Brandon Woodruff Has Leveled Up His Changeup

Brandon Woodruff
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Woodruff has been good for years now, but he’s always flown a bit under the radar. In some ways, he can thank his rotation-mates for that: Corbin Burnes has overshadowed him with his ascension to ace status, and Eric Lauer and Freddy Peralta have taken big steps forward of their own. The lack of attention directed Woodruff’s way might also have something to do with him being a little boring. He’s been a polished pitcher with a diverse arsenal since his major league debut in 2017, and nothing has really changed about him since he broke out as a full-time starter in ’19; his performance, velocity, mechanics, and arsenal have all remained consistent. And while having the seventh-best ERA- and fifth-best FIP- in baseball since 2019 unequivocally makes him a great pitcher, he doesn’t seem to have been as big a part of the “best pitcher in baseball” conversations that happen around hypothetical water coolers as those numbers might suggest.

His start to 2022 isn’t helping him much in that regard, with a 5.18 ERA through five outings, though there’s some small-sample funkiness behind that number. Woodruff’s BABIP is 25 points higher than his career average, his LOB rate is an unsustainably low 60%, and his ERA estimators are all around where they typically have been (2.83 FIP/3.25 xFIP/3.07 xERA). I’m not worried about his long-term performance, and regardless, that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I want to focus on Woodruff’s changeup, a pitch that has been anything but boring this season and that was on full display in his most recent start against the Reds:

Most of the talk surrounding Woodruff focuses on his pair of elite, high-velocity, whiff-inducing fastballs, which he throws over 60% of the time. Otherwise, he mixes in a curve and a slider that have both served him well, even if they’ve never quite reached the level of his heaters. Woodruff’s changeup, though, has started to become a serious weapon:

Woodruff’s Changeup Improvements
Year Sample Usage SwStr% GB% wCH/C wOBA
2019 280 14.2% 15.4% 41.7% -1.15 .359
2020 213 17.6% 15.0% 59.0% -0.46 .260
2021 400 14.2% 21.5% 40.6% 1.09 .229
2022 82 17.7% 30.5% 71.4% 1.22 .182

You can see the pitch’s steady improvement over the years, and while the sample this season is small, it’s a continuation of what we saw last year. That season was the first time Woodruff’s changeup graded out positively by our pitch value metrics, and it’s putting up eye-popping numbers so far this season; nearly a third of the changeups Woodruff has thrown have led to whiffs:

Changeup Swinging Strike Rate Leaderboard
Pitcher SwStr%
Brandon Woodruff 30.5%
Tyler Anderson 27.9%
Shane McClanahan 27.8%
Lucas Giolito 26.6%
Nick Martinez 26.3%
Patrick Sandoval 26.1%
Kyle Hendricks 23.6%
Ian Anderson 23.1%
Noah Syndergaard 23.0%
Sandy Alcantara 22.9%
Among starters, 50 changeups min. (Stats through 5/4)

So how has Woodruff made his changeup this good? To start, he gets good vertical separation between his fastball and his changeup — 9.7 inches since the beginning of 2021, compared to the league average of 8.1. That is right on the threshold of an elite changeup, going off research Chris Langin has done at Driveline; his work on the historical run values of various types of changeups is based on the difference in velocity and movement off the pitcher’s fastball. Per Langin, vertical separation is the most important characteristic for a changeup’s success, and changeups more than 10 inches off of a fastball perform best. Woodruff’s changeup may not quite hit that mark, but he’s added more than two inches between the two dating back to 2019, going from below average to very good. Woodruff has also been able to make these movement improvements without altering the velocity gap between the two pitches, keeping the differential about 10 mph, or right within the 7–12 mph range for successful changeups.

Beyond the increased separation between Woodruff’s changeup and fastball, his command of it has improved as well. Woodruff has always been someone with great command overall — he routinely puts up low walk rates thanks in part to impeccable control of his two fastballs — and he came into the season with the fifth-best Location+ in baseball. You can see that in action here, with the changeup increasingly painting the low and away edge of the plate:

That’s not to say Woodruff is simply throwing it in the dirt and hoping for the best; his zone rate with the changeup is 42.7%, right around his career average. The trick is that he’s leaving fewer of them in the heart of the plate, down to a career-low 13.4%, compared to the league average of 18.3% for changeups. Woodruff’s ability to keep it away from the heart of the plate and yet still put it in the strike zone forces hitters to reckon with a pitch that starts off looking a lot like his fastball before ending up at completely opposite ends of the strike zone thanks to the increased vertical separation.

What makes the development of this pitch particularly important for Woodruff is that it’s his best weapon against lefties. He’s had strong splits throughout his career, with a .306 wOBA against lefties and a .257 wOBA against righties through 2020, but the changeup’s tailing movement away from lefties has started to turn that scouting report around. Since 2021, he’s posted a .245 wOBA against lefties and a .270 wOBA against righties. During that time, his changeup usage against lefties is up to 23.2%, more than his curveball and slider combined, and hitters have just a .237 wOBA against it, nearly a 100-point improvement from how his changeup faired against lefties in 2019 and ’20. He uses the pitch much less often against righties, about 5% of the time, but the small sample results have been extraordinary (.154 wOBA since 2021), and I think the emphasis on vertical depth has made it an offering he can go to a couple of times a game with some success.

Now that we have a better idea of some of the ways his changeup has improved, let’s see it in action. We’ll start with a fastball-centric sequence from his recent start against Cincinnati:

This is a good example of how a nasty changeup can build off a good fastball. TJ Friedl does a great job fighting off some perfectly located high-90s fuzz, but after four straight fastballs, Woodruff breaks out the secret weapon for the swinging strike three. The tunneling between the two pitches is fantastic, as you can see in the overlay at the end, and when you throw as many fastballs as Woodruff does at the velocity he throws them, it’s hard to sit on anything but his heater.

The very next batter, the reverse happens, as Woodruff sets up Tyler Naquin with a changeup and then returns to his bread and butter for the strikeout:

When Woodruff is able to command both of these pitches, he’s nearly impossible to hit, and it’s a big part of why he was able to tie his career high in strikeouts in a game (12) on just 21 batters faced.

Woodruff’s improving changeup further diversifies an already deep arsenal of pitches, and it may now be his best way to get whiffs; his swinging-strike rate is at a career-high 13.6%. Maybe that will be enough to get his name into that best pitcher in baseball conversation.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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Jorge Soler vs Train (UNEXPECTED)member
1 year ago

With 4 straight years of changeup improvements, at what point do you assume Brandon Woodruff has no limits and continues to improve and approach infinity?

1 year ago

I want to use the word “asymptote” here but I don’t know how.