It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a player is a finished product when he arrives in the big leagues for the first time. Guys like Ronald Acuna, Kris Bryant, Alex Bregman, and Chris Paddack are just a few examples of players who have come up and dominated from the get-go in recent years. But the reality for most MLB players is that there is an adjustment period — and often times a lengthy one — before they become the best versions of themselves at the game’s highest level.
Now in his third season with the Milwaukee Brewers, things are coming together for 26 year old Brandon Woodruff.
The former 11th-round draft pick had fans and analysts alike dreaming on his potential by 2016, when he captured the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award after a season of dominating Southern League batters for the Biloxi Shuckers. He worked to a 3.01 ERA in 113.2 innings at the Double-A level that year, punching out 124 batters against only 30 walks. The right-hander appeared primed to make a major impact in Milwaukee’s rotation in the very near future.
But Woodruff’s first trial in the Cream City the following year did not go as hoped. He made eight starts down the stretch as the Brewers chased a Wild Card berth, but contributed only a 4.81 ERA in 43.0 innings. Deserved Run Average thought he was fortunate to pitch even at that level, valuing Woodruff’s work at 20% worse than the league average. Milwaukee wound up falling one game short of the postseason.
Woodruff spent the year riding the shuttle and shifting between roles throughout the 2018 season, but he settled into a bullpen role once September rolled around. He wound up becoming an integral part of Craig Counsell’s 27-outs philosophy, allowing one run in 12.1 innings during the final month of the season as the Milwaukee Nine chased down the Cubs for the division title. He was the opener in game one of the NLDS and went long after ‘The Wade Miley Gambit’ in game five of the NLCS, ultimately allowing three runs in 12.1 playoff frames with 20 strikeouts against three walks. Though in the end the team was eliminated in the NLCS, the front office’s confidence in their young trio of arms — Woodruff, along with Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta — was sky high, and all three were all named as part of the starting rotation to begin 2019.
As the annual Memorial Day milestone approaches, Woodruff is the only one of the young guns left standing in the starting five. There were some rough lines during the first month of the season, but the right-hander’s underlying statistics suggested that brighter things were ahead. The tide started to turn during an April 27th start against the New York Mets. Over five starts since then, Woodruff has allowed a mere five runs across 30 innings, culminating in his 8-innings, two-run performance last time out against the Braves.
For the whole of his 10 starts in 2019, Woodruff has accumulated 56.1 innings with a 3.51 ERA, 18% better than league-average by adjusted ERA-. The estimators say that his actual performance has been even better than the run prevention numbers suggest, with his FIP- coming in at 76 and DRA- at 72. Zach Davies and Gio Gonzalez may have lower earned run averages, but it is Woodruff — the team’s leader in innings pitched — who has arguably the strongest case as the rotation’s best starting pitcher.
In the 2018 version of the Baseball Prospectus Annual, it was written that “[s]haky command — specifically the ability to locate quality strikes within the strike zone — held him back...the development of his ability to separate strikes from good strikes will determine whether he sticks in the rotation or transitions to a late-inning relief role.” Woodruff has routinely filled up the strike zone at the big league level, averaging 2.98 BB/9 and 2.93 BB/9 during his first two seasons with Milwaukee. But according to BP’s command metric Called Strikes Above Average, Woodruff was below average when it came to hitting his spots in 2017 and 2018.
This season, though, Woodruff’s CSAA score has improved quite a bit, vaulting him up the leaderboard to currently the 65th percentile among all pitchers in the league. His walk rate has fallen to 2.73 BB/9. The improvement in command, as well as an uptick in stuff, has helped Woodruff take his bat-missing abilities to new heights. He has maintained his 95.8 MPH four-seam fastball velocity even while working solely from of the rotation, which ranks as the 11th-firmest among qualified MLB starters this season. He’s also kept the sinker he added to his repertoire last September and has featured it 15.7% of the time this year, giving him a different look that helps differentiate his heaters by movement and location in the zone. As one would expect, Woodruff features his four-seamer up in the strike zone, while he keeps the sinker in his low, arm-side portion of the strike zone.
Woodruff is up to an 11.7% swinging strike rate on the year, which would be a career-high. He’s also averaging a career-best 10.38 K/9, with 42 of his 65 strikeouts coming on his four-seam fastball. The four-seamer has seen a three-point rise in whiff rate from last season, up to 13.66%. According to linear weights from Pitch Info listed on Fangraphs, Woody’s +6.1 weighted four-seam runs above average ranks his heater as the 11th-most valuable in the game this year. The sinker has been effective, too, generating +1.7 runs.
Development in baseball is rarely a linear process, and after parts of two seasons getting his feet wet and taking his lumps at the big league level, Brandon Woodruff is stepping his game up in 2019 by getting better at what he was already good at. He’s filling the zone up with more quality strikes, playing his two fastballs off of each other to generate tons of strikeouts and give his team a chance to win just about every time out. The red-bearded hurler, who won’t be eligible to hit free agency until at least 2024, looks to be well on the way towards actualizing his ceiling as an impact starting pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers and has the chance to be a big part of the pitching staff for a long time.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Brooks Baseball