It was improbable, Brent Suter says, but not impossible. Yes, the man walking to the plate in the third inning of Game 1 of the 2018 NLCS between Suter’s Brewers and the Dodgers was a pitcher—his teammate, Brandon Woodruff. And yes, the man on the mound was Clayton Kershaw, who regularly makes the best hitters in the world look like … well, pitchers.
The odds were firmly against Woodruff, as they would be for any pitcher tasked with facing a future Hall of Famer, and no one pretended otherwise. See a couple pitches was what manager Craig Counsell told him, hoping Kershaw would at least have to work a little bit before the inevitable occurred.
Suter, though, was more optimistic about Woodruff’s chances. During indoor batting practice for Brewers pitchers, they’d often play a game, usually two versus two, to see who could hit the most line drives up the middle, with points awarded for pinging balls off the screens or driving them to the back net of the cage. “When we did those competitions, I always wanted him on my team, for good reason,” Suter says. “He’s got a great swing and really good plate discipline.” Maybe, he thought, there was a chance for something good, even against Kershaw.
But even in his wildest dreams, Suter probably couldn’t have imagined what happened. With a 2–2 count, Woodruff got a 92 mph fastball from Kershaw right in the middle of the strike zone. The righty—who hits lefty—took a big hack, driving the ball to deep right-centerfield. “I didn’t feel it off the barrel,” he says, but when Dodgers centerfielder Cody Bellinger drifted to a stop well shy of the wall with his head turned toward the bleachers, he knew: It was gone. To paraphrase Vin Scully: The impossible had happened.
It’s safe to say that homer came as a surprise to everyone involved. “I had no idea who he was,” says Milwaukee’s Yasmani Grandal, then granted a front-row seat as the Dodgers’ catcher. But as Woodruff proved that October night and is showing this season, he knows what to do with a bat. The 26-year-old is hitting a gaudy .429/.467/.571 in 2019 with a pair of doubles and two runs driven in, and since debuting two years ago, he’s put up a career line of .313/.371/.469. Those numbers wouldn’t look bad for a corner outfielder, much less a pitcher, considering the league line for that position this season is a wretched .115/.146/.168.
Granted, those stats come in a tiny sample size: only 15 plate appearances this year, and just 37 total for Woodruff’s career. But in that span of time, no pitcher has hit better: Among those with 30 or more at-bats since the start of 2017, Woodruff’s line is far and away the best of all his competitors. Even those pitchers renowned for their hitting prowess can’t touch him: Zack Greinke is hitting .239/.275/.366, and Madison Bumgarner is at .183/.206/.333.
So does that mean Woodruff has claimed the title of Best Hitting Pitcher? “Let’s give it a couple more years,” Grandal says. But while effusive in his praise for Bumgarner (“I love watching him hit. He’s taking donkey hacks out there.”) and Greinke (“He’s super smart. He looks like he sits on pitches all the time.”), he recognizes that Woodruff also has some real talent.
“He looks really hitterish at the plate,” Grandal says, using a word seldom invoked when it comes to pitchers. “You don’t see too many pitchers doing what he’s doing. He’s got a two-strike approach. He puts together good at-bats. If you miss, he’s going to make you pay.”
Informed of Grandal’s compliments, Woodruff laughed and downplayed his skill. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s hit as well as he has. He clobbered opposing pitchers in high school in Mississippi, batting .534 as a junior and .618 as a senior. A middle-of-the-order presence, he was moved to the top of the lineup for his last two seasons because no one would pitch to him. (That didn’t solve the issue entirely, though: Hitting leadoff, he says, “I’d get one at-bat to begin the game and then walked after that.”) His dreams of hitting beyond that, though, died once he reached Mississippi State. “Growing up in a small town, if guys were throwing over 80 miles per hour, it was a big deal,” he says. “The first time [in college] when I stepped in and there was somebody throwing 95, that’s when I realized how hard that was going to be.”
As a part-time outfielder and third-string first baseman, Woodruff hit just .105 that freshman season against the cream of the SEC crop. He was far more successful on the mound, striking out 37 in 34 innings. His struggles at the plate and his dislike of doing double duty—“It was hard to juggle both in college,” he says—convinced him his future was as a pitcher. That decision paid off: The summer after his junior year, the Brewers took him in the 11th round of the draft, and three years later, he was in the majors.
If Woodruff is to have a big impact for Milwaukee, it’s going to be with his arm. Having earned a rotation spot this spring, he’s off to a fine if unspectacular start, with a 4.71 ERA in seven starts. Though his peripherals—45 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings—suggest he’s been better than that. So too do his 95.6 mph four-seam fastball and the slider against which hitters are batting .209. That stuff is Woodruff’s main focus; hitting well is a nice bonus. “If I get a hit, I get a hit,” he says. “If I don’t, so be it. I’ve got to worry about my first job, and that’s getting outs.”
It’s clear that Woodruff does have a knack for his backup gig, though, and a flair for the dramatic, too. His first home run as a professional came in Double A in 2016, in his first game back with the team after his brother Blake died in an ATV accident; Woodruff’s blast was the decisive blow in a 1–0 win. “If you could write a movie script for it, that’s what I’d describe it as,” he says of the moment. His homer off Kershaw, meanwhile, tied Game 1, which the Brewers went on to win; Woodruff earned the victory with two scoreless innings out of the bullpen.
So far, all that success has earned Woodruff as a healthy dose of trash talking from his teammates when he fails to live up to his Barry Bonds billing. “If I get outs, they give me crap about doing that,” he says. But that doesn’t matter. Whether with home runs or a properly placed bunt, the most important thing is being a plus on offense as opposed to the negative pitchers frequently are. “Just get in there and try to see some pitches,” Woodruff says. “That’s the main goal.”
Most times they come to the plate, that’ll likely be the best he and any other pitcher will be able to do. Every now and then, though, Woodruff will break out of the mold and turn the improbable into reality.