It’s not supposed to be this easy. But Brandon Woodruff keeps making it appear that way.
Like a newborn who immediately sleeps peacefully through the night or a puppy who’s potty trained on arrival, Woodruff has simply skipped the growing pains when it comes to both pitching at the Triple-A level for the Sky Sox and facing the obstacle of retiring hitters in America’s highest-elevation ballpark.
“It all starts with my fastball,” said Woodruff, whose 5-0 start for the Sky Sox includes a 4-0 mark with a 1.54 ERA at Security Service Field. “I’ve always been a big fastball guy, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Woodruff’s velocity – sitting at 94-96 MPH – would play anywhere, but pitching coach Fred Dabney said it’s more than speed that has allowed the pitch to key an effective arsenal at a park that has been known to ruin pitchers.
First, Woodruff has been able to locate the fastball on both sides of the plate. Working on the inside has paid dividends as it has moved batters off the plate and aided a change-up that Woodruff said he can tell has lost some of its movement and effectiveness at high altitude.
Second, Woodruff’s delivery angle naturally creates deception for hitters.
“Hitters don’t know when the ball leaves his hand if it’s going to be middle or inner-third, and that’s a credit to Woodruff and the pitcher that he is,” Dabney said.
Other factors have come into play as well. With a build like a Roger Clemens at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Woodruff seems impervious to some of the unfavorable conditions the team has endured through the first month. He also may be benefiting from a bit of good fortune, as hitters have posted a .258 batting average on balls in play against him – down from .285 last year in 20 Double-A starts.
Woodruff's success has benefited from career bests in walk rate (1.83 per 9 innings) and line drive percentage (10.6).
Dabney has seen enough pitchers come through Colorado Springs to see that some are legitimately impacted by the environment, and he has seen the charts that illustrate how much less horizontal and vertical movement pitches receive at home vs. the road because of the thin Colorado air. But he’s also seen pitchers who find themselves beaten by the fear of that environment. And that hasn’t been the case with Woodruff, who threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings in his first home start and has largely kept that pace.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and he’s got a chance to be one of the best young pitchers I’ve had,” said manager Rick Sweet, who’s overseen more than 3,500 games as a minor league manager. “His makeup and demeanor on the mound … you talk about mound presence, his is way up there. When he gets on the mound he’s got control of the game.”
The Sky Sox pitching staff as a whole has been vastly improved this season. The team ERA entering the week was 3.43, good for third in the Pacific Coast League. Last year it finished at 5.06. In fact, 2009 was the last time a Colorado Springs pitching staff had a collective ERA under 5.00 or finished better than 14th in the 16-team PCL in that category.
Paolo Espino is 3-0 with a 2.94 ERA. Josh Hader has had his moments at 3-2, 4.54. And Brent Suter has come down from Milwaukee to go 2-1 with a 3.48 ERA in 10 1/3 innings.
“It is a competition,” Dabney said. “Not only are they competing against other teams. They’re competing against themselves, also. They’re tremendous teammates to each other, but they know that there’s also the competition because they’re competing for the next opportunity to go to the big leagues. They want to be the guy who is the next one called to either get back up there or go up there.”
Woodruff, Milwaukee’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2016, has to be in the conversation to be the next to go.
“You do (wonder when a call might come), but you just try to focus on each outing,” Woodruff said. “That day will come, and when it happens it will happen, but until then you’ve just got to focus on making pitches and giving your team a chance to win.”