 K/9 so far this season, the expectation that his inflated .320 BABIP allowed so far should regress slightly as he approaches that 2.99 FIP and 3.36 xFIP, and Woodruff suddenly appears to be a very valuable commodity. Most of the reputable projection systems like ZIPS, Steamer, and THE BAT all view him as a guy with an ERA in the high-3 range and a hair under a 10.0 K/9. While projection systems are typically conservative, I think even if they are exactly right then Woodruff’s supporting cast and improvements thus far make him a set-and-forget locked in SP2 for the rest of the way, and would advise buying in if the owner in your league is still thinking of him as the guy who had such ugly numbers and such short starts early in the season.
(Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)