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The Improvement of Jake Woodford

A better fastball strategy and an improved slider has led to a better Woodford.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Woodford has come on strong down the stretch for the St. Louis Cardinals. The right-hander struggled in 21 innings in 2020 (6.72 FIP), and he struggled in 25 13 innings in the first half of this season (6.55 FIP). However, in his last six starts, Woodford has tallied a 4.00 ERA and 3.49 FIP. This improvement has earned him a spot in the rotation and he has done a nice job of filling in for injured pitchers and covering innings.

One of the most noticeable changes that Woodford has made is to adjust his pitch arsenal. Last season, when Woodford threw fastballs, they were almost exclusively four-seamers. That has changed in 2021. Now, Woodford throws his four-seamer 24.9% of the time, while sinkers make up 35.6% of his total arsenal. Additionally, Woodford has developed a strategy where he primarily throws sinkers to right-handed hitters and four-seamers to left-handed hitters. Almost 70% of Woodford’s sinkers have been thrown to right-handed hitters while 63% of his four-seamers have been thrown to left-handed hitters.

There could be a variety of reasons for this strategy. It is possible that Woodford wants his sinker to break into hitters in order to be more difficult to hit. The reason for this may be that he can jam hitters with a fastball that breaks into their hands, and it also opens the possibility of a back door sinker that starts outside and catches the outside edge of the plate, instead of starting over the plate and then catching the outside edge.

Since right-handed sinkers break away from left-handed hitters, this is not possible against left-handed hitters. Woodford must believe that this makes his sinker easier to hit. As a result, it makes sense that Woodford would generally avoid throwing his sinker to left-handed hitters because the pitch gets more run than his changeup and his slider, making it more suitable to be thrown against right-handed hitters given his strategy. Since four-seamers are generally straighter, and his only runs 4.6 inches (37% below average), he appears more comfortable throwing four-seamers to left-handers instead of sinkers.

The 24-year-old’s fastball strategy has worked well for the most part. Woodford is allowing a solid .321 wOBA and .285 xwOBA against his four-seam fastball. The sinker has been a bit of a different story, but that does not mean the strategy is wrong. Woodford has allowed a .329 wOBA and .360 xwOBA against the pitch. The actual results have been only slightly worse, but the expected results have been much worse. A look into the specific cause of damage against the pitch will help explain why this is the case.

Most of the damage done against the pitch has been done by left-handed hitters. Woodford has surrendered four home runs and two doubles against the pitch and three of those home runs and one double have been hit by left-handed hitters. So, even though Woodford only throws 30% of his sinkers to left-handed hitters, they have done most of the damage. There is obviously a small sample size alert here, but so far in the season, this validates Woodford’s strategy of trying to avoid throwing sinkers to left-handed hitters. It also offers encouragement that Woodford has been effective at throwing his sinker to right-handers.

There is still the problem of how to pitch to left-handers. Woodford either needs to improve the pitch against left-handed hitters or he needs to throw even fewer sinkers to them. Of the three home runs that Woodford allowed, all of them were left up and over the plate. Woodford may overcome these issues by keeping the ball down, but it appears that mistake pitches are more prone to getting hit over the fence when they are thrown to left-handed hitters. A positive sign is that only one of the home runs against the pitch was hit in his last six starts. This could show improvement from Woodford, but the small sample size once again makes it risky to draw conclusions. Despite this, there is a clear trend. Overall, Woodford has been better at throwing his fastball(s) this year, and he has been especially good in his last six games.

The same story is true with breaking pitches. Woodford’s slider gets more run and is thrown to right-handed hitters more often (76% to RHH) while Woodford’s curveball is more of a 12-6 offering that is thrown more often to left-handed hitters (75% to LHH). These pitches are more polarized than Woodford’s fastballs. The former first round pick has had much more success with his slider than with his curveball, but this discrepancy was not as great last season, which leaves promise for his curveball, which gets well above average drop. It is the improved slider that is a positive sign for Woodford, though. The first thing to notice is that his slider gained just over 100 rpms of spin since last season. Woodford has also changed the profile of the pitch, while the improved spin rate is helping it break more.

Woodford’s slider has increased its drop by three inches from 2020, and it has increased its horizontal break from 3.8 inches to 11.4 inches. This means that the pitch which had 31% below average horizontal movement last season, now has 42% above average horizontal movement. This is a big change that is not just due to increased spin rate as Woodford has changed the spin direction (spin-based) on the pitch from 9:45 to 8:00. Additionally, he has taken over 2 mph off the pitch. As a result, the pitch is slower, breaks more, and has a different shape from last year. The change has been positive as he has allowed just a .296 wOBA (.286 xwOBA) against the pitch and increased its whiff rate by nearly 7% from 2020.

If Woodford can get better results from his curveball, then he will have two solid breaking pitches to go with an effective fastball strategy. As a total package, that may make him capable of consistently getting outs in a big league rotation. He still needs to finish the year strong in order to stake his claim on a potential role in the playoffs, especially if Dakota Hudson and Jack Flaherty will be available. Still, Woodford has shown improvement this season, and especially in the second half.