Brandon Woodruff: An ace you can believe in
Tuning into the 2018 postseason was eye-opening, to say the least. As a fan of an American League team, the Red Sox, I hadn’t watched much of the Brewers. It was the NLCS vs. the Dodgers and Brandon Woodruff was absolutely dealing in relief. During the course of that series, over 9.1 innings pitched, he struck out 17 batters while walking two and allowing just two earned runs. From that moment on I was in. When I learned he’d become a full-time starter in 2019, I started buying shares.
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Is Brandon Woodruff A Fantasy Ace?
During his first year as a full-time, big league starter in 2019, Brandon Woodruff was very impressive. Over the course of 22 starts and 121.2 innings pitched, he compiled stats that warranted his meager preseason investment of an early-300s ADP. He posted a 3.62 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 143 strikeouts while winning 11 games.
A key to his success in 2019 was his electric four-seam fastball which had a SwStr rate of 14.1 percent—league average on that pitch was 10.3 percent. He combined that with a sinker that generated weak contact and a groundball rate north of 50% along with a slider and a changeup that could put guys away. The problem was that his changeup and his rarely thrown curveball needed to improve as both pitches got hit hard at times. Batters slugged .562 vs the changeup and annihilated his low spin curveball to the tune of 1.250. Yeah, that slugging percentage is not a typo.
Improved Stuff in 2020
Fast-forward to 2020 and Brandon Woodruff is still dealing, but more importantly, he went to the lab and spent time improving his stuff. The first thing you’ll notice is that he increased the spin on absolutely everything. This paid off as each one of his offerings was more effective in some way than they had been the previous year.
Woodruff’s four-seam fastball, his bread and butter pitch which he throws a third of time, was fantastic. He threw 402 of them in 2020 and he posted an overall strikeout rate of 43.5% on the pitch. This was the second-best rate among starters in the league. His SwStr rate on the pitch increased to 17.7%. Only Jacob deGrom and Yu Darvish posted a better mark on their four-seamer.
The sinker, a pitch he threw 32 percent of the time in 2020, improved in quality of contact slightly in 2020 but mostly remained an elite pitch for him. The biggest change came with the reduction of his slider usage moving from 20 percent down to just 10 percent and the increased reliance on his changeup as well as a much improved curveball. After being his two weakest offerings the year prior his wOBA on the changeup dropped from .359 to .255 and his curveball dropped from .706 to .283. This gave Woodruff the confidence to throw both pitches more often. His higher spin slider also saw a huge jump in SwStr rate up to 16.8 percent from 13.3.
All told Woodruff can now attack batters with five pitches that he is fully confident in. This showed through in the results. Woodruff dropped his ERA to 3.05 and his WHIP to 0.99. He improved his strikeout to walk rate from 22.9 percent up to 24.9 percent—the ninth-best among qualified starter in 2020. While he only delivered three wins, his 73.1 innings pitched was seventh-best in baseball and he was tied for the most starts with 13. The ERA estimators loved him as well as he earned a 3.30 SIERA and 2.72 dERA.
Comparing 2019 and 2020
When you look at Brandon Woodruff’s Statcast page it is a sea of red, which is exactly what you want to see. The one area where he lagged behind in 2020 was barrel percentage, in this he was 48th percentile. Don’t let this alarm you though because his deserved numbers suggest he has more in common with the 2019 version of himself when he finished in the 94th percentile. Woodruff’s actual barrel rate in 2020 was 7.2 percent while his deserved rate was just 5.6 percent—well below the league average rate of 7.7 percent.
To sum it up, Woodruff is showing what a truly unique set of skills he has. He is extremely effective at getting ahead of hitters thanks to a 63.4 percent first pitch strike percentage—the seventh best rate among starters with at least six starts in 2020. Once Woodruff is ahead he can induce weak contact or a groundball with his sinker or he can get you to whiff with his four-seamer, slider, changeup, or curveball.
Woodruff’s zone rate is an impressive 50 percent and his stuff is so good that batters make contact less than 36 percent of the time. In fact he was able to drop his contact rate in the zone from 80.4 percent to just 74.9 percent. Only Woodruff, Lucas Giolito, Yu Darvish, Luis Castillo, and Framber Valdez had a zone rate of 50 percent or higher along with a contact percentage of 36 percent or lower (min 1000 pitches).
2021 & Dynasty Value
If there was one thing I’d like to see Brandon Woodruff do entering into 2021, its go a bit deeper into games. Right now he is squarely in the upper portion of the league with 5.6 innings pitched per start, however, if he could get into the 6+ range that would be ideal for maximizing his value. In my first crack at ranking my top 100 starters for 2021 I ranked Woodruff as my 14th pitcher. Since then I’ve pushed him up to the 10th spot previously occupied by Clayton Kershaw. For dynasty I had him at 12th in my last rankings and now I’d push him up to the 8th spot. Buy high on Woodruff as he’s likely to continue getting better.
The 2020 World Series is still going but we are already preparing for next year. Keep track of all our 2020-21 MLB Offseason Analysis.
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