As one of the three young pitchers who entered the Milwaukee Brewers starting rotation in 2019, Brandon Woodruff was the first to come to fruition and is now in his third full season as a starter. As the ballclub’s opening day starter each of the past two seasons, he has high expectations.
In 2020, Woodruff took a step forward as a pitcher but there were still areas for him to improve upon. One observation in our end of season evaluation of him was that his pitch count often increased as he ran into trouble the second and third time through opposing teams batting orders.
With just four starts under his belt in 2021, Woodruff’s last three starts have all gone at least six innings and his shortest start was on Opening Day when he pitched four.
That said, let’s take a look at three early season improvements that may be contributing to Brandon Woodruff pitching deeper into games for the Brewers.
1) Increased percentage of Curveballs
The bread and butter to Woodruff’s game remains unchanged from season prior: a heavy dose of fastballs and sinkers. Historically, a majority of his strikeouts have come via the fastball. This remains true today as 14 out of his 26 strikeouts have been courtesy of that pitch.
The early season difference this year is his curveball. In 2020 it was used just 6.4% of the time while this season it has increased to 13.2%. His curveball is actually being thrown more often than his slider right now. Additionally, his curveball has been fantastic: in 45 pitches he is yet to allow a hit off of the pitch.
2) Increased number of strikes
Zone percentage, or another way of saying the percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone, is at 55% this season for Woodruff. This is five percent higher than his career average. In similar fashion his first pitch strike percentage is at 69% this year, which is another increase from years prior.
With the increased number of strikes, this doesn’t necessarily just mean that Brandon Woodruff just has better command so far this season. That may be the case, but more so I think it is his way of saying I know you can’t touch my stuff whether it is in the strike zone or not, so why not throw strikes?
3) Zero Barrels allowed so far this season
According to Baseball Savant, a barrel is defined as a batted ball with a perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle. When a batter records a barrel, there’s a good chance the ball is either finding a gap for extra bases or traveling a long distance, so avoiding barrels as a pitcher is important. To date, Woodruff is the only starting pitcher left to not give up a barrel this season.
While this obviously is not sustainable as the season progresses, to be the last one standing is quite an accomplishment. Doing this has helped prevent earned runs cross the plate and is a big contributing factor to his current 1.96 earned run average.
While it is early in the season yet, these three areas will be worth monitoring as the season progresses. It appears that Woodruff has made the adjustments necessary to eliminate his middle inning issues from a season ago, but he still has to continue to do this for the majority of his starts this season.
If he is able to continue with this success, he may just find himself among one of the candidates for a the most prestigious award a pitcher can receive: the NL Cy Young.