I feel that Jake Woodford is going to be a controversial player for some Cardinals fans in 2022. In 2021, he had a tale of two seasons with the Cardinals. I'd like to look at those two "seasons" so to speak and see what positives (I typically like to try to stay positive, no matter how much you saw me hem and haw over Ozuna or the Matz signing) we can find in Woodford from 2021.
Overall, Jake Woodford had 8 starts and 26 appearances for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2021. He had 12 more games pitched and 1 start in 2020 as well. Honestly, in 2020, Woodford's 1.19 WHIP and 3.20 K:BB were pretty decent. The only reason he had a mid 5s ERA was because of the 7 HR he allowed in 21 innings. Then again, he allowed 7 homers in 21 innings!
In 2021, you can clearly see a difference between his first 20 appearances (3 starts) and 39 innings of the year (from April 3rd to July 31st) compared to his final 6 appearances (5 starts) and final 28 2/3 innings of the season (all of September).
I'm going to use the following image from a spreadsheet to look at the difference between the April 3 - July 31 Woodford and the September Woodford:
Let's see what this massive chart above tells us.
April 3rd through July 31st
In those first 20 appearances, Jake Woodford averaged around 2 innings per game while starting just 15% of the time. He had a 5.08 ERA (down from 2020), 5.71 FIP (also down since 2020), and allowed a .285/.370/.490/.860 line against him on 712 pitches (18.3 per inning). He threw 60% strikes in those 4 months with the big league club. 43% of batted balls were labeled "hard hit" (95+ MPH off the bat) by Baseball Savant and batted balls averaged 91.1 miles per hour off the bat.
Woodford's GB rate was sitting just under league average at 42.4% and his line drive was WELL ABOVE league average at 28.8% with a fly ball rate also at 28.8%. The pitches he was attempting to utilize may have had a say in that. Here was Woodford's repertoire in those first 20 appearances:
26.1% four-seam fastballs
4.2% change ups
You can see in the visual above that the colorful row has plus percentages (over 100% of the early total) in purple and minus percentages (under 100% of the early total) in maroon. Get it, purple = plus (the stat got better) and maroon = minus (the stat got worse)? Okay. Glad that's all sorted out.
In September, Woodford came back to the majors from AAA with a completely revamped repertoire. Granted, we are looking at small sample sizes, but his repertoire looked like this:
42.8% sinkers (up 28%)
23.9% sliders (up 11%)
16.0% four-seam fastballs (down 39%)
9.2% curveballs (down 37%)
8.1% change ups (up 93%)
Woodford really changed his usages and boy did it work! Woodford's ERA dropped to 2.51 (down 51%), FIP dropped to 2.86 (down 50%), his line dropped to a .225/.286/.275/.560 against in 444 pitches (62% of which were thrown for strikes). His K:BB jumped by 20%. His Hard Hit percentage went from 43% down to 41% and overall exit velocities dropped from 91.1 mph to just under 90 mph. You can see in the final (bottom) two main sections that the exit velocities, xBAs, xSLGs, and xwOBAs dropped on his sinker, slider, and change up and most dropped on his curve as well. The pitch that got worse was his 4-seam fastball, but he threw it 39% less often compared to earlier in the year, so that's a good change for him! While Woodford's velocity dipped on 4 of his 5 pitches (not his change up), his spin rate jumped on all five pitches, especially his change up. He really was a completely different pitcher.
There were other slight changes, too. This could have been by design or (since it was a small sample of a partial season) it could have been by happenstance and sample size, but let's discuss those slight changes. On the left below is where he located his sinker in April through July. On the right below is where he located that sinker in September (remember he upped it's usage by 28% that month).
You can see on the right that his sinkers were located a little bit lower for the month of September. That's good for sinkers, typically, keeping them down in the zone. However, he didn't get more ground balls in September, which is quite interesting to me. His 4-seam location really didn't change despite him throwing it far less often and getting torched on it in September (compared to April through July).
Interesting to me is that I feel Woodford's slider location was much better in April through July (left below) than it was in September. However, the results on his slightly softer thrown, slightly higher spin slider later in the year were astonishingly better. Since hitters were teeing off on the 4-seam fastball, I wonder if those middle-ish sliders on the right were ones that Woodford fooled hitters on because they were gearing up to destroy the 4-seamer. Just a guess.
Much like his four-seam fastball, Woodford did not change the location on his curveballs that he threw pre- and post-demotion to the minors for the month of August. However, there's one more set of images to check in on and that is the locations of his change up. Now, the change up is not a pitch that Woodford threw a low, but in the first part of the year (left) he left it up in the zone a little too often for my taste. In the second part of the year (right), he had a larger portion lower in (and slightly below) the zone.
If Woodford can be a guy that mixes four to five pitches effectively as a starter and can consistently go 5 innings, then he might be just as valuable as a Steven Matz, or a non-2018 version of Miles Mikolas. While I am not sold on 5 starts (6 games) in September, upon checking in on these statistics above it seems that Woodford really had the ability to completely change who he was at the major league level mid-season in order to change his results. That is HUGE and bodes well for his future whether it is in the pen or in the rotation. I can't wait to see if he can even come close to replicating September 2021 in the upcoming season - if given the chance to.
Credit to USA Today for the picture I altered for the cover art.