2016 has been a strong developmental year for many of the pitchers in the vaunted Milwaukee Brewers minor league system. Josh Hader has eased some doubts about handling a starter’s workload and has settled in at AAA after some early struggles; Cody Ponce has hit the ground running after missing some time early in the season; Freddy Peralta, Marcos Diplan, and Devin Williams all pitched well enough in Appleton to get promoted to the Florida State League; and even some guys like Jon Perrin, Wei-Chung Wang, and Brent Suter, ones not on the top prospect lists, have experienced excellent results on the mound this year.
Any of those players, however, are going to have a hard time beating out Brandon Woodruff for the club’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Woodruff dealt with some injuries while in college at Mississippi State and worked mostly out of the bullpen, factors that caused him to fall to the 11th round in the 2014 MLB Draft before he was snapped up by the late Bruce Seid. The Brewers thought enough of Woodruff’s raw ability that they converted the 6’4″ righty to a starter once he reached the pros. After debuting in Helena in 2014, Woodruff skipped low-A ball and spent all of 2015 in Brevard County, where he posted a 3.45 ERA and 3.09 FIP in 109.2 innings pitched.
While that performance might have put Brandon on the periphery of those who follow prospects, his season this year has made folks really start taking notice. He began the season back in the FSL but was promoted to AA Biloxi after earning an All-Star berth while working to a 1.83 ERA and 2.47 FIP in eight starts, holding opponents to just a .217 TAv. Against the tougher competition of the Southern League, Woodruff has continued to dominate: he owns a 2.87 ERA and 2.57 FIP along with a .212 TAv against in 81.2 innings pitched covering 15 starts.
Woodruff’s always had a plus fastball but he seems to have taken it to a new level this season, with reports saying that he is using his “terrific” arm speed to throw in the 95-97 MPH range late-sinking action and holding his velocity deep into games. That has surely contributed to the fact that he’s nearly doubled his strikeout rate this year, which is currently sitting at 27% after hovering around 16% during his first two seasons as a professional. The 137 punch outs that Woodruff has racked up this season lead all Brewers’ minor league hurlers.
Woodruff’s control has been steadily improving, as well. He had a tough time hitting the zone with regularity in college and posted a walk rate near eight percent during his rookie level debut. He cut that mark to 7.2 percent during his 2015 season, and this year he has walked just 32 batters through 126.0 combined innings, or about 6.3 percent of the hitters that he’s faced. Carson Cistulli of Fangraphs has featured Brandon on his “Fringe Five” feature on several occasions already this year and recently published a post praising Woodruff’s fastball command.
What makes Brandon’s breakout season even more impressive is that he is accomplishing so much in the midst of personal tragedy. His brother Blake passed away in July during an ATV accident at the young age of 28, five years older than Brandon. The family has set up a GoFundMe to help establish a scholarship fund in Blake’s name, which you can contribute to here.
While Woodruff is having an outstanding year statistically, it’s important to keep his profile in mind when establishing expectations going forward. Beyond his big fastball, MLB.com grades his changeup and slider only as average. Likewise, Chris Crawford described those two offerings as “useable” in a recent Minor League Update. In his chat yesterday, J.P. Breen reminded us that it’s important to let “pop up guys like this” establish more of a track record before raising expectations, but added that Woodruff has a “great chance to stick as a back-end starter who eats up innings” and that “his future depends on the development and the consistency of his offspeed stuff.”
Woodruff has snuck into the back end of MLB Pipeline’s ranking of the Brewers Top 30 prospects at number 25 and appears to be a good bet to make it to the major league level at some point in the not-too-distant future. It remains to be seen whether he’ll remain effective in the starting rotation or if he’ll eventually have to be shifted back to a bullpen role, but either way the development of an 11th-round pick into a big leaguer is a player development victory for any organization.