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September 6, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Bring Me the Head of… Brandon Wood

by Jason Parks

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The Backstory
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.

The Expectations
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.

The Quotes

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. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Scouting,  Minor Leagues

33 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

ttt

Great article. Do you think at bats against other prospects with plus stuff are more valuable in terms of evaluating hitters (as they may have more predictive value)?

Sep 06, 2012 05:33 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Absolutely.

Sep 06, 2012 06:58 AM
 
sitdancer

Great piece, thanks JP. Reading it almost makes it seem like his issues should have been more predictable from the start, but I guess hindsight is always 20/20.

Do scouts too easily fall in love with power and impressive stats at the lower levels to recognize this? Is it the small sample size each of them likely had when making their predictions / ranking him so high? Or is it just impossible to tell that early whether or not a young prospect is able to make the necessary adjustments to succeed against higher quality stuff later on in their development?

Sep 06, 2012 06:11 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

It's easy to fall in love with a prospect like Brandon Wood. He was athletic and coordinated, and his hands were quick and strong, and the ball just exploded off his bat. It was a very legit package. Sometimes the weaknesses in a skill-set aren't killers until you reach the highest level and the superior talent exposes them. This needs to be said over and over again: The gap between Triple-A and the majors is enormous. You can be a monster in the minors and look like a star and simply not be good enough to hang with the best of the best.

Sep 06, 2012 07:04 AM
 
Ben Carsley

My favorite prospect piece on BP so far. I was talking myself into Wood even last season.

Sep 06, 2012 07:38 AM
rating: 4
 
SaxonB

Great article. As an Angels fan who is more than a casual observer but not paid to watch/write about baseball, it seemed pretty obvious that pitch recognition and inability to adjust was his biggest problem about a month into the 2010 season.

Coincidentally, I think Mark Trumbo might be a good comparison of someone who has, thus far, been able to overcome weaknesses in his skill-set that are similar to Wood's weaknesses.

With the exception of Trumbo's 2012 first-half, his pitch recognition and reaction seems to be pretty terrible too at times. He's done a better job at going the other way with pitches this year but still wildly swings a la Vladimir Guerrero at balls seemingly 6 inches + out of the zone.

Sep 06, 2012 07:49 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Here's why I think they are a different: I think Trumbo has learned to refine his approach somewhat, meaning he is more familiar with what pitch is a strike and what pitch is a ball, and what pitch he should swing at and what pitch he shouldn't. He's still has a particular taste and likes to be aggressive, and that will always lead to some chasing. I think Wood's fundamental problem was figuring out what type of pitch was being thrown out of the hand, and reacting accordingly. His strikezone judgment and propensity to whiff actually showed improvement in recent years, but it didn't make him a better hitter because the core of his problem is being able to properly identify the pitches he can work with early enough to actually work with them.

Sep 06, 2012 07:58 AM
 
bumphadley

Shouldn't the fact that he is a Texan allow him to eventually overcome this?

Sep 06, 2012 07:56 AM
rating: 2
 
jfranco77

This was definitely the best article in this series. Wood is such a fascinating study. I always assumed that a player with fast hands and good hand-eye coordination would be able to hit "enough" even if their recognition skills were poor. Wood clearly demonstrates that that isn't the case.

Of note, he was 18 years, 3 months when he was drafted... old enough that it matters, or not really?

Sep 06, 2012 08:02 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

The younger the better, but in Wood's case, his issues were already cemented as his issues. It just took the higher levels to expose them and exploit them.

Sep 06, 2012 08:05 AM
 
Hendo

"Succumbed to the curve ball" is the career epitaph of scores of otherwise brightly heralded prospects. What gets me is how long it took for this to become evident in Wood's case.

Sep 06, 2012 08:11 AM
rating: 0
 
adamarkm

Great article, and Brandon Wood seems like the poster child for the, "Bring Me the Head of…" series.

The 2006 Baseball American Handbook had the following quote, "(Wood) can drive balls to all fields but because of his bat speed and set-up, he opts to pull everything. That approach makes him vulnerable to pitches on the outer half. He had trouble with swinging and missing against good changeups, and he could tighten his strike zone in general."

Did all of the home runs he hits 2005 inhibit his ability to make adjustments, as kept swinging for the fences in the upper levels against better pitching? Or was it more pitch recognition issues? Or are those issues intertwined?

Sep 06, 2012 08:28 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I'm sure it's a combination of things. It always is. But as I mentioned, the mechanics and the approach weren't deal breakers; through professional coaching, repetition and adjustment, Wood had a chance to refine those particular aspects and at least function at the highest level. The pitch recognition issues have a ceiling, just like a hit tool has a ceiling, or a power tool has a ceiling. Wood was unlikely to improve on that front, and at the highest level, it was a deal breaker.

Sep 06, 2012 08:34 AM
 
Matt Commins

Do teams employ drills to increase a players recognition skills? How successful are these types of drills?

Sep 06, 2012 17:54 PM
rating: 1
 
Tim Collins

From a "just for fun" perspective I always wanted to see Wily Mo Pena get 600 PAs in a season just to see what his stat line would be. Reading this just put visions of Pena in my head.

Along those lines-- in a hypothetical dream world where a team that just didn't care about winning-- (C'mon Astros, you know you want it) what do you think a Brandon Wood stat line would look like? Could he be a Mark Reynolds-type? .230, 30 HR, 200Ks? Again, kind of wondering just for fun. Thanks!

Sep 06, 2012 08:35 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

He's been able to cut down on the Ks a bit in recent years; only 65 whiffs in 99 games in 2011 (majors) and only 97 whiffs in 119 games in Triple-A in 2012. That said, if given 600 PA at the major league level in 2013, I think he would struggle to hit over .200. He would probably run into 10-15 bombs, but RHP would own him, and I assume it would suck to witness because nobody wants to watch a player get destroyed night after night after night.

Sep 06, 2012 08:41 AM
 
timber

"...nobody wants to watch a player get destroyed night after night after night."

When I read this, my first thought was Brett Jackson. And I'm not a Cubs fan.

Sep 06, 2012 09:24 AM
rating: 1
 
fatted

"Each guy has some sort of ceiling when it comes to reaction time or time it takes for pitch recognition.”

I think anyone that has ever watched or played baseball subtly realizes that fact about hitting. But many of us have always believed that more practicing and coaching could overcome that inability to recognize and react to different pitches. Jason, as a scout how difficult is it to determine this ceiling for hitting, in terms of pitch recognition and reaction?

Sep 06, 2012 09:00 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I think it has to come at the highest level against the highest quality pitching. Sometimes you don't know what you really have until they face that test. Unless its exceptional either way, I don't think you can say with any accuracy until you see them perform against the best in the game.

While its true that projection is the name of the prospect game, you simply can't project certain things with any accuracy. The physical tools....yes. The hitter's ability to make adjustments....hopefully/maybe. But can we really forecast the cognitive stuff at the lower levels? I think its very gray.

Sep 06, 2012 09:09 AM
 
bline24

Why do you attribute Wood's problem with pitch recognition to a natural ceiling? In other words, what leads you to conclude that pitch recognition is a natural ability, like height, whereas the power skill can be developed with better technique? I don't necessarily disagree with you, but it's not obvious to me why recognition isn't a skill that can be improved like any other, either with physical enhancement, like contact lenses or eye surgery, or better deliberate practice. Do hitting instructors in the minors even try to improve players' pitch recognition (other than through mindless hours of bp)?

Sep 06, 2012 13:47 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Everything has a ceiling/limitation, ranging from the natural gifts to the learned application and utility of those gifts. You can't teach a hitter with 20 grade power to be a 60 grade power hitter. That's not going to happen, just like you can't teach a hitter with poor pitch recognition skills to have advanced pitch recognition skills, or you can't teach a player with limited baseball instincts to play the game with natural awareness. Some things come included in the package that the developmental process has little say over.

I just wanted to mention: There is a difference between plate discipline/approach and the ability to recognize the ball early out of the pitcher's hand and react. I consider the former to be a learned skill and I consider the latter to be a more intrinsic quality, much like instincts. Yes, better eyesight would certainly help, but these qualities are formed very early in life, and after you reach the limit of your capabilities, all the repetition in the world isn't going to make much of a difference. You can lack baseball instincts and receive top-notch baseball instruction every day of the week and its not going to make you an instinctual player. You might be able to refine your hit tool or your glove, but most players arrive on the professional scene with qualities that will either allow them to succeed or cause them to fail. This plays into the: baseball players are born, not made.

Sep 06, 2012 14:14 PM
 
Broken Arrow

Is Wood's skill set the kind that might translate well to baseball in Japan, where he could put up big numbers? Or are the kind of pitchers you typically see in Japan likely to give Wood fits?

Sep 06, 2012 09:13 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I think two things would happen: 1) Weak fastballs would go 450 ft a pop; and 2) Breaking balls would eat his face. So I think he would hit for extreme power until the book suggested a heavy breaking ball sequence, and then he would be in trouble.

Sep 06, 2012 09:17 AM
 
Brian Kopec

Good stuff. But who is this Kevin Goldstein you are quoting?

Sep 06, 2012 09:14 AM
rating: 11
 
andygamer

I seem to remember that PECOTA was not so rosy about Wood as evaluators. Is that recollection correct?

Sep 06, 2012 09:19 AM
rating: 0
 
carligula

More or less.

After 2005: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=4784 (#3 prospect at SS)

After 2006: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=5919 (#4 prospect at SS)

The relevant quote for me is in the first article: "A 21-year-old is just as likely as a 28-year-old or a 35-year-old to have a performance that is out of line with his underlying ability level--the sort of performance that we'd ordinarily call a 'career year.'" When a prospect puts up a monster year (statistically speaking, and Nate also points out just how much the Cal League inflated it) we want to interpret it as growth and development. But sometimes it's just a fluke.

Sep 06, 2012 13:35 PM
rating: 1
 
amazin_mess

Maa...classic BP. Information here you'd never get anywhere else.

Sep 06, 2012 13:53 PM
rating: 3
 
John Carter

I'm thinking, before we lose anyone else to ESPN or wherever, let's quietly sing our praises to Joe Hamrahi or whoever the editor of the day is. Oh, wait. Perhaps, it is the aspiration for greater audiences (and monetary compensation) that inspires the likes of Sam and Jason, etc. to give us such fine content. Never mind. Thanks for the excellent article.

Sep 06, 2012 15:24 PM
rating: 0
 
tmangell

Interesting note in your article about Wood's success in the AFL, Professor. Seven years after his terrific run in Arizona, how much stock should MLB scouts and pro personnel, as well as baseball junkies like me, place in a player's performance in the AFL? Don't we get overly excited about a A/AA player's performance in Arizona, and shouldn't fans simply say to themselves: "I'm a Cardinals fan, and I'm happy Kolten Wong is playing in the AFL, but I need to restrain my expectations until he produces at AAA, then I can dream about him playing second base in St. Louis?"

As an aside, a good friend of mine is putting together a road rally next summer through the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Recommendations on stops to sample product and car to rent to compliment the experience of savoring said liquor? Or, is this question more apropos for your advice column?

Sep 06, 2012 15:17 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

The AFL is a very hitter friendly environment, so I don't put much stock in the numbers, unless its gross domination. You want to see production, but you have to keep in mind that the stadiums are hitter-friendly and the pitching is usually substandard.

I only drink bourbon in the backseats of 1992 Mazda 626s, and I only do so when traveling on highways in the southern regions of the United States. I hope this helps.

Sep 06, 2012 15:40 PM
 
AndrewBokermann

Who is in line next for the "Bring me the Head of" Series? I would like to see a Josh Vitters.

Sep 07, 2012 09:31 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

Pedro Alvarez would be interesting.

Sep 08, 2012 04:59 AM
rating: 0
 
mbyrnes
(354)

Fantastic article.

Sep 07, 2012 16:15 PM
rating: 0
 
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