September 6, 2012
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
Bring Me the Head of… Brandon Wood
Brandon Wood was selected by the Angels in the first round of the 2003 draft, and profiled as the rare middle-of-the-diamond defender who might develop into a rare middle-of-the-order hitter. Wood was a late bloomer in high school, and didn’t share a physical resemblance with the classic power hitter, but his offensive game featured a remarkable ability to make loud contact, the kind of natural power that you can identify with the ears just as easily as with the eyes. In a brief short-season sample, Wood flashed some of that pop, recording 30 extra base hits in 61 games between the rookie complex league and the rookie Pioneer league. His game featured some swing-and-miss but, at the tender age of 18, the concerns were just mentions on the page, not monoliths in his path. It was early, but the buzz was audible and Wood was out of the developmental blocks with a good, clean start.
Moving up to full season ball in 2004, Wood was solid but not spectacular. He struggled to make consistent contact, and was showing a propensity to chase balls out of the zone. The environments of the Midwest league often depressed the game power, but you could tell Wood had something special in that bat; his hands were extremely fast and strong, and he could generate tremendous bat speed. With deep hands in the load, Wood brought leverage to the table that could launch a bowling ball over a mountain, and his tape measure shots in batting practice tickled all the ticklish parts of the scouts in attendance. Despite the swing-and-miss that remained in his game, the 19-year-old more than held his own in a difficult full season league; with the friendlier confines of the California League awaiting him in 2005, an offensive breakout was entirely possible.
What happened in 2005 would change the way we view Brandon Wood the prospect and the player forever, as the predicted breakout turned into a violent explosion of offensive potential so intense that many national prognosticators named their first-born after him. In 130 games in the hitter-friendly California League, Wood hit 43 bombs, many of which still haven’t landed. His overall ability to make contact had improved, and if you were a pitcher without a major league fastball, Wood was going to emasculate you in front of your teammates, coaches, parents, friends, and pets. He topped off his seasonal chef-d’oeuvre by hitting 14 in the Arizona Fall League, and based on the positive chatter at the time, Wood could have run for public office and won in a landslide. The numbers looked great, but the swing-and-miss was a growing pachyderm for some; others simply suggested that high strikeout totals would always be a big part of his game, and as long as the power continued to play, everything would be fine and the world was wonderful and Brandon Wood was a hero and power is sexy.
Double-A would be a big test for the big hitter with the big swing, and sure enough, the big miss in that big swing was asking for more of the spotlight. In over 500 plate appearances, Wood whiffed an alarming 149 times against Texas League pitching, and the concerns over his offensive deficiencies were mounting. He was still able to show off his pop, with 71 extra base hits, including 25 fence rips, which continued to be a wall of defense against his weaknesses and allowed his prospect status to remain prominently displayed on the prospect landscape. The book on Wood in 2006 still had a happy ending, although the narrative was a bit optimistic for some; those that watched Wood struggle against off-speed pitches or quality velocity above the hands saw a hitter that wouldn’t be able to replicate his minor league heroics against major league pitching. His value was still very high, as his defensive skill set could keep him at shortstop, although his tools on that side of the ball weren’t exceptional and his profile had more quality at the hot corner. When he did make contact, the ball still exploded off his bat, and if you made a mistake or showed up to the ballpark with weak stuff, Wood was likely to make you remember the experience for a long time.
Coming into the 2007 season, Wood was ranked eighth overall in the game by Baseball America, and with easy plus-plus pop in his stick and the ability to play on the left side of the infield, you can certainly make a case that the optimistic ranking was justified based on the potential alone. But the concerns about the swing-and-miss weren’t silenced by the optimism, and as Wood once again impressed with his power, he also continued to struggle with off-speed offerings and zone expansion. He was allowed to sample the major league level a few times throughout the season, but he was never given a serious look with consistent reps, so the results held little significance. Wood was still young, and his numbers in the Pacific Coast League were still good, although not nearly as incandescent as previous campaigns, and the superstar savior of 2005 was looking more solid-average than ever before. It’s funny what upper level baseball can do to fantasies of the future.
Wood’s 2008 season would be viewed as a failure by some and a success by others, as the 23-year-old bombed in an extended major league look, but took several steps forward in his return to the PCL, making better contact, striking out less, and hitting for more power. The major league look wasn’t encouraging, and there isn’t any way to spin it to make it appealing, but his response to the failure was impressive, and after his well-balanced performance for Salt Lake, he looked ready to once again take his act to the major league stage.
You know the rest of the story. Wood has split time between the major leagues and Triple-A, never finding his stroke at the highest level, and often teasing us all with his promise once he got sent back to the minors. Wood was given his first long look at the major league level in 2010, and after 243 plate appearances and an OPS of .382, his poor performance was now abject poverty, and it was hard to see a major league quality hitter, much less an impact talent. In 99 games with the Pirates in 2011, Wood was able to achieve an OPS that was slightly over .600, and even the staunchest supporters were on the dark side of optimism. Brandon Wood had failed to develop into a major leaguer.
Most players taken in the first round of the draft are saddled with the burden of expectation, but Wood’s reached a high intensity after his colossal 2005 season, when he morphed into a monster and became a prospect sensation. After he freaked out and ate a village of innocent California League baseballs for fuel and for fun, Wood was celebrated for what he was: a power hitting shortstop. The comparisons to Cal Ripken were inevitable, and the legend he created on the field was expected to grow in stature as he developed into the prophecy. Not many players in the game project to have a premium bat at a premium defensive position, and early on, Wood was given all the applicable labels based on his unique skill set. When national publications like Baseball America, ESPN, and Baseball Prospectus start calling you a top ten prospect in the game, ahead of names like Lincecum or Kershaw or Longoria, fans expect you to live up the hype, so the bigger the promotion, the bigger the potential for disappointment.
“This is an elite offensive performer who should be a consistent middle-of-the-order threat in any lineup. Defensively, he's similar to Cal Ripken in that he does not have a ton of range, but he makes the play on everything he gets to. The way things are shaking out in the Angels system, he may move to third base, where his defensive tools and plus arm should work well. If that happens, you're looking at a Scott Rolen.” --Kevin Goldstein (July 2006)
“He profiles as a middle-of-the-order run producer with 25-30 or more homers per year while being capable of handling shortstop. Comparisons range from Cal Ripken because of his tall, lean build and deceptively smooth defense, to Troy Glaus for his light-tower power and aggressive approach.” –Baseball America (2008 Handbook)
“[In a perfect world, he becomes]…. An All-Star run producer who could push 100 extra-base hits annually.” –Kevin Goldstein (January 2007)
So, What Happened?
Several things happened that caused Wood to fail at the major league level, and you can assign weight as you see fit. Before I begin, I just want to mention that the majority of the scout sources I used for this piece were either former pitchers who faced Wood, or former teammates of Wood, which really helped paint a picture of the player for me. Across the board, his makeup and work ethic were championed, and some of his batting practice displays of years past were not easily forgotten and live on in dramatic retellings of the event. Apparently, Brandon Wood did in fact hit a baseball over a mountain.
While it was clear that Brandon Wood had lots of swing-and-miss in his game, it’s not always clear why a hitter strikes out a lot. Wood has a lengthy swing that starts with a deep hand load that helps create exploitable holes in several quadrants of the zone, most notably inside and above the hands. Despite the impressive hands and bat speed, his bat struggled to catch up to plus velocity, and it was made worse by his pull-side tendencies and early hip fire which left him open. The leverage he used to create the near-elite power came at a price, and his contact rates were always going to have to take a backseat to the power. But is this really why he failed?
I think Wood could have survived at the major league level as a low batting average/high power type, the kind of hitter that gives you a .250 average with 150 strikeouts but also drops 30 bombs. This would be possible if his only problem at the plate was a mechanical one, as he is an athletic and coordinated hitter and some form of adjustment would be possible. But Wood’s main issues were with recognition and reaction, and ultimately, he was doomed to fail because of these deficiencies in his skill set. From the beginning of his career, Wood struggled to adjust to off-speed pitches, and by the time he reached the high minors, the book was written on how to exploit him. When I asked one source about these recognition/reaction issues, he gave a very interesting and telling response: “He had good hand-eye coordination, great hands, and fast, loose wrists, but it was his pitch recognition and reaction. At the higher levels, that breaking ball doesn’t pop up out of the hand, the arm speed doesn’t slow down, and the fastball is never middle-in. Each guy has some sort of ceiling when it comes to reaction time or time it takes for pitch recognition.”
Another source that faced Wood on multiple occasions suggested that it was always known that you could beat Brandon Wood with stuff, either velocity or a sharp breaking ball. If you could put the fastball above the hands, Wood would struggle to find it. If you could drop a sharp hammer, Wood wouldn’t be able to track it and would swing over it. The best quote was: “Unfortunately, I didn’t have stuff or a sharp breaking ball, so Wood killed me.” That’s basically who Brandon Wood is: a guy with a remarkable ability to create loft and backspin and put baseballs in the bleachers. If you have weak stuff—which you will find all throughout the minors, especially at the lower levels—Wood is going to make you pay for your mistakes and he is going to look very good for doing so. But if you come at Wood with a plan, executed by offering velocity or a deception pitch, you are most likely going to win the battle. You can get Wood to expand his zone, you can get him out on his front foot, and you can shift the count in your favor because of his aggressive tendencies early in the count. So there was a roadmap for Wood’s demise, and if you had the necessary skills, you could follow the directions and record an out. Major league pitchers can follow directions.
You can make an argument that Wood was always set up to fail, not because of the expectations placed upon him after the draft or after he went Godzilla in 2005, but because of a deficiency in his skill set that was never going to allow him to enjoy success against a certain quality of opponent. It’s reductive, of course, to suggest that he just wasn’t good enough to play in the majors, but that’s really what it comes down to with Brandon Wood. His weaknesses were more powerful than his strengths, and it seems highly unlikely that his career will rebound based on the nature of the weaknesses themselves.
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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