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System Sundays: Let’s Watch Jake Woodford Throw an Immaculate Inning

Jake Woodford did a really awesome thing. We should draw lots of conclusions from it.

Morning, all. We have one more week of the baseball season left. Doesn’t seem possible, does it?

Anyhow, today is Sunday, meaning we’re talking about the minor leagues. And specifically today, we’re going to look at some video again, similar to when I broke down Jeremy Martinez’s swing evolution a couple weeks ago.

The subject of today’s video breakdown is Jake Woodford, the high school righthander taken by the Cardinals with their supplemental round pick (#39 overall), in 2015. He was drafted out of Plant High School in Florida, where he was a teammate of Kyle Tucker, the outfielder who ended up going fifth overall to the Astros, breaking my heart slightly. (Not because it was the ‘Stros; just because he was one of my favourite players in the draft.)

Coming into this season, Woodford narrowly missed out on making top prospects list, landing in the near-misses category, and warranted a fuller write-up after the list was in the rearview mirror. At that time, I compared him to both Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, as similarly tall, lanky sinkerballers, and I still like both of those comps. Of course, Porcello has taken a huge step forward this season, including adding some new wrinkles to his repertoire that were recently highlighted in a fantastic article by August Fagerstrom over at Fangraphs, helping him get ever closer to fulfilling that remarkable potential he showed all the way back in 2007 coming out of high school. (On a completely unrelated note, ask me if I’m still bitter about the Cardinals drafting Pete Kozma instead of Porcello, who I wanted so very, very badly in that first year of trying to write about the draft....) The new developments in Porcello’s repertoire have added a completely new dimension to his pitching, making him a bit less of a comp for Woodford, but the version of Porcello that leaned so heavily on his sinker in Detroit is still maybe the guy I would most look at.

Anyhow, what we have here is Woodford throwing an immaculate innning for Peoria, the Cards’ Low A affiliate, in August. I’m sure you all know what an immaculate inning is: nine pitches, nine strikes, three strikeouts. Basically the most perfect inning a pitcher can throw. And yes, it’s probably unfair to break down Woodford throwing one of the best innings he’s likely tossed in his life, but I’m okay with that. It’s fun to watch.

via minorleaguebaseball:

Okay, so first things first: lots of fastballs here. Which isn’t at all surprising; the sinker is by far Woodford’s best offering and the pitch he’ll likely lean on most heavily at pretty much all times. We only get two offspeed pitches in this inning: the second pitch to Trent Clark, leading off (changeup away), and the 0-1 slider to Isan Diaz.

Which actually brings up a quick side note: for some context, I feel I should point out these are not scrub hitters Woodford is beating up on. Isan Diaz, in particular, is one of the best prospects in the Brewers’ system, and Trent Clark was a top 15 overall draft pick last year.

Anyhow, back to Woodford. We don’t have velocity readings, unfortunately, but we can judge the quality of the stuff even without it. The downward action on Woodford’s fastball is just as good as it was when he was drafted, but the armside run is noticeably better. He spots the ball away to Clark beautifully, but the pitch I’m most enamoured of is the two-seamer over the inside part of the plate to the lefty. That pitch, the two-seam fastball that starts in at the belt buckle of a left-handed hitter, then runs back over the inside corner, is a game-changer for me. That’s the pitch Greg Maddux made famous (and arguably the pitch that made Maddux famous), and it’s a weapon against opposite-handed hitters that’s hard to overstate how big a deal it is.

The fact Woodford appears able to command the fastball to both sides of the plate is a huge plus as well. Plenty of pitchers with outstanding sinkers struggle to go to the glove side, simply because the movement takes the ball back toward the middle of the plate, and they lack the confidence to locate it away from the danger zone. (I would argue this is one of the missing pieces of the puzzle for Carlos Martinez getting to that next level right now; he rarely works the two-seamer to the first base side well.) For Woodford to already have that trick in his bag at nineteen is tremendous.

As far as a grade on the fastball, back in January I put a 60 on the pitch for Woodford, based on the sink and movement. Looking at it here, I’ll probably stick with that grade, with the caveat that I actually like the pitch even more now than I did, and could be talked in to bumping it a half-grade higher. Realistically, though, the pitch is still probably a 55-60, but the command he’s showing now to both sides of the plate should help it play up even better, if that makes sense. It’s two separate aspects of pitching we’re talking about here, the velocity/movement of the pitch and command of the same, but putting them together we have a potential plus-plus pitch.

The downside of this clip, of course, is that we simply don’t have a ton of offspeed stuff to look at. What little we do have, though, is fairly encouraging. The one changeup we see, the pitch away to Clark, looks a little firm to me (in fact, if I’m being completely honest, I’m not 100% sure it’s a changeup and not a slower fastball without a gun reading, but I’ve watched it a couple dozen times and I believe it’s a change), but the location is fantastic. He puts it in almost exactly the same spot as the fastball he opened the at-bat with, only perhaps a little further out on the corner. My colleague Joe has written multiple times about the importance of pitch sequencing, and this little two-pitch vignette is a thing of beauty. Same location twice in a row, virtually, but just enough of a let-up in velocity on the second pitch that if Clark were to swing, he would almost certainly be out in front, swinging at the velo of the first pitch, and harmlessly roll over the ball at best. Again, I wish we had more of a sample to watch (and I saw a handful of Woodford starts this year, which makes me comfortable saying this is a fairly representative changeup), but again we see a solid pitch used in a very intelligent, skillful way.

The slider might actually be the most interesting pitch to me. The two-seamer to both sides of the plate is the thing I’m most excited about; the bigger, slower breaking slider Woodford seems to be throwing now is the pitch I’m most intrigued in seeing more of going forward.

Coming out of high school, Woodford’s slider was actually more of a cutter; he threw it a little too hard to really get a ton of vertical break on it, and thus the pitch didn’t generate much in the way of swings and misses. It was the sort of pitch one could see being useful in keeping the ball away from the barrel of the bat, but not one that was going to out and out miss those bats.

Now, though, the slider is slower, and has more vertical break to it. In fact, the one he throws to Diaz is actually a little slurvy; thrown with a little more power and tilt he might very well have gotten a swing and miss instead of Diaz pulling it foul on the ground. I haven’t heard about Woodford trying to switch to a curveball instead of a slider, so I’m going to assume it’s still a slider he let off of a little too much, instead of a curve. Regardless, the fact he appears to have made a fairly sizable adjustment from where I saw the breaking ball at the time of the draft last year is just another encouraging sign, even if the pitch is still a work in progress.

In terms of numbers, Jake Woodford had a solid first full season in the pros, if not a spectacular one. In 109 innings this year, all at Peoria, he posted a 3.31 ERA, which is quite good, but a 3.99 FIP. The strikeout rate was fine for a sinkerballer, at 17.9%, but the walk rate, while also just fine in general at 8.1%, is a little less than ideal for a pitcher who’s likely to be so dependent on balls in the zone being put in play in a manner he finds advantageous. I would posit that number could very well go down a couple percentage points in the near future, considering the level of command Woodford appears to have, and the fact his offspeed stuff is developing nicely.

I’ll be very interested to see what the Cardinals do with Woodford to begin next season. He will turn 20 years old at the end of October, and while the logical step up from Peoria would be the High A Florida State League, it also wouldn’t completely shock me to see the organisation challenge him by jumping him up to Double A. I would find it somewhat surprising, but not shocking by any means.

As far as what I think of Woodford, he’s definitely jumped up in my estimation. I was a little lukewarm on him when the Redbirds selected him, as I had questions about the realistic ceiling of the stuff. Seeing how far he’s come in just over one year’s time, though, I have to admit I’m extremely impressed. He definitely won’t miss out on the list this year, even though I’m already dreading trying to sift through which players will miss making the cut, considering how much new talent has come into the system, as well as a solid number of breakout performances.

As I said earlier, it’s probably unfair to Jake Woodford to break down how he looks at his very best. Then again, looking at his very best at nineteen, in Low A ball, gives us an idea of just what his ceiling could look like. And if said ceiling does, in fact, look anything like this, then the Cardinals might very well have another young potential star hurler in the making.