2020 Preseason Dirty Thirty-Five: Prospect #12

PROSPECT PREFACE

I present to you my list of the top 35 prospects within the Cardinals organization!! The list is both exhausting and ever-evolving.

I am aggressive with who I deem to be a "Graduate." You can read the post that I wrote on The Graduates by following this link. As a heads up, you won't find Lane Thomas, Ryan Helsley, Genesis Cabrera, Andrew Knizner, Rangel Ravelo, or Edmundo Sosa on The Dirty Thirty-Five (R.I.Cardinals Prospect.P to Tampa Bay Ray Randy Arozarena and Texas Ranger Adolis "JAG" Garcia).

There is also another group of about 15 prospects that I could have written about. They are on the outside looking in, currently. I did write in-depth about five of them, and I presented those fellas in this article. I also briefly touch on a bunch of other prospects in that article.

Finally, I totally cheated and basically just copied and pasted the individual write-ups from the "Position Rankings" articles that I wrote after Black Friday. I hadn't realized how thorough those write-ups were until I started to redoing the D35. Those write-ups are the shells for these posts. I have added additional gifs and thoughts to each and I've done some MAJOR editing within each write-up, as well.


Please enjoy! Please have fun! Please tell me what you think!



RHP Jake Woodford

Age 23

Memphis

1st Round, 2015


I need Jake Woodford to make a major league debut and come close to exhausting his rookie eligibility as soon as possible. I've been writing about him for so long that I don't even know what to say anymore, even though there is plenty to say.


I've been watching Jake Woodford (who I will continue to accidentally call "Jake Westbrook" during Prospects after Dark) for five seasons now and I still don't have any idea who in the hell he is. Every season that he's been with the club, he undergoes some type of transformation. Sometimes it's been mechanical. Other times, it's been arsenal-based.


Just watching him and trying to evaluate him, it's really frustrating. I never feel like I'm able to get a handle on what he is or what kind of progress he's making. Then, as soon as I think I've figured out what he is doing or what his plan is or what he needs to improve on, the deck gets shuffled. Thus, my opinions on him and his potential shuffle, too.


When I step out of my own head for a minute, it dawns on me how tough this must be for Woodford. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for Woodford to be constantly be working on his next, new pitch or his next adjustment. He's displayed varying levels of success over the years, but the constant reinventing has to be exhausting. This isn't just your run-of-the-mill minor league growth and development. It's something far more complex and daunting.

Gif courtesy of @Cardinalsgifs

And with that complexity lies the beauty of Woodford. While a lot of his stats at the surface (and underlying, really) aren't the prettiest, he's managed to get better and better, year after year. while constantly reexamining the pitcher that he is. Hopefully, he's found the mechanics and the repertoire to capitalize on and grow with.


From a make-up standpoint, one of the things that you really have to like about Woodford is that he is a "pitcher." He just has that mentality. While he struggles with command and confidence at times, you never get the impression that he doesn't understand how to pitch. He's a stoic competitor, too. He's definitely passionate about his craft and he takes it very seriously. Even being as passionate as he is, I can't think of one time over the years that I saw him get rattled. You'd have to have some damn-impressive moxie to change and evolve the way that Woodford has without showing much in the way of frustration. As he enters his age 23 season, Woodford has been wise beyond his years for some time now.

Gif courtesy of @Cardinalsgifs

In the two gifs above, you'll see Woodford circa 2019 spring training (not 2020). The first is of his fastball and the second is of his curveball. He started throwing the curveball towards the end of the 2018 season, and really worked to refine it last offseason. I am almost 100% sure that Woodford has toyed with both a four-seam and a sinker for years. Some times he throws one. Some times, the other. Other times, both. I don't believe that I saw him throw his sinker at all during the 2019 season, and the times that i thought that I did I just chalked up to a bad camera angle or my eyes betraying me. With the absence of his sinker seemed to be an absence of a slider that he threw for years. Truth be told, I don't remember seeing Woodford throw it that much at the end of the 2018 season, either. There are times when he throws something that looks like a tight little cutter, but that thing was too sporadic in 2019 to have any type of feel for.


So, at least during 2019, Woodford was primarily a four-seam/curve pitcher. He mix in a very inconsistent-in-movement cutter and a changeup, but the curve and fastball were his big weapons. The changeup is a pretty decent pitch that I want him to throw as much as possible to right-handed hitters if he finds his way back to Memphis. No reason to fool around and not try to get a better feel for it. If he's capable of using the cutter and change to keep hitter's guessing then he'll find some of that first half success that we saw in 2019.


I really like Woodford's fastball/curve combo. It's a pretty devastating combo, especially to righties, when he's able to command his fastball. Speaking of which, Woodford is at his absolute best when he is consistently commanding his fastball high in the zone and above 93 MPH. I've seen Woodford pump that thing up beyond 95 a time or two, but he gets in trouble with it when he's dipping close to, or below, the 90 MPH mark, In the gif below, you'll see just how good the combo can be. You'll also see how repeatable Woodford's delivery is. I'm hopeful that the gif will give you a sense of how he uses his entire body to throw the ball. Sometimes he'll release that curve a little closer to his ear than the fastball, but, for the most part, it's a completely repeated delivery from pitch to pitch. I really love the kinetic energy in Jake's delivery.


I also love the pace that Woodford works at. I try not to be this way, but the quicker a pitcher works, the more I usually like that pitcher. That is, as long as they aren't rushing or changing their mechanics. Woodford doesn't screw around on the mound, and he stays in control of himself. That's two-for-two, in my book.


At times, it feels like Jake Woodford is two completely different pitchers. Often times, this is from inning to inning and not game to game. There are times when Woodford can flash the ability to be a dominant, front-end starter. This is when he is commanding four pitches and using every quadrant of the strike zone to his advantage. At these moments, Woodford is aggressive. He isn't hesitant or afraid. He's just slinging it, like the gunslinger he's capable of being.

But I've also seen, more often than not, a pitcher that isn't aggressive enough with his arsenal. The fastball that Woodford throws is heavy, and you can see throughout this post that the curveball is really good, too. He has a good enough feel for the change to command it with more confidence than he is, currently. The problem is, he screws around on the outside-black of the zone too much. This means that Woodford is throwing too many balls too often and early in counts.


I get frustrated watching Woodford because I can see how good he's capable of being. I can see the progress that he's made from year to year. I can see a clear and aggressive path to the majors for him if only he were willing to let the opposing hitters get him there. You will get a feel for how Woodford screws around too much with hitters in the gif below. Strap in, because it's an eight-pitch gif. Keep an eye on the count in the middle of the crawl at the bottom to keep you on track. I cannot stress loudly enough how typical of an at-bat this is for him. Every at-bat seems to go deep into counts. Every at-bat, when he isn't completely dialed in, is tedious and long, and somewhat lacking in that killer instinct. If he were here right now, I'd just say "Do you want to keep F-ing around, or do you want to play golf?"


Jake Woodford is not Dakota Hudson. While he's capable of inducing a decent amount of weak contact on the ground, that isn't his game. He's also not Ryan Helsley. That's to say, he's not going to strike batters out in high volume. He's somewhere, or something, else. It's easy to label a pitcher the next Seth Maness or Matt Bowman. I mean, it's too freaking easy. But I firmly believe that's what we are looking at with Woodford if he can't embrace a more aggressive approach. He's a tweener, part reliever, part starter. More than likely, he's higher-velocity Brad Thompson. That's what he profiles as right now, in my mind.


I've tried my damnedest to stay away from his 2019 stats, but here we are. It was a weird season for Woodford. To start on a positive note, Woodford's new mix of pitches yielded the highest K% that he's put up in his five seasons with the organization at 20.4%. That's not a number that will "wow" you, but it was a huge upgrade over the 15-ish% that he struck out between AA and AAA in 2018. Woodford also pitched a career high in innings at 151.2 over 26 starts. He is showing clear signs of durability. His ERA might not look the prettiest at 4.15, but that's a pretty impressive number when you consider that offense was up in a big way at AAA because they were using the same ball that the Major League's were using. Home runs at AAA were up about 54% from 2018. These are all tremendous signs for a 22-year-old in that league! On top of that, his batting average against was .220. He's really hard to hit when he is throwing strikes.


However, with the good comes the bad, and the bad is a terrifying walk rate of 11.7% on the season. Dakota Hudson walked 11.4% of hitters at the major league level in 2019, and we all saw how badly he was hurt by this. The difference is that Dakota Hudson induces groundballs about 57% of the time while Woodford does it about 36% of the time. That allows Hudson to get out of bad situations at a rate that Woodford just can't. There isn't a professional league in the world where a pitcher can have maintained-success while walking that many and letting up that much in air. While his ERA was a respectable 4.15, his FIP was an alarming 5.54. It was worrisome to see Woodford struggle in the second half of the season, too. I could sit here and site the 22 home runs allowed on the season as a sign of concern, but it's a perfectly acceptable number for a pitcher that threw that baseball in that league.




THE DEAL

Entering his age 23 season after locking down a spot on the 40-man roster this offseason, Jake Woodford looks like he's poised to make a major league debut during his sixth season in the organization. Always the re-inventor, Woodford appears to finally have an arsenal to settle on. His fastball/curve combo is a thing of beauty when he's feeling it, and his cutter and changeup seem like they have the chance to be average pitches with continued work. At the very least, they profile as pitches that can help change a hitter's eye level and keep a hitter off-balance.


Woodford walks way too many hitters, and that's what will stop him from being a rotation option in the future if he can't harness his stuff. While it's easy and obvious to chalk a high walk rate up to command/control issues, I believe that Woodford's issues lie in what appears to have a timid approach, too often. It feels like Jake is throwing the ball right where he wants, it's just that he wants to throw it off of the plate as he hopes for limited damage. His stuff is too good for him to be nibbling that way, and that's what is holding him back.

If Woodford learns just to trust his stuff, if he's willing to trust the type of pitcher that he's capable of being, then there is a bright future for this young man. Until then, his 11.7% walk rate won't cut it.



The biggest of shout outs should be given to @Cardinalsgifs, FanGraphs, Twitter, and MiLB. TV for all of the work that they do that eventually gets put into these articles.

Look at that beautiful pic by @Cardinalsgifs. A friend to me. A friend to us all. The gifs from spring training 2019 come straight from him!


Thanks For Reading!!

Kyle Reis