By almost any measurement, righty Brandon Woodruff had a successful age-26 campaign. In 2019, Woodruff worked 121.7 innings over 22 starts, preventing approximately 14 runs compared to the average National League pitcher. The only pitcher better than Woodruff on the Brewers staff was southpaw closer Josh Hader (~15 Runs Prevented), and the next best starters were Woodruff's age-26 rotation partner (Zach Davies, ~10 Runs Prevented), Gio Gonzalez (also ~10 Runs Prevented), and another age-26 breakout, righty swingman Adrian Houser (~9 Runs Prevented). If you abstract Woodruff's performance from the context of the Brewers' defense, his season arguably looks even better, as Baseball Prospectus shows that Woodruff's Deserved Run Average (DRA) of 3.23 was nearly 35 percent better than the league.
|Best 2019 Brewers Pitchers||IP||Runs Prevented (vs NL)|
|Josh Hader||75.7||15 to 16|
|Brandon Woodruff||121.7||14 to 15|
|Jordan Lyles||58.7||11 to 12|
|Zach Davies||159.7||10 to 11|
|Gio Gonzalez||87.3||9 to 10|
|Adrian Houser||111.3||9 to 10|
|Junior Guerra||83.7||8 to 9|
|Brent Suter||18.3||8 to 9|
|Drew Pomeranz||26.3||6 to 7|
|Chase Anderson||139.0||5 to 6|
This means that as good as Woodruff was to the plain old eye test, one could argue that he actually underperformed his expected performance, given the parks and conditions in which he played, and the context of his performance (batted balls allowed, strike outs, walks, etc.). This is no small claim, as if Woodruff had played to his DRA, he would have prevented an additional six (6) runs for the Brewers, which probably could have helped the Brewers win at least one more game when all is said and done.
So here we are: the Brewers have a big righty (listed 6'4", 215 Lbs.) that throws hard (96 MPH riding and sinking fastballs) that is young, and just had the best season of his career. Many Brewers fans can be forgiven for penciling in Woodruff as an ace: first off, the Brewers have typically been wanting for true frontline pitching talent, with the very best arms of the last generation going to Yovani Gallardo and Ben Sheets -- both Very, Very Good pitchers, but maybe not "Aces" (although I'll always argue hard in favor of both pitchers). Second, again, it's easy to look at Woodruff and see an ace for the reasons listed above, and it's even more fun because Woodruff is the type of guy that may even bring together the "analytics" fans ("His DRA is incredible!") and traditional baseball fans (Woodruff looks the part of an ace with that fastball).
The trouble is, there's not much of a track record for Woodruff. In his age-26 season, Woodruff threw the most MLB innings of his career by far, as a combination of minor league development time, role uncertainty, and injuries limited Woodruff to fewer than 50 innings pitched in both 2017 and 2018. Moreover, in his scouting profile, Woodruff was never truly expected to emerge as a frontline starter -- sure, a dreamer might find Woodruff a strong No. 3 pitching role when he was developing in the minors, but since then it must be admitted that both Woodruff's stuff and performance metrics have ticked upward. In a sense, Woodruff is forging his own path, moving beyond whatever scouting observations could have been made in the advanced minors to shove that sparkling fastball on a regular basis.
What can Brewers fans expect from Brandon Woodruff moving forward?
At the close of the season, I gathered data from Baseball Prospectus (CSV download, October 12, 2019) to answer the following questions: How many pitchers in the expanded Wild Card Era (2012 - 2019) pitched like Woodruff in their age-26 season? How did they pitch before and after their age-26 season? I located approximately 680 pitchers who worked in their age-26 season during the Expanded Wild Card Era.
What's tough about Woodruff is that there are not many comparable age-26 seasons in recent years. Isolating by DRA- (or "DRA Minus", a stat that scales DRA to the league average, where 100 is average and the lower score is better), the only pitchers as good as (or better than) Woodruff at age-26 were 2012 Kris Medlen, 2012 Dillon Gee, 2014 Jacob deGrom, 2015 Stephen Strasburg, and 2017 Mike Clevinger, plus Woodruff himself, 2019 Blake Snell, and 2019 Adrian Houser (!!!). I located this group of pitchers by asking, "Which age-26 pitchers threw between 150 IP and 100 IP with a DRA- lower than 80?" I asked the question this way in order to compare Woodruff to "role limited" pitchers, as I did not think it would be helpful to compare Woodruff to established innings eaters or heavier workload pitchers at this stage.
Even if you don't focus on the quality of pitching, there are not many comparable workloads to Woodruff in age-26 seasons: during the Expanded Wild Card Era, approximately 31 age-26 pitchers started at least 20 games while pitching between 100 and 150 innings. Looking for bulk quality, only 11 age-26 pitchers produced Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) between 3.0 and 4.0. Finally, since I also hypothesized that strike out quality may be important to pitcher success, I studied the number of pitchers with better-than-average strike out rates among the age-26 cohort; here I found 281 such pitchers, which provided a much larger group of players to analyze.
|Sample||Age 27 IP / DRA-||Age 28 IP / DRA-||Age 29 IP / DRA-|
|Great age-26 DRA- (8 arms)||186.9 / 73.2||146.7 / 75.8||107.3 / 78.3|
|Great age-26 WARP (11 arms)||169.1 / 78.6||174 / 81.8||163.1 / 96.0|
|Good age-26 Strike outs (282 arms)||70.9 / 93.9||71.9 / 96.6||70.0 / 92.4|
|Similar age-26 IP (31 arms)||128.5 / 97.4||123.3 / 95.9||93.3 / 106.5|
|Full Batch (age-26 / 2012-2019)||IP||DRA-||Count|
By comparing the specific categories above (DRA-, WARP, IP, K) to the full batch of age-26 players, I should emphasize that this is quite a biased sample of players since I was loading the search by looking for similar age qualities and performance qualities (WARP, DRA, IP role, and Strike outs). Comparing the 282 pitchers with better-than-average strike outs should demonstrate this; even though their workload is relatively similar to the full batch of players (working between 67 and 73 innings on average), the DRA- for pitchers that exhibited better than average strike outs at age-26 is much better in the seasons that follow.
Even understanding these data limitations, I believe that it is worth assessing the data collected because Brewers fans are essentially interested in a particular development-based question when they ask whether Woodruff could perform as a frontline starter. Whether it is stated consciously or not, the question is whether someone who breaks out at age-26 without much of a previous track record, could continue to perform at a high level.
Analyzing only age-26 pitchers with 0, 1, or 2 prior years of pitching produces a sample of approximately 191 players within the original outlines of my research question. Among this group of pitchers, more role variance is evident in analyzing Innings Pitched and DRA performance in following seasons, although these pitchers do not deviate terribly far from the roles outlined above.
|Fewer than 3-years prior to Age-26||Age 27 IP / DRA-||Age 28 IP / DRA-||Age 29 IP / DRA-|
|Great age-26 DRA- (5 arms)||196.7 / 76||137.1 / 80.3||120.5 / 74.0|
|Great age-26 WARP (3 arms)||193.0 / 82.7||150.0 / 85.0||156.0 / 88.0|
|Good age-26 Strike outs (172 arms)||50.6 / 99.2||54.6 / 102.6||60.0 / 89.9|
|Similar age-26 IP (13 arms)||78.5 / 112.1||87.8 / 101.3||72.9 / 109.6|
It is worth emphasizing that each of these pitchers outlined above exhibits an MLB role, be it from a serviceable relief arm to a slightly-better-than-average innings eater, to an elite arm that might not work deep into an MLB season. Overall, I am quite surprised that this group of age-26 pitchers without much experience generally produces quite solid results, especially if you're leaning heavily on DRA- or WARP to form your opinion (and yes, again, these are quite biased due to the specific targeted research question, but I might gently add that the whole point of using a stat like DRA could be to reasonably recognize a potentially excellent pitcher).
For the purposes of description, the worst of the "great DRA at age-26" pitchers was Dillon Gee, who went on to work more than 230 quality innings during his age-27 and age-28 seasons. The cream of the crop within this category are Jacob deGrom and Mike Clevinger. Using "great WARP at age-26" as a category for analysis yields slightly less comparable arms to Woodruff, in Lance Lynn, Michael Pineda, and Masahiro Tanaka. Simply working with the "similar IP workload at age-26" category may produce the most interesting descriptive comparisons: Matthew Boyd, Adam Conley, Brad Peacock, Jerad Eickhoff, Chase Anderson, Adam Morgan, and Kyle Freeland are the most notable arms in this group. Each of these arms provides a range of potential MLB roles.
|Woodruff Pitches||2018 % (Velocity)||2019 % (Velocity)|
|Primary Fastball||59% (96.0)||41% (96.8)|
|Secondary Fastball||6% (96.2)||24% (96.4)|
|Slider||23% (87.6)||19% (88.8)|
|Change||11% (85.3)||14% (87.4)|
|Curve||2% (80.0)||2% (82.3)|
Combining this with an assessment of Woodruff's stuff, one can see a real path forward to success for the righty. Using Baseball Prospectus Brooks Baseball tool, it is clear that Woodruff adjusted his pitch selection in 2019 by leaning on his sinking fastball ("2 seam") moreso than his traditional rising / running fastball ("4 seam"). This is interesting because current forward-thinking pitching clubs (such as the Astros) are succeeding by heavily using traditional rising / running fastballs rather than sinkers (which was the Pirates' claim to fame, as one solid example, during their successful run earlier in the decade). Oddly enough, Woodruff also backed off his slider, in favor of a change up, which places his arsenal closer to someone like rotation mate Zach Davies than someone like Gerrit Cole or Zack Wheeler. This is not an insult, but a chance to recognize that perhaps the Brewers succeeded with their development of Woodruff (and Davies) by leaning on unconventional or contrarian industry practices.
Woodruff's change may be his most fascinating pitch of 2019, as the righty threw the offering notably harder in 2019 than 2018. However, the pitch did not "drop" more than in 2018, as the pitch instead more carefully followed the path of Woodruff's "sinker" or "secondary fastball."
Given Woodruff's relatively strange pitch adjustments in 2019, it will be interesting to see what type of arsenal brings the righty success in 2020. One could speculate that returning to the hard, rising fastball and leaning more heavily on the slider could help Woodruff work across planes throughout the strike zone. Yet, perhaps the righty builds on his unorthodox heavy sinker / moving fastball approach in 2020, separating the strike zone with a pair of pitches to change speeds -- a sinker / change combo providing one speed and plane profile, and a fastball / slider combo providing another profile. Perhaps he learns the Jordan Lyles / Chase Anderson / Jimmy Nelson curveball. What is important to note here is that the development of Woodruff solely based on his pitch arsenal may not categorically signal a successful 2020. In this case, the descriptive statistics found above, by surveying similar age-26 pitcher traits, may look more favorable for Woodruff's 2020 outlook than his pitching approach.