Brandon Woodruff made it to the big leagues without one of his old friends. He dramatically upped his game when he reintroduced that old friend to his arsenal. The results speak for themselves.
Woodruff debuted with the Brewers in August 2017 after logging a solid but unremarkable 4.30 ERA with Triple-A Colorado Springs. The righty then put up a 4.81 ERA and a 4.37 FIP in 43 innings after reaching Milwaukee. Respectable, but once again unremarkable.
The career-altering reunion happened midway through the ensuing season; a coming-out party of sorts took place down the stretch. With the Brewers chasing a playoff berth, Woodruff made seven September relief appearances and allowed just a lone one run in 12.1 innings. His October performance was every bit as good. In an identical number of innings, the former Mississippi State Bulldog surrendered two earned runs over four postseason outings.
Last year, Woodruff moved into Milwaukee’s starting rotation and fashioned a 3.62 ERA and a 3.01 FIP. Moreover, his 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings was the best of his professional career. Piggybacking on his previous postseason success, he proceeded to pitch four-innings of one-run ball in the National League Wild Card game.
This spring, I asked the 2014 11th-round draft pick about his ascent.
“Here’s a little backstory,” Woodruff told me shortly before baseball shut down. “When I was in college, I threw a lot of sinkers. I threw a few four-seamers, but it was mostly two-seamers. Then I got into pro ball and they kind of told me to stop throwing the two-seamer. So I threw the four-seamer from rookie-ball on up through Triple-A.”
It was during the 2017 season that Woodruff “first got into the analytical side of things.” Unable to figure out why he wasn’t getting enough swings-and-misses up in the zone, he investigated and learned that the spin rate on his four-seam was subpar. Armed with that knowledge, he approached then pitching coordinator Chris Hook about the possibility of bringing back his two-seamer. Hook, who is now Milwaukee’s pitching coach, was amenable to the idea.
Woodruff began throwing two-seamers in his bullpen sessions, but it wasn’t until the following year that the old friendship was truly rekindled.
“About halfway through the  season is when I started throwing both fastballs,” Woodruff told me. “Flash forward to September: I started throwing both of them more often and having quite a bit of success. I was getting a lot of swings-and-miss, a lot of weak contact. That kind of played into the playoffs, and throughout last year.”
Per Statcast, Woodruff threw 757 four-seamers and 510 two-seamers last season. In his 2018 transition year, he’d thrown 413 four-seamers and 54 two-seamers. In 2017, all 432 of his fastballs were of the four-seam variety.
Neither pitch grades out as plus in terms of movement. The vertical drop on Woodruff’s two-seam was 1.6 inches less than the major-league average in 2019, while the carry on his four-seam was 0.2 inches below par. Shrewd mixing and matching is what allows each to play up.
“Hearing from hitters I’ve faced, and from our analytical guys, it’s the distinction between them,” said Woodruff, whose overall fastball usage was 64.1%. “The two-seamer may not have enough depth that I could be called a sinker-baller, but it’s got enough to be effective because I get some rise on my four-seamer — not a ton, but just enough. The two [pitches] are distinct enough that it’s hard for the hitter to distinguish which one is going to be coming. That’s what’s given me success.”
Giddy-up plays an important role as well. Woodruff’s velocity ranked in the 91st percentile last year, with his four-seamer averaging 96.7 mph, while his two-seamer was just a tick below at 96.3 mph. And while the latter is primarily meant to induce ground balls, it’s not always aimed at the knees.
“I’m usually trying to keep the two-seamer down, but sometimes I throw it up and in to righties,” Woodruff explained. “That’s because it bears in on their hands and is tough to get the barrel to. It has some tail when I throw it to that part of the plate. Belt or below is when it will have a little more sink.”
While he’s made strides with the carry on his four-seamer, Woodruff admits there’s still a lot of room for improvement. (Per Statcast, his fastball spin was in the 41st percentile last year). He’s still prone to getting cut when he’d prefer truer backspin. But while that remains a work in progress, the need isn’t nearly as acute as it might have been. Thanks to the return of his old friend, Woodruff is thriving with two distinct heaters.
“It all starts with my fastballs,” said Woodruff. “And I throw a lot of them.”