Sunday Notes: Brandon Woodruff Ponders Pitching Backwards by David Laurila May 9, 2021 Brandon Woodruff has quietly been one of the better pitchers in the National League since the start of the 2019 season. In 42 starts comprising 237 innings, the Milwaukee Brewers right-hander has 285 strikeouts to go with a 3.11 ERA and a 2.93 FIP. The last of those numbers is equal to Shane Bieber’s mark over the same period. A big reason for Woodruff’s success is a repertoire adjustment he made midway through the 2018 season. As he explained in an article that ran here at FanGraphs last April, he began throwing both two- and four-seam fastballs. Neither is anything to write home about movement-wise, but paired together and sequenced well they’re a formidable combo. As Woodruff told me at the time, “It’s hard for the hitter to distinguish which one is going to be coming.” Pitchers often “pitch backwards,” throwing breaking pitches in fastball counts, and vice versa. Thinking back to what Woodruff had told me, an idea crossed my mind: is it possible to pitch backwards with two different fastballs? I asked the 28-year-old Tupelo, Mississippi native that question in a Zoom call. “I see what you’re trying to say,” Woodruff replied. “With the two different fastballs, I don’t have to revert to the off-speed as much.” Interjecting, I posited that hitters may be anticipating a two-seamer in certain counts and situations, while at other times an elevated fastball might be in order. “I definitely understand that,” answered Woodruff, who has a 1.73 ERA and a 2.21 FIP on the season. “I think that’s part of who I am, and part of my success. My foundation is my two different fastballs. I’ve heard from guys about the difficulty of one that rides more, and one that runs. I’ve tried to make each pitch better to help them complement each other. So yeah, I see what you’re saying. That’s the difficult part for a hitter, not being able to sit on just one.” So far this season, Woodruff has thrown 36.1% four-seamers at an average velocity of 96.9 mph, and 27.7% two-seamers at an average velocity of 96.7 mph. Add in an array of curveballs, sliders, and changeups — he throws each of his secondaries roughly 12% of the time — and hitters definitely don’t know what’s coming. That’s true even when they get a fastball. It could be either version, and often it’s the one they’re least expecting. Whether that qualifies as Woodruff pitching backwards is a matter of opinion. ——— Riley Greene is playing for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves as the tender age of 20, which is testament to his advanced approach. According to our own Eric Longenhagen, the 2019 first-round pick has skills “comparable to those of the polished college draftees in their mid-20s.” No. 5 on our Detroit Tigers Top Prospects list, Greene possesses a sky-high ceiling. Those lofty expectations come with a price. Unfair as it might be — again, he’s only 20 — Greene is very much under a microscope. Impatient with a slow-to-gain-steam rebuild, the Motown fanbase is desperate to see the organization’s young talent thrive. SeaWolves box scores will be followed closely this summer, and Greene’s name will figure prominently in those perusals. Erie’s manager is experienced when it comes to tutoring high-profile prospects. Arnie Beyeler’s three-plus decades in the game include managerial stints with Boston’s Double-A and Triple-A affiliates when Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, and Josh Reddick — to name just three — were matriculating to the majors. I asked Beyeler how Greene compares in terms of tools. “It’s all about experience,” said Beyeler. “Riley’s a pretty good player. That’s kind of all I’m going to say with that. But I’ve been fortunate to be around some pretty good players in my time. Getting to be around [Greene] brings back some good memories of the Portland and Pawtucket days. We all know Double-A is a big step for guys — we kind of separate guys when they get Double-A and Triple-A — and hopefully Riley will continue to develop and turn into the kind of player we think he can be.” Having covered the Red Sox system during Beyeler’s Boston years, I didn’t want to let him get away with a comp-free response. My follow-up elicited the type of answer I was hoping for. “He’s a pretty-free-spirited kid who just loves to play,” Beyeler said of Greene. “Josh was the same way, and Ells was the same way. But they’re different types of players. Red was a little more speed, big arm, big defense, an athletically-wiry guy. Riley’s a little stronger already and has a little more power, but he still plays good defense and he throws the ball well. It’s a different dynamic, but fun to watch. There’s a lot of ceiling there.” Beyeler proceeded to add words of caution. “As you saw with all those Red Sox guys, when we had them in Portland, they could all play,” Beyeler told me. “A lot of them got to the big leagues, but a lot of them didn’t stay there like Red, Ells, and Jed did. Injuries come into that, and the game comes into that. It’s who adjusts and who doesn’t.” Greene has played five games at the Double-A level and is 5 for 21 with a home run. He’ll be old enough to buy a drink this coming October. ——— RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS Joe Morgan went 20 for 44 against Tony Cloninger. Rick Monday went 20 for 49 against Dick Ruthven. Yadier Molina went 20 for 52 against Homer Bailey. Don Money went 20 for 56 against Dave Goltz. Mickey Morandini went 20 for 57 against John Smoltz. ——— Alika Williams has admirable attributes — Eric Longenhagen has described the 21-year-old Tampa Bay Rays prospect as “an acrobatic defensive shortstop with great feel for contact” — but he also has question marks. Drafted 37th overall out of Arizona State University, Williams lacks, in Longenhagen’s opinion, both present power and a stroke conducive to handing velocity at the top of the zone. Armed with that information, I asked the infielder about his offensive game. “I’m a big bat-on-ball guy,” said Williams, who is No. 28 on our Rays Top Prospects list. “This offseason I put on substantial weight [15 pounds] and some strength, and during spring training I was hitting the ball little harder. I had a lot of extra-base hits and hopefully all the work we were able to put in is going to translate into more power That’s the biggest question people really have, but I really think it will come around.” The ASU product has likewise focused on elevated velocity — “we were pumping up the machine” — with much of the efforts coming with the help of his old Sun Devils hitting coach over the offseason. Asked if a swing change was part of that process, Williams told me that it wasn’t. Switching to the defensive side of the ball, I asked the San Diego native whom he compares to style-wise. He told me that a lot of people have likened him to Trea Turner, although it’s a shortstop from his home state that he’s modeled his game after. Williams grew up a fan of San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford and has tried to copy what he does in the field. ——— FIRST-WEEK FARM REPORT Vidal Bruján is 9 for 21 with four home runs for the Triple-A Durham Bulls. The 23-year-old second baseman is No. 4 on our Tampa Bay Rays Top Prospects list. Seth Beer is 6 for 14 with three doubles and a home run for the Triple-A Reno Aces. The 24-year-old first-baseman is No. 16 on our Arizona Diamondbacks Top Prospects list. Heliot Ramos is 8 for 18 with a pair of doubles and two home runs for the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels. The 21-year-old outfielder is No. 3 on our San Francisco Giants Top Prospects list. Ronny Mauricio is 7 for 19 with four doubles and two home runs for the high-A Brooklyn Cyclones. The 20-year-old shortstop is No. 2 on our New York Mets Top Prospects list. Anthony Volpe is 7 for 22 with four doubles, a triple, and four stolen bases for the low-A Tampa Tarpons. The 20-year-old shortstop is No. 14 on our New York Yankees Top Prospects list. Jhonkensy Noel is 9 for 21 with three doubles and three home runs for the low-A Lynchburg Hillcats. The 19-year-old corner infielder is No. 47 on our Cleveland Indians Top Prospects list. ——— A quiz: Which pitcher has the most wins in Kansas City Royals franchise history? The answer can be found below. ——— NEWS NOTES Del Crandall, an eight-time All-Star during his 16 big-league seasons, died earlier this week at age 91. A catcher, Crandall was the last surviving member of the Boston Braves. Armour was re-elected as SABR’s President, while Todd Lebowitz was re-elected as the organization’s Secretary. Tara Krieger was voted to the Board of Directors, outpolling Tyrone Brooks and Alex Marks for that position. The Texas Rangers have hired Deron Willman as a Senior Director of R&D and Applications. The brains behind Baseball Savant, Willman has worked with MLB for the last five years. ——— The answer to the quiz is Paul Splittorff, who recorded all of his 166 career wins with the Royals. Dennis Leonard is second in franchise history with 144 wins. ——— Splittorff was a southpaw who pitched from 1970-1984, an era where strikeouts were far less prevalent than they are today. They certainly didn’t play much of a role in Splittorff’s success. A prototypical crafty-lefty, he averaged 3.7 strikeouts per nine innings over the course of his career, K-ing as many as 10 in a game just twice. Splittorff tossed 17 shutouts, two of them one-hitters. It remains possible to dominate a game without a power arsenal. John Means and Wade Miley threw no-hitters this past week, and did so in a manner that would have made Splittorff proud. There wasn’t much velocity, and neither of the lefties features a knee-buckling breaking ball. What they did was put on old-fashioned pitching clinics. It wasn’t sexy, but it sure was fun to watch. ——— Velocity continues to go up, and breaking balls are nastier than ever. Much for those reasons, pitchers are relying less on scouting reports and mostly just going with their own strengths. How accurate is that assessment? I posed that question to Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Chris Holt earlier this week. “It depends on the pitcher, and it depends on who you’re facing,” said Holt. “I think the big distinction here is, when you look at relievers that have high-octane weapons, they come in and throw those weapons through the zone. Really good relievers do that. “The best pitchers in the game that I see, including many of our own guys, are doing a combination of both. They are using their strengths against hitters’ weaknesses or behaviors. To leverage both makes really good sense to me. That said, pitchers will tell you, day in and day out, ‘I’m going to go with my strength, because I know what I can execute’. At the end of the day, it’s really about what they can be aggressive with, and be on attack with.” ——— SIX EARLY-MAY NOTABLES Xander Bogaerts played in his 1,000th game on Thursday, making him the 30th player in Boston Red Sox franchise history to reach that mark. The 28-year-old native of Aruba has appeared in 937 of those games as a shortstop, the 3rd-highest total at that position in franchise history. Cleveland’s four-game sweep of the Royals this week marked the first time in the 48-year history of Kauffman Stadium that the club swept a four-game series in Kansas City. The Philadelphia Phillies have played 15 one-run games, the most of any team, and have gone 9-6. The Oakland A’s have the best record in one-run games, at 8-2. The Minnesota Twins are 12-12 in nine-inning games and 0-7 in Calvinball games. The Texas Rangers are 4-0 in Calvinball games and 12-18 in nine-inning games. Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitchers have thrown 194 innings and walked 35 batters. Los Angeles Angels starting pitchers have thrown 151 innings and walked 73 batters. Pittsburgh Pirates relievers have thrown 119 innings and walked 39 batters. Cincinnati Reds relievers have thrown 120 innings and walked 76 batters. ——— Circling back to what I asked Holt, I presented Orioles hitting coach Don Long with the same question. His response was lengthy, and as it segued into more-general thoughts on hitting approach, I’ll simply share the initial part of his answer. “Well, I think you see a lot more pitchers who are less interested in spotting the ball,” replied Long. “It’s more stuff over command and control. They’re trying to command the ball around the strike zone, but control within the strike zone is not as important. And quite frankly, you see more elevated four-seam fastballs than in years past. And you see a higher frequency of off-speed stuff. Hitters, to be able to adjust to that… it’s a constant game of back and forth. It used to be a lot of sinker-slider-changeup type guys trying to pitch down in the zone. God forbid if a pitcher was ever taught to pitch up in the zone.” ——— FOREIGN AFFAIRS The Hanshin Tigers have NPB’s best record at 23-10-1. A total of 54 NPB games have ended in a tie. Masahiro Tanaka allowed four runs over seven innings yesterday as the Rakuten Golden Eagles fell 4-1 to the Nippon Ham Fighters. Tanaka is 2-2 on the season. Adam Conley has opted out of his contract with Rakuten due to the worsening coronavirus situation in Japan. The former Miami Marlins left-hander had agreed to a deal with the NPB club over the offseason. Yuya Yanagi has 47 strikeouts and six walks in 39 innings pitched for the Dragons. The 27-year-old right-hander has allowed 27 hits and boasts a 2.08 ERA. Kevin Cron is slashing .239/.280/.423 with the Hiroshima Carp. The erstwhile Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman has three home runs in 75 plate appearances. Ryon Healy is slashing .255/.294/.353 with the KBO’s Hanwha Eagles. The former Seattle and Oakland infielder has one home run in 109 plate appearances. The Samsung Lions boast the KBO’s best record, at 18-12. KBO contests can finish in ties — games are capped at 12 innings — but there have been none so far this season. ——— Here is something I shared on social media following the announcement that Albert Pujols was designated for assignment by the Los Angeles Angels. It will make sense if you’re a fan of a certain Canadian rock band. Conversely, if you’re not familiar with frontman (and huge baseball fan) Geddy Lee, this will likely go over your head: Albert Pujols has 2112 RBI & with no team in a rush to sign him this could signal a farewell to kings. Pujols performed w/ grace under pressure for years — unlike counterparts he wasn’t fly by night — so while all the world’s a stage, only vapor trails remain. Exit stage left. ——— LINKS YOU’LL LIKE At Royals Review, Bradford Lee looked back at some old Kansas City Royals game programs. The Athletic’s Tim Britton wrote about how the Triple-A PawSox are no more, but their legacy lives on in broadcast booths nationwide. Randy Holt explored Carson Kelly’s offensive emergence for Beyond The Box Score. Joe Musgrove is a constant bringer of good vibes, and Pedro Moura explained why at Fox Sports. Ernest Hemingway rarely mentioned baseball in his writing, but according to the legendary author’s 92-year old son he was a fan of the game. Jon Caroulis has the story at BallNine. ——— RANDOM FACTS AND STATS Albert Pujols played 1,181 games with the Angels and had 1,180 hits. Erick Aybar played 1,220 games with the Angels and had 1,223 hits In 1940, Ken Keltner played in 149 games and had 51 walks and 56 strikeouts. In 1941, Ken Keltner played in 149 games and had 51 walks and 56 strikeouts. From 1932-1937, catcher Rick Ferrell had yearly walk totals of 66, 70, 66, 65, 65, 65. His strikeout totals were 18, 23, 20, 15, 17, 22. Dallas Braden threw a perfect game on today’s date in 2010 as the Oakland A’s topped the Tampa Bay Rays by a score of 4-0. Gabe Kapler grounded to short for the final out. On today’s date in 1918, Babe Ruth went 5 for 5 with three doubles and a triple as the Boston Red Sox fell to the Washington Senators 4-3 in 10 innings. Ruth went the distance for the loss, while Walter Johnson got the win in relief. On May 7, 1998, the Mariners left 16 runners on base in a 6-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. Seattle stranded at least one runner in scoring position in all nine innings. On May 12, 1955, Sam Jones became the first African-American pitcher in big-league history to throw a no-hitter. The Cubs beat the Pirates 4-0 at Wrigley Field. Players born on today’s date include Herb Hippauf, whose MLB career comprised three games for the Atlanta Braves in 1966. The southpaw went on become a pitching coach and, most notably, a talent evaluator. The Herb Hippauf Scouting Award is awarded annually by the Colorado Rockies. Davy Force, an infielder for several teams from 1872-1880, made four pitching appearances. In 25 innings, Force walked one and struck out none. Ossee Schrecongost played for seven big-league teams, most notably the Philadelphia Athletics, from 1897-1908. Schrecongost’s time in the minors included stints with the Cedar Rapids Rabbits, Marion Diggers, Shamokin Coal Heavers, Williamsport Demorest Bicycle Boys, and Youngstown Puddlers.