Since the start of the 2021 season, there has been no shortage of Corbin Burnes content. Heck, we have talked about him at least twice in the past few months. To be fair, Burnes deserves every bit of the recognition he has received so far, as he has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, setting a record with 58 strikeouts without a walk.
But in his shadow has been fellow Brewers rotation mate Brandon Woodruff who, by run prevention at least, has been every bit as good as Burnes, pitching to a 1.58 ERA/2.43 FIP for a 1.8 fWAR. While Woodruff hasn’t struck out 45 percent of batters faced like Burnes, he has struck out over 30 percent of them, which is still elite among starting pitchers.
Woodruff may be the second most valuable pitcher on his own team, but he is also the fourth most valuable pitcher in all of the National League.
A few adjustments
Woodruff has quietly been one of the most productive starting pitchers in all of baseball on a rate basis since the start of the 2019 season. His stellar 3.00 ERA/2.94 FIP/3.25 xFIP line in 252.1 innings nets a 7.1 fWAR that was outpaced by only 10 other pitchers (and none with the surname Burnes). Of the 10 pitchers ahead of him — and the 10 pitchers behind him — Woodruff pitched the least amount of innings, which is a testament to how truly great he has been.
All of this is to say that Woodruff could have entered into the ‘21 season doing exactly as he had been and probably could have expected to continue to produce great results. As we have seen time and time again with major league ballplayers, even those at the top of their game are both ready and willing to make some major changes.
First, it appears Woodruff has adopted a less drastic version of the Lucas Giolito Adjustment. Here he is in 2020:
And here he is in ‘21 with his shorter arm action:
In addition to the mechanical change, Woodruff has some new pitch shapes as well. Per Texas Leaguers, here his his movement chart from ‘20:
And here is the chart from ‘21:
This year, Woodruff is getting significantly more vertical movement on three of his pitches: the slider, the curveball and the changeup. For the slider, a change in spin direction could help explain this. In ‘20, Woodruff had a 9:44 spin tilt. In ‘20, he has added more topspin to the pitch, with a spin tilt of 8:14. Now, the slider falls faster than the rate of gravity.
For the curve, the spin tilts are about the same, but this time the story is in the spin efficiency. Listed on Baseball Savant as ‘Active Spin,’ Woodruff raised this metric from 59 to 67 percent, driving the extra vertical movement. For curveballs, generally speaking, higher spin efficiencies make for more vertical movement, as it increases the pitch’s Magnus effect.
For the changeup, he has actually decreased his active spin from 97 to 87 percent, increasing the deviation between his spin tilt and his movement tilt. In other words, the difference between how we predict the ball should move based on the spin and how it actually moves. What causes this phenomenon is seam-shifted wake.
Brandon Woodruff has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past few years. The lack of innings compared to other pitches mean that he may not appear on leaderboards, but don’t let that fool you.
While Woodruff probably didn’t need to make many adjustments, he went ahead and did anyway, and has now put himself in the early Cy Young conversation. Armed with some mechanical adjustments as well as three improved pitches, Woodruff looks to continue to improve his game.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in FiveThirtyEight and The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.