Woodruff has conquered what was his only glaring weakness as a starting pitcher.
Those outside of Milwaukee may not realize it, but Brandon Woodruff has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for nearly three years. According to the FanGraphs version of the metric, Woodruff ranks 10th among all pitchers with 8.8 Wins Above Replacement since the start of the 2019 season. Injuries and a pandemic-shortened season limited him to 35 starts over 2019 and 2020 combined, but Woodruff posted a strong 3.41 ERA, 3.08 FIP, and 3.49 SIERA over that stretch.
This year, Woodruff has ascended to a new level of dominance. In 20 starts, he has notched a pristine 2.14 ERA, 2.61 FIP, 3.22 SIERA, and 2.93 DRA. His evolution spans beyond those excellent figures. The big right-hander has taken the next step to emerge as the durable cornerstone of the Brewers’ starting rotation that the club was hoping he could be.
Even in today’s game, one that features progressively fewer innings from starters and heavier bullpen workloads, every team will tell you that they would prefer to have a true horse atop their rotation, one who can pitch deep into games with great results nearly every time he takes the ball. In 2019 and 2020, Woodruff was the closest thing the Brewers had to that kind of pitcher. However, he averaged 5 2⁄3 innings per start in each of those campaigns. That is not a poor mark, but it was merely a tick above the league average and left some desire for longer outings.
Woodruff’s occasional struggles once opponents saw him multiple times in a game was somewhat of an issue. In 2020, Woodruff dominated the opposition the first two times through the order, posting a 1.95 ERA and holding them to a .235 wOBA. When he faced a lineup for the third and fourth times, they lit him up for a .378 wOBA and 7.90 ERA. His strikeout rate also dropped by nearly ten percentage points from 33% to 23.3%. Many times, he seemed to hit a wall in the fifth or sixth inning and lose his best command.
This season, Woodruff is working an average of 6 1⁄3 innings per start. That puts him in the same company as Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, and Shane Bieber, all of whom are widely recognized as some of the best starters in the game. It no longer matters how many times an opponent has seen Woodruff in an outing. Hitters have a combined .217 wOBA against him the first two times through and a .229 wOBA the third and fourth times through. In fact, that latter number is the fourth-lowest among qualified starting pitchers this season.
Quality starts (outings of six or more innings pitched with three or fewer runs allowed) are hardly the most accurate metric for evaluating pitcher performance, but it is worth noting that Woodruff has achieved a quality start 15 of his 20 appearances this year (75%). He never posted a quality start percentage above 46% in any of his previous seasons. Even if it is far from a perfect stat, this dramatic increase is demonstrative of improvement.
In addition to erasing the divide in his batting order splits, the 28-year-old has positioned himself to consistently work deeper into games by being more efficient. Woodruff is averaging just two more pitches per start than he did last year, but he is now throwing under four pitches per plate appearance for the first time in his career.
This efficiency stems from Woodruff’s ability to make quick work of hitters in multiple ways. He has recorded 16.8% of his strikeouts on three pitches, up from 12.1% last year. He isn’t afraid to look for outs earlier in counts on contact, either. When opponents do put the ball in play, it is typically harmless contact that rarely produces a hit (4.6% barrel rate, 30.9% hard-hit rate, and .326 xwOBAcon). Woodruff’s 0.84 WHIP is by far the lowest of his career, and it is also the best among qualified starting pitchers this season. He is rarely working through traffic.
All of this has helped Woodruff fire 126 innings, giving him the eighth-highest innings total in baseball. His ability to provide length with consistently excellent results has been a huge pick-me-up for an inconsistent offense and a bullpen that is lacking in depth. Woodruff has been a great starting pitcher for several seasons now. If there was any hurdle left for him to clear, it was working deeper into games. He is passing that test with flying colors.
Woodruff will likely slide down the innings leaderboard by design as the Brewers carefully monitor and manage the innings of their top three starting pitchers to keep them fresh for the stretch run and beyond. Even if he sees some of his starts intentionally shortened or skipped altogether, he has already proven that he can now sustain his best stuff deep into games and stifle opponents several times through the batting order. Woodruff has transformed into exactly what the Brewers hoped he could be, if not more.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus.