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Throwing fewer fastballs is hurting Brandon Woodruff’s Cy Young Award chances

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The big right-hander needs to find a better balance with his pitch selection.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In watching Brandon Woodruff’s last two starts, it felt like he was throwing too little of his fastball and relying too much on offspeed – especially the curveball. It was most noticeable because those were among his worst outings of the season for the Milwaukee Brewers’ hurler.

Well, I’m proud to say I was correct in “feeling” his pitch usage was lacking the heat. In Woodruff’s last two starts, he threw his fastball less than 58% of the time in each game, while tossing the curve 20% and 21.6%. For the season, Woodruff uses the fastball on more than 60% of his pitches and the curveball less than 17%. Whether the change was for strategic purposes, a “feel” thing, or some other reason – it hasn’t worked.

In fact, in four of his seven starts since July 11, Woodruff has been below 60% fastball and the numbers have been ugly, especially compared with his other 20 starts.

As you can see, the hits and runs have come in bunches in those four starts where he goes away from his fastball. Is Woodruff feeling some effects of fatigue? His fastball velocity says that isn’t the case. He is still averaging around 96.5 MPH in his outings, right in line with his season output (96.6 MPH).

Perhaps he is simply struggling to find the best grip on the fastball (no Spider Tack jokes). Sometimes you just don’t “feel” a pitch well, and he certainly has had some command issues as of late. Then there is the thinking that Woodruff and the Brewers are simply trying to switch up his tendencies in an effort to keep hitters guessing. But if it doesn’t seem to be working, it’s probably best to stick with what suits Woody – the heat.

Of course, it may not be ONLY about the lessened use of the fastball. In fairness, there were three other Woodruff starts when he had a fastball percentage below 60% – once in April, once in May and once in June. And he was terrific in those outings:

20.2 IP || 3 ER || 7 H || 6 BB || 26 K

The key in those three starts, despite the under 60% fastball usage, was that Woodruff’s second-most thrown pitch was NOT the curve. Against the Arizona Diamondbacks in June he threw his changeup 19.4% of the time, the highest among his offspeed pitches. In the other two starts it was his slider that got a ton of play, using it over 22% of the time in each game.

One of those outings came against the St. Louis Cardinals when Woodruff struck out 10 batters in 7.2 innings, allowing just one run on three hits and a walk. That begs the question, why did the Brewers attack Cardinals’ hitters on Thursday with so many curveballs (20%) and so few sliders (7.1%)? The formula for success last time versus St. Louis was using the slider almost one-quarter of the time (24.5%). Sort of a mystery decision that blew up in their faces for six runs on eight hits over just five frames.

So back to these four outings since July 11 when Woodruff has thrown his fastball less than 60% of the time. In those starts, he has also tossed the curve at least 20% of the time as well. He has used the curveball that much only two other times this season, so again, odd that he has busted it out so much as we’ve gotten later in the season.

Obviously a game plan for a pitcher is rarely simple. Plus, game situations and results will dictate changes in strategy, approach and effectiveness. At the same time, I’m a firm believer in playing to your own strengths first, while being aware of your opponents’ weaknesses to exploit when necessary. For example, Harrison Bader of the Cardinals should almost never see a fastball.

In the end, it looks to me like Woodruff’s best, most consistent path to dominance is to focus on two important numbers during each start:

· Throw the fastball at least 60% of the time

· Use the curveball less than 20% of the time (ideally below 18%)

The last thing you want to do is get beat by going away from what you do best. Hopefully the Brewers and Woodruff have noticed this trend – and that a small correction leads to a great finish.