There is no doubt that Brandon Woodruff is the ace of the Brewers pitching staff. Across the majors however, Woodruff has not yet earned the title of an ace.
Brandon Woodruff officially joined the Brewers starting rotation on a consistent basis during the 2019 season. In 2019 Woodruff made his first All-Star game but unfortunately sustained an oblique injury in the second half of the season that kept him sidelined until the postseason. He ultimately finished the 2019 season with 3.62 ERA
Woodruff’s ERA was much improved to the tune of 3.05 in 2020, but was limited to a sample size of 13 starts in the shortened season. He was the team’s Opening Day starter and is the likely frontrunner to be on the mound for Opening Day in 2021.
However, there are still areas in which Woodruff needs to improve upon to reach Ace level status league wide. In this article I will examine an area of improvement that is needed to reach the next level.
The second and third time through the batting order
Woodruff was one of the best pitchers in the first through three innings in 2020 with a 1.38 ERA. However the middle innings is often times where he ran into trouble for his ERA in innings four through six jumped to 5.64. This resulted in Woodruff failing to pitch into the sixth inning in 38% of his starts in 2020.
This ERA jump is evidence that for whatever reason when Woodruff was facing the opposing batting order for the second time, they were able to find success. The hard part is determining why this occurred.
In general, Woodruff is a heavy fastball/sinker pitcher, especially the first time through the batting order. In 2020 he relied more so on his changeup as opposed to his slider as his primary off-speed pitch. This is largely due to the fact that Woodruff faced more left handed batters than right handed batters in 2020, and the changeup is his off-speed pitch of choice against lefties.
While his changeup resulted in whiffs 33% of the time a batter swung the bat in 2020, it also was the pitch that opposing batters (mainly lefties) did damage with when he missed in location. Woodruff likes to throw his changeup down and away to left handed batters, so when it misses higher in the zone it’s a pitch that opposing batters can do damage with.
Unfortunately, when you combine changeups that missed in location with not using this pitch more often until the middle innings of games, Woodruffs home runs allowed numbers are not pretty. In 2020, Woodruff allowed nine home runs all season, six of them came in the fourth through sixth innings with three of them coming off of the changeup.
On the other hand, his slider, which was used seven percent less of the time and mainly against right handed batters, was incredibly effective for he held opposing batters to just two hits on it all season, which is equivalent to a .087 batting average against! As a pitch that breaks into the hands of right handed batters it a difficult pitch to barrel up and drive with power.
As for Woodruff’s second and third time through the batting order struggles, it certainly was not due to lack of confidence or increased use in his changeup this season, but rather lapses in location. A middle of the plate changeup was the biggest culprit for him and unfortunately hitters capitalized.
Changeup location is one area Woodruff should look to improve upon in 2021 if the Brewers ace desires to work deeper into games, lower his middle innings ERA, and become a known ace league wide.