Brewer Spotlight

The Case for Woody: A Pitch-By-Pitch Film Study

Brandon Woodruff has pitched extremely well in Spring Training. It seems the 26-year-old is tapping into his potential at the perfect time. BREW MATHs utilizes film study to explore Woody’s progress as he competes for a spot in the 2019 rotation…


 

CAREER TRENDS

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As you can see, all the advanced metrics paint a pretty clear picture. While Woodruff has not pitched many innings on the Big League level, his sample size is large enough to give us some confidence in what we are looking at:

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Pretty impressive since every one of these metrics measures something slightly different. Early in our analysis, it appears that ‘the maths’ are on Woody’s side. Even when we factor out the environment (i.e. ERA-), all signs point to an ‘Ace-in-the-making.’

He is also improving across the board when you consider his more basic rate stats. Keep in mind, that things like K, BB and HR rates are directly reflective of things a pitcher can control. If there is improvement in these areas (over healthy sample size), it is fairly predictive of good things to come. When we graph these trends, your eyes cannot deny what they see (even if you are A Cubs Fan):

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This shows us that his walk rate has been steadily near the league average. Specifically, Woodruff has averaged 2.96 BB/9 while the MLB average is typically around 2.9 BB/9.

On the other hand, the blue line is rapidly rising. This graph shows us that the sharp rise we saw in his K/BB rate is a byproduct of striking more guys out (as opposed to walking less). The MLB Average is typically around 7.7 K/9… Woodruff has gone from 6.70 in 2017, up to 9.99 last year.

If we examine the plate discipline of the batters that Woody has faced, there are some trends to note:

  • Opposing hitters are swinging less at Woodruff’s pitches. This goes for both pitches inside the zone (Z) AND pitches outside the zone (O). Overall, there was a 5.9% decrease in opponents’ swing percentage.
  • At the same time, they are missing more which is evident in opposing batters’ contact percentages. 82.7% of swings at ‘Woody pitches’ resulted in contact in 2017. Last year, that number fell to 77.6%.

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MANUFACTURING POOR CONTACT 

Here, if you watch the slide show flip back and forth between 2017 and 2018, a colorful trend announces itself:

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  • Woodruff has added a 2-Seamer (Sinker) that strengthens his overall repertoire
  • He is not JUST relying on blowing hitters away anymore…
    • Woody is throwing less ‘grooved pitches’ and is working the edges of the zone more efficiently
    • The slider and change-up are being thrown outside the zone more. In 2018, he is using these to actually strike guys out. In his rookie year (’17), they were used more often as set-up pitches.
  • OVERALL TREND: Adding the sinker makes for a more colorful distribution. He is working lower (and glove-sided) in the zone than in the past. This minimizes risk.

  • LEFT: AHEAD in the count; strategically avoids the strike zone. He now uses his offspeed stuff to generate whiffs and this is occurring at an increasing rate.
  • RIGHT: BEHIND in the count; Woody’s top-shelf control is on display. While he still catches too much of the zone at times, he has gotten better at working the edges.

When we look to see how this has translated to run prevention, the proof is in the pudding:

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Whiff rates (or swing-and-miss %) have gotten better with every pitch in his arsenal. This has occurred at a steady rate for the four seamer, slider and change-up. So, The Brewers have a guy who can brush 100 mph on the gun and is now learning to refine his craft… A scary thought for the rest of the NL Central.

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The addition of the sinker (2-Seamer) has expanded his pitch distribution on every count, except two. Not so surprisingly, the two counts he avoids the new pitch on: 0-2 and 3-0. Thus, he is not using it as a ‘strike-out’ pitch (instead as a set-up pitch). It is promising that he is using the other three pitches to strike batters out. It implies he is growing more confident with his repertoire. The relatively even distribution of these pitches on 0-2 counts reinforces that.

These adjustments force hitters to guess more frequently. In 2018, the only count they can depend on seeing a four-seamer is 3-0. Outside of that, a batter never knows which pitch will be coming, how fast it will be or how it will move. This minimizes the reaction time of the guy in the batter’s box and expands Woody’s toolbox. This deception is reflected in how opponents launch angles (LA) fell from 9.1 (’17) to 5.3 degrees (’18). The MLB League Average LA is typically around 11 degrees.

A lower LA leads to weaker contact, more grounders and ultimately, less guys on base. Woodruff has a 54% ground ball rate, while the league average is 45%. The importance of LA is reinforced by how it tends to follow wOBA:

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A CLOSER LOOK AT HIS ARSENAL

*** ALL VIDEO VIA MLB / BASEBALL SAVANT ***

We have already alluded to the fact that Woodruff has expanded from a three pitch arsenal to a four pitch arsenal. Specifically, he has added a sinker to his repertoire which already included a four-seamer, a slider and a change-up.

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  • Four-Seamer: Has risen exactly one mile per hour from 94.3 to 95.3 mph over the past year. Generates a much higher ground ball rate than MLB Average.
    • wOBA: 0.298
    • LA: 4 degrees
    • QOPA: 4.86
    • Whiff%: 20.9 (25.7 K%)
  • Here, Woody blows it right by Bryce Harper:
  • Slider: Also slightly increased in velocity and now comes in at 86.5 mph. Of note, the spin rate also jumped up from 2148 to 2229. This implies he is learning to make it dance more. Despite this, hitters tend to turn these into fly balls much more than his other pitches.
    • wOBA: 0.295
    • LA: 11 degrees
    • QOPA: 4.42
    • Whiff%: 32.9 (24.4 K%)
  • Since this pitch does not have a lot of movement, it is heavily dependent upon placement and sequencing. If hitters guess it is coming or it catches too much of the plate, Kike Hernandez shows us what happens:
  • Change-Up: Has not changed since entering the league. It has always come in around 84.7 mph and the spin rate is the same. What makes it difficult to hit is its arm-sided fade. It leads to a lot of ground balls.
    • wOBA: 0.278
    • LA: -2 degrees
    • QOPA: 4.80
    • Whiff%: 28.3 (26.3 K%)
    • When his change-up is sprinkled in it fosters an imbalance that limits quality of contact, as follows:
  • Sinker: His fastest pitch, coming in at 96 mph, leads to more fly balls when compared to MLB average. The newest pitch in his repertoire was added in 2018. It is thrown less than 3% of the time but is effective in setting up the other pitches.
    • wOBA: 0.139 (Translation: Impossible to hit)
    • LA: 3
    • QOPA: 4.91
    • Whiff%: 28.6 (33.3 K%)
  • Here is a look at Woody’s nastiest pitch… “and please, drive home safely”:

SUMMARY / CONCLUSION

  • Brandon Woodruff’s improvements have been linear and rapid across the board.
    • VELOCITY: Increasing with every pitch except the change-up
    • PLACEMENT / CONTROL: Woodruff is using more precision when attacking hitters. He is learning to minimize risk and is hitting the edges more.
    • SEQUENCING / DECEPTION: By adding a fourth pitch, Woody has been able to keep hitters off-balance more readily. Specifically, he is using a more measured approach and is consciously setting hitters up to fail. Prior to 2018, he was much more prone to try to blow it by you.
    • CONFIDENCE: The 26-year-old is using all of his pitches on just about every kind of count. This allows him to feel more confident venturing outside the strike zone. Despite hitting the zone less, he is getting hitter’s to miss more. Woodruff is definitely putting it all together…
  • Regardless of the metric you choose and no matter how advanced it is… Woody is getting better at everything. Literally. If a couple of numbers or a few stats tend to cluster in the same direction, it might mean something… maybe not. However, when we see every single stat line-up to tell the same story… well, then you are onto something.
  • All four of Brandon Woodruff’s pitches are effective but some disparities surface upon comparison:
    • FOUR-SEAMER: Very fast with a lot of natural movement… this combo makes it very hard to catch up to, and then locate.
      • This pitch is far-and-away used more than the others (61%). While this exposes his power pitcher roots, he is developing into much more than that…
    • SLIDER: Not a lot of movement but compliments the rest of the arsenal nicely
      • When he misses with this one, it usually is hit hard
      • That said, how much it moves is improving (i.e. spin rate)
    • CHANGE-UP: A reliable source of ground balls and is used about 10% of the time. The fact that this comes in 10 mph slower than his fastball and sinker leads to a lot of weakly hit / topped balls. It also fades as opposed to the other three pitches.
    • SINKER: Nasty… just nasty. One of the fastest 2-Seam pitches in the league. This has become the pitch he will throw by someone in a pinch. Opposing hitters rarely hit it and when they do, it does not lead to production.
  • Finally, and by far, most importantly…

BRANDON WOODRUFF BELONGS IN THE 2019 MILWAUKEE BREWERS ROTATION

(And we didn’t even mention how he handles a bat…)