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After a breakout 2019, Brandon Woodruff is poised to become a long-term fixture atop the Brewers rotation

The rotation has lacked a consistent leader since Yovani Gallardo’s departure. The emerging flamethrower is a strong candidate to fill that role.

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

At this time last season, the Milwaukee Brewers had decided to open the year with Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta all in their starting rotation. Burnes employed an approach that featured lots of thigh-high fastballs and crashed and burned almost immediately. The inconsistency that plagued Peralta in his rookie season worsened in his sophomore campaign, but a significant velocity jump after moving to the bullpen created optimism about his potential as a reliever.

As Burnes and Peralta worked through their struggles, Woodruff authored a breakout season and emerged as Milwaukee’s clear top starter. In 22 starts, he posted a strong 3.62 ERA (82 ERA-).

This certainly wasn’t the first time that Milwaukee saw someone break out and emerge as the rotation’s top dog. In 2016, it was Taylor Jungmann who stepped up with a solid rookie season. Few expected much from waiver claim Junior Guerra (with the exception of Brew Crew Ball’s own Kyle Lesniewski), but he emerged as the #2016BrewersAce, posting a sparkling 2.81 ERA (67 ERA-) in 20 starts. Chase Anderson had a similar breakout the following year. With the help of pitching coach Derek Johnson, Jhoulys Chacin went all-in on his slider, and it carried him to a 3.50 ERA in a league-leading 35 starts.

Unfortunately, the newfound success for all of these pitchers proved to be limited to those particular seasons. Anderson and Guerra managed to remain useful—or even underrated—pieces for a few more years, but they never came anywhere close to matching the results of their breakout campaigns. Jungmann and Chacin crashed and burned. All four are with different organizations now, and only two have guaranteed MLB roster spots. Because all but Jungmann took the hill on Opening Day for these respective seasons, it has led some to believe in the existence of an Opening Day curse for Brewers starting pitchers.

How does Woodruff’s breakout season stack up to those of the temporary aces that have gone before him? Is he just another one-year wonder, or will Milwaukee finally have a pitcher than can anchor its staff for the long run?

To answer this question, we need to dive deeper into what was going on underneath the hood with each pitcher. ERA doesn’t tell the complete story of how effective a pitcher truly was or what their true talent level is. Here’s how every starter’s ERA estimators compared to their actual ERA. League-adjusted strikeout to walk ratio is also included for good measure.

Brewers breakout starting pitchers, 2016-present

Name Taylor Jungmann Junior Guerra Chase Anderson Jhoulys Chacin Brandon Woodruff
Name Taylor Jungmann Junior Guerra Chase Anderson Jhoulys Chacin Brandon Woodruff
ERA 3.77 2.81 2.74 3.50 3.62
FIP 3.92 3.71 3.58 4.03 3.01
DRA 4.39 4.19 4.13 4.51 3.23
SIERA 4.11 4.42 4.14 4.59 3.60
xERA 4.19 3.83 3.33 4.36 3.51
K/BB+ 85 92 130 85 176

By looking at the table above, it becomes evident quickly that Jungmann, Guerra, Anderson, and Chacin were all over-performing their underlying metrics, many times to a significant extent. Enter Woodruff, whose estimators were better than his bottom-line ERA.

For further comparison, let’s turn to the Statcast breakdowns for each pitcher’s career season.

Once again, the flame-throwing hurler stands out from the rest. The only one who comes close is 2017 Chase Anderson, but Woody throws harder and outdid him in FIP, DRA, SIERA, walk rate, and strikeout rate. After making adjustments for the league environment, Woodruff (who had to pitch with the juiced ball) also has the upper hand in average exit velocity and barrel rate. Last season, the big righty demonstrated that not only can he get significantly more swings and misses than those other starters, but he was also among the best in the game at missing barrels and inducing weak contact.

The one-year wonders had peripherals and arsenals that more closely resembled a solid #4 or #5 starter than a bona fide ace, which pokes a sizable hole in the theory that Brewers Opening Day starters are cursed. Furthermore, all but Jungmann were closer to the back halves of their professional careers; at age 27, Woodruff is entering what figures to be his prime. That ought to be comforting for fans, because whenever baseball can safely return to our lives, the emerging talent is all but guaranteed to get the nod for the season’s inaugural contest.

No one should be proclaiming Woodruff to be a capital-A Ace just yet. He still has plenty of room for development. As strong as his work on the mound was, an oblique injury limited him to just 121 23 innings. The most innings he has thrown as a professional came in 2016, when he started 28 games and worked 158 frames. While his 2019 showing is enough to generate plenty of optimism about his future, a 22-start sample of data does not guarantee anything. The young righty needs to prove that he can be durable — a vital attribute for the leader of a team’s pitching staff.

Woodruff also carried a platoon split last season. While he dominated right-handed hitters, opponents fared much better against him from the left side. They slashed .265/.332/.431 with a .333 wOBA and eight home runs. According to Baseball-Reference, that line translated to a 100 sOPS+, meaning that Woodruff’s performance against lefties was exactly league average. That’s hardly a crippling split, but further refining his changeup (.364 wOBA) and becoming tougher on lefties would help elevate the promising young starter to the next level.

The Brewers have lacked a consistent presence at the front of their rotation since Yovani Gallardo’s eight-year run with the club ended after the 2014 season. In the years since, the team has seen someone new step up every year to anchor their staff, but only temporarily. Brandon Woodruff isn’t like them; his recent success runs much deeper than surface-level ERA. It’s rooted not only in his powerful right arm, but also in his ability to adapt and exceed at multiple components of pitching. By executing his power fastball at the top of the zone and pairing his breaking ball with his new two-seamer, the towering right-hander excelled at generating swings and misses, limiting walks, and inducing weak contact.

Milwaukee has long waited for a pitcher to anchor their staff long term. Woodruff, who is entering his age-27 season and is under club control through 2024, is a great candidate to seize that role.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference.