A Data Point in the Matter of Brandon Woodruff’s Command

Attempts to measure and/or quantify command have proven elusive. It’s a different thing than control, almost certainly, and it likely isn’t fully represented by control-oriented metrics such as walk rate or zone rate or first-pitch strike rate. Command is informed not merely by a pitcher’s capacity to throw strikes but rather by his body’s ability to execute the pitch his mind — and his catcher and maybe his manager — has requested.

Of course, the reader needn’t rely on a loathsome weblogger’s views on the matter. Here’s actual major-league pitcher Ryan Buchter meditating on the same concept in a post published by Eno Sarris just today.

When he’s stuck in a bad count, the lefty digs in. “I just pick out a spot and throw a ball just out of the zone,” he says. “To right-handers, I miss off the plate away. I’m not going to give in. I’m not going to throw the ball down the middle and hope it works out. It’s not like I’m wild. I’m not throwing fastballs to the backstop or in the dirt. I’m just not giving in to hitters. If I’m throwing outside, I’m just throwing outside. Even if it’s a lefty up and a righty on deck, and I fall behind, I don’t give in. That’s my game.”

Buchter cites a certain instance in which he’s throwing balls out of the zone on purpose. Superficially, he’s exhibiting poor control. In reality, he’s demonstrating good command.

Despite entering the season having produced only modest success in the low minors, right-handed Milwaukee prospect Brandon Woodruff was nevertheless well regarded. Of Woodruff, Dan Farnsworth wrote the following in his evaluation of the Brewers system:

One Brewers source put Woodruff’s status best: his numbers don’t do his talent justice. He still has plenty of potential with a quality delivery and stuff, and has had stretches of real dominance in the past year and a half. He will start in either High-A or Double-A, and the Brewers are hoping this is the year he really puts himself on the map, with his ongoing oblique issue from last year hopefully behind him.

The current post exists because Woodruff has recently put himself on the map real hard. After producing one of the top strikeout- and walk-rate differentials (22.2 points) across all High-A, Woodruff has recorded almost exactly the same numbers with Double-A Biloxi. Over the past month, the effect has been exaggerated. In six starts and 38.0 innings since July 8, Woodruff has recorded strikeout and walk rates of 32.4% and 2.9%, respectively. For reference, consider: Woodruff’s strikeout mark would represent the highest among qualified Double-A pitchers by over seven points; his walk, the lowest by half a point.

The strikeouts are almost certainly informed — in part, at least — by Woodruff’s terrific arm speed. Two years ago, erstwhile lead prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel conveyed reports of Woodruff’s fastball sitting in the 94-97 mph range. More recent observations suggest the right-hander is currently visiting the upper bound of that range with regularity. Pat Kelly, coach of Southern League rival and Reds affiliate Pensacola, recently referred to Woodruff’s four-seamer as a “97 mph fastball.” Meanwhile, Woodruff’s pitching coach with the Shuckers, Chris Hook, suggested that the velocity of the pitch has been “anywhere from 95 and 97.” All things being equal, velocity is a benefit.

The combination simultaneously of Woodruff’s physical tools and in-game success — the sort of success (measured by strikeouts and walks) that’s predictive of future success, as well — suggest that he’s probably well-equipped to handle major-league batters in the near future. Not to dominate them, necessarily, but certainly to compete against them. Which, even that might seem like an optimistic assessment of a pitcher who entered the season absent from every top-100 list and ranked as the Brewers’ 31st-best prospect before the season per Baseball America. But pitcher development is swift — marked not by slowly rising and descending trend lines but jagged and improbable improvements and attrition — and reassessments of pitchers have to be appropriately swift, as well.

The purpose of this post is to serve as a sort of reassessment of Brandon Woodruff. But only accidentally. In reality, the purpose of this post was merely to serve as a sort of annotation to the video footage that appears at the top of it. That footage is from the top of the fourth of Woodruff’s most recent start, against the Pensacola club mentioned previously. After Pensacola shortstop Zach Vincej quickly fell into an 0-2 count, Biloxi catcher Jacob Nottingham called for a fastball on the outside corner. Nottingham settled into a kind of split, not unlike the sort Tony Pena used to assume with the Pirates and Red Sox and probably other teams. Woodruff threw a fastball directly over that outside corner for a called strike three.

What can one pitch reveal about whoever’s thrown it? Well, this particular pitch reveals that, no fewer than one times, Brandon Woodruff has exhibited flawless command of his fastball. That’s an improvement over zero times — anyone would have to agree. And there’s what else this pitch has done — namely, to provide any sort of pretense upon which to contemplate Brandon Woodruff.

We hoped you liked reading A Data Point in the Matter of Brandon Woodruff’s Command by Carson Cistulli!

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Joe W
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Joe W

Who has time to discuss Woodruff’s command when his battery mate is in dire need of a surgeon to reposition his legs back to normal.