Brandon Woodruff Continues To Be Brandon Woodruff

Brandon Woodruff
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t have much in the way of groundbreaking analysis for you today. I’m here to write about something that’s pretty obvious: Brandon Woodruff is still awfully good. You probably knew that already without fancy stats or gory math. The Milwaukee right-hander owns a career 3.08 ERA and 3.18 FIP. He has been good at just about every point since his rookie year in 2017. Still, I’d like to address a few of the reasons that his continued success is a big deal. So until I get to the part where I can dazzle you with numbers, I will at least try to drop in some fun facts here and there.

Woodruff originally hit the IL with shoulder inflammation back in April, after making just two starts that were — stop me if you’ve heard this before — very good. His shoulder inflammation turned out to be a Grade 2 subscapular strain. The subscapularis is the largest muscle in your rotator cuff, and doctors can diagnose a subscapular tear using three tests with excellent names: the lift-off test, the bear hug test, and the belly press test. Sadly, none of these tests is quite as fun as it sounds.

Woodruff missed four months (the average gestation period of an armadillo). Since returning on August 6, he’s made seven starts, running a 2.22 ERA and a 3.54 FIP and averaging 10.07 strikeouts per nine innings. You could make a strong argument that he was the best pickup any team made at the trade deadline. He’s also been working progressively deeper into games, a trend that culminated in his first career complete game on Monday, when he shut out the Marlins on six hits and one walk. Here are his inning totals from those seven starts in chronological order: 5, 6.1, 5.1, 6, 6, 7, 9.

As Woodruff has pitched only nine times this year and seven times since his return, it’s hard to make any big conclusions from his numbers. He’s running a 1.93 ERA with a .189 BABIP that’s the second-lowest among all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 50 innings and an absurd 94.1% strand rate that’s second-highest. That’s obviously not sustainable. He has a 2.75 xERA, 89 DRA-, 3.53 FIP, and 3.65 xFIP; the last three numbers are all the worst since his rookie year, but they’re still plenty good. The regression monster will come for Woodruff eventually, but it won’t turn him into a pumpkin. Incidentally, the word ‘pumpkin’ came to English from the French word pompone. Before it got the K, it was pronounced ‘pumpion,’ which I think we can all agree is pretty fun.

Still, there are a couple of indicators that I’m interested in watching. First, Woodruff’s contact quality metrics have now taken a jump in the wrong direction in each of the last two seasons:

Brandon Woodruff Is Getting Hit Harder
Year EV HardHit% Barrel% HH wOBA HH xwOBA
2021 86.2 32.4% 5.8% .568 .632
2022 88.7 36.8% 7.0% .629 .619
2023 89.7 42.7% 6.1% .534 .541
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Over the course of three seasons, his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate have gone from excellent to average to borderline bad. But take a look at the three columns on the right. Despite allowing all that extra hard contact, Woodruff’s barrel rate is about the same, and both his wOBA and expected wOBA are better than they’ve ever been, even when we focus specifically on hard-hit balls. Some of this is because of the distribution: more hard-hit grounders and fewer hard-hit fly balls. Some is trickier to explain.

This year, 38% of Woodruff’s fly balls and line drives have been pulled, up more than 12 percentage points from last season. They’ve also been hit more than two miles per hour harder and traveled more than 15 feet farther. This should be a recipe for disaster, yet his xwOBA on those air balls is up only 61 points from last season, and his wOBA is actually down. The explanation for this starts with the fact that all of those exit velocity gains came on line drives. And here’s the thing about line drives: they don’t go for homers all that often, and they usually fall in for hits anyway.

Brandon Woodruff’s Line Drives and Fly Balls
Year LD EV% LD Distance FB EV FB Distance FB LA PU%
2021 91 242 90.3 316 36.7 6.5
2022 93.9 253 91.3 308 37.6 8.7
2023 96.2 255 91 292 41.4 10.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

I don’t know to what extent a pitcher can actually control this, but if I’m Brandon Woodruff, I’m happy to funnel hard contact into line drives and away from fly balls. Why should I care if your surefire double hits the wall 2.3 mph harder? In contrast, Woodruff’s average exit velocity on fly balls is down slightly this season, and his launch angle is way up, coinciding with a jump in popup rate. He is working up in the zone more often this season, and so far it’s led to much more manageable contact when batters elevate the ball. There’s probably a bit of luck going on here, too, and it can’t hurt that Milwaukee’s defense ranks first in OAA and second in DRS.

Woodruff is also getting more extension than ever on nearly all of his pitches and has dropped his release point slightly. The latter is the continuation of a long trend:

The extra inch or so of extension has kept Woodruff’s perceived velocity exactly the same as it was last year at 96.5 mph, even though his actual velocity has dropped by 0.4 mph. His four-seamer has also traded half an inch of run for half an inch of ride, and his breaking pitches are dropping less as well:

Four-Seam and Breaking Stuff+
Season Four-Seam Slider Curve Overall
2021 117 123 117 114
2022 118 113 108 114
2023 126 108 84 115

As you can see, Stuff+ likes this tradeoff for his four-seamer, but not so much for his breaking stuff. Since vertical movement is usually the key to swing-and-miss, it’s not surprising that Woodruff’s whiff rate is up on the four-seamer and down on the breaking balls. So far that swap has been worth it, and there is one benefit to having less break on your curve and slider: it’s easier to throw them for strikes.

Woodruff’s Breaking Balls
Year Zone% Whiff% CS% Strike%
2022 42.3 35.4 22.3 46.9
2023 56.7 29.6 33.1 54.8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Woodruff has drastically increased the number of breaking balls he throws in the zone, and all the called strikes have more than made up for the whiffs. Still, throwing those breaking pitches in the zone has also led to a spike in contact quality.

In all, Woodruff has traded some walks for some strikeouts and managed a huge jump in contact quality. I don’t know if he’ll keep pitching the way he has been through his first nine starts, but if he does, at some point all those extra hard-hit balls will likely catch up with him to some extent. But again, if Woodruff just sees the results his FIP thinks he should have, he’ll be running a 3.54 ERA. This year, only 29 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings with an ERA better than 3.54. The Brewers would absolutely take that version of Woodruff down the stretch and into the playoffs.

That brings me to my final point. As Ben Clemens documented back when the postseason schedule came out, the number of off-days in the calendar means that rotational depth is less important this year. Even if the NLDS and NLCS go the full five and seven games, an NL team could get through to the World Series without using its fourth starter more than once. That’s great news for a team with a dominant top three like Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta. Over each of their most recent starts, that trio has allowed a combined eight hits and one run. I know I wouldn’t want to face those three in October.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 months ago

Great summary of Woodruff. Could you provide a link to where you found the perceived velocity for Woodruff? It would be interesting to take a look at the rest of the pitchers.

7 months ago
Reply to  Davy Andrews

Thank you very much!