Updated: May 2, 2019
THIS IS A COUNTDOWN!!!!! Over the next forty-something days starting on February 12th and ending on March 28th, I will be rolling out my Top 35 prospects in the Cardinals organization. We call it "The Dirty Thirty-Five" because it's marketable, I think. Also, we call it that because my write-ups and evaluations are a little different. I’m kind of quirky and goofy guy and the evaluations fit that personality. I've already written about the four players that graduated off the list. I've also written about the guys that just missed the list. You should check those out because you're going to have questions about my sanity afterwards. The article about the guys that didn’t make the D35 is really freaking good. This list is my own. It's terrible. I'm fine with it. Remember, have fun with these lists. Ranking prospects is a joke, but it's fun so treat all of the prospect ranking accordingly.
Jake Woodford - Right-Handed Pitcher
Drafted in the 1st round (Comp. Balance Pick) of the 2015 draft
STATS AS OF 5-1-2019
*This is another article that'll suffer from my deleted .gif archive. I'm sorry about that, once again. I really wanted to show you how good his curve can be and compare that with how bad it can be. The .gif's will still give you an idea of how it can be bad even when it's moving well, but I won't be able to give you what I wanted. So, one more time, I apologize.*
This is the story of a high school pitching prospect that was once considered by many to be the best draft-eligible high school pitcher in the state of Florida. At the time, both Brady Singer and Tristan McKenzie were pitchers that fit into that category. That's how talented Woodford was when the Cardinals drafted him. That goes to show you how potentially gifted this young man is capable of being.
Unfortunately, not everything has gone according to plan, even if the future is still potentially bright for this young right-hander. However, this is still a cautionary tale of just how volatile both scouting and the draft are, and how tough it is to truly lock-down how good a player will be.
There are a couple of things to really take note of in the career stat line of Woodford. First, you'll notice that he was really good at the beginning of his minor league career. Low walk rate. Good K rate. He threw a lot of strikes and induced a lot of weak contact. You'll also notice that each step along the way has been a little more trying than the last. He did post a better ERA in 2017 than he did in 2016, but that should go to show you just how misleading ERA can be when taken on its own.
What you'll then start to notice is that he began to allow a lot of additional hard contact. He has been young for all of these levels because the Cardinals have been aggressive in promoting him. The downward trend of these numbers indicates that his stuff wasn't exactly ready for, or good enough for, those levels. Also, that 3.10 ERA in 2017 came in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, thus skewing the accuracy of that number even more.
At this point, it might seem like I'm being extremely negative. I want to point out that even these negatives come with the asterisk that these were not easy assignments for Woodford. He was young for these levels, and he was pitching against hitters that he just wasn't exactly ready for. It could be argued that it's impressive that he's been able to do as well as he's been able to do. Especially for a pitcher without a pitch to put hitters down. That's a good sign that he's very well prepared for each start. it's also a sign that he has a solid plan of attack.
Next, let me use Woodford as my example of why it's so hard to scout players at the minor league level. Last year was Woodford's fourth season in the organization. Over that time, I've seen him toy with no less than ten thousand different pitches.
I swear, last year he threw a cutter while going sinker-heavy. There was a time when his changeup looked like it was one of the better changeups in the system. This year, it seemed like he was throwing a four-seamer more. I've heard people talk about a slider, too. For the life of me, I can't tell his slider from his cutter. The kid seems to have toyed with every variation of every pitch that exists. If he ever makes the majors, he'll be the guy that the Fox Sports Midwest producers will fall in love with because he's trying to learn Bob Gibson's cutter, or whatnot.
The other thing that always catches my eye about Woodford is that he's been a consistently better pitcher at the end of his time at a level as compared to the beginning of his time at the level. Now, this might seem like a no-brainier observation, but it isn't. I like that he doesn't seem to wear down as the season progresses. It's a sign that his body is capable of handling a real work load. I do wonder how skewed it is because of how late season promotions work in the minor leagues, but not so much that I think it's an aggressive variable. I truly believe that Woodford just get's stronger and more comfortable.
Speaking of repertoire, one of the things that I love about Woodford is his arsenal. His fastball is a low-90's pitch with average movement that's really good when he's throwing it in the lower-third of the zone. I've heard that he can dial it up past 95 MPH, but if he's doing it then he's not doing it often enough to talk about just yet.
As I mentioned, his changeup has always been consistently "average". There have been times in the past where it looked like a potential "plus" pitch. Now, it seems like a nice little average-to-above offering in the long run.
What has really been encouraging to me is the development of his curve. It still lacks consistency, but it has the chance to be a well-above-average pitch. He's show the capability to throw it back door to lefties while wiping righties out with. He does hang the pitch way too often because he doesn't have above-average consistent command (or control) of it yet. I do believe that there's reason to believe that more command and control of it are coming.
I really need to stress that the continued development of this pitch is going to make or break him. If he can hone it then he'll finally have the strikeout pitch that he needs. If he doesn't, then he's just going to let up too much contact for it to matter.
It can't be easy to develop these pitches at such a young age. It has to be even more difficult to develop these pitches while pitching at the advanced levels. The progress that Woodford has made with them is very encouraging.
Woodford has a big and lumbering delivery that he does a very good job of repeating. As I mentioned in the write-up of prospect #29 Seth Elledge, I'm a big fan of pitchers that use their entire body to throw and not just their arms. Woodford is one of those pitchers. It appears to me that he separates his arms a little further and longer to throw his breaking pitch, but that is more of a weak observation than it is a concrete fact. It's something that I'll be keeping a closer eye on in 2019. You'll notice that he moves slowly at the beginning, then finishes quickly. That helps to generate a bit of deception.
The main issue with Woodford at this point is that he allows a lot of base runners. Not just contact numbers, but a lot of base runners. He's also allowing too much hard contact. He averaged 13.6 base-runners per nine innings in 2018, while allowing a career high 1.1 home run per nine innings. These are alarming trends worth keeping an eye on, even if they are swayed by the advanced level of talent that he has been pitching to.
I am encouraged that his strikeout rate went back up in 2018. I'm also encouraged that his K-rate at AA basically matched his K-rate at AAA. Unfortunately, 15.9% strikeouts just isn't going to be enough. Especially for a pitcher that saw his groundball rate at AAA drop to 36.8%.
If that strikeout rate isn't going to improve then he's going to need to get his groundball rate as close to the 50% mark as possible. How tough is baseball?!?! It's just such a crazy and tough balance, and it's so hard to be good at playing it!!! Anyway, he's hittable when he's flat:
The most encouraging thing about Mr. Woodford's 2018 season was that he ended it strong, like he always does. His last start of the regular season was strong, and he really came into his own during the AAA postseason.
He pitched four innings in "relief" (following a Mike Mayers one-inning rehab start) and allowed two hits, while striking out four and throwing a ton of strikes. Then, to win the PCL championship, Woodford pitched 7.1 innings, while allowing three hit, walking one, and striking out six. It was his second longest start of the season and it yielded a game score of 82 (according to MiLB). That was his highest game score of the season.
I absolutely loved how he ended the season, and it left me wanting more. What an encourage way to end a relatively tough 2018 season!
THE BOTTOM LINE
While the stats might not exactly show a prospect with a huge future or a budding career, Woodford has done a great job throughout his minor league career of holding his own at advanced levels. While he lets up too much hard contact and puts too many hitters on base, his repertoire is developing. He seems like he just might be on the cusp of having a very good three pitch arsenal, with a curve that might be even more than average. 2019 Will be the first year of his minor league career in which he'll be pitching against like-experienced and similar-talented hitters. I fully expect him to excel, comparatively to his last couple of seasons. He's in a position to be called upon by the big league club, one way or the other, during the 2019 season.
**SPRING TRAINING UPDATE**
I wrote this article before Spring Training started, so I wanted to give you an update on how Woodford has been doing. He received the third start of spring, and he did decently. He allowed two hits, one walk, and two earned runs over two innings pitched, while striking out one. Here's what Baseball America's Kyle Glaser had to say about his performance:
Followed by this:
Really seems to compliment what I said above, eh?! And so goes spring training! Also, the Hall Of Famer Rick Hummel wrote this article about Woodford that's worth a read. Enjoy!
MAY 1st UPDATE
It's been a GREAT start to the 2019 season for Woodford. You might be able to argue that he's been the best pitcher down on the farm, for the Cardinals. His "stuff" has definitely taken a large step forward, and we are seeing that in his increased strikeout numbers. However, that's coming at the expensive of his command. Woodford is walking A LOT of hitters right now. That's something to keep an eye on. One thing that I do like about it, is that Woodford has done a very good job of pitching out of trouble. Jake Woodford is going to be an interesting case study moving forward.