Brandon Williamson’s steady improvement

Brandon Williamson’s steady improvement

It wasn’t long ago that Brandon Williamson was a top-100 prospect in baseball. He was regarded as the centerpiece of the Reds’ return from the Mariners in the trade involving Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez — the player who would make an unpopular move more palatable in the long run.

Williamson dominated in High-A and Double-A during the 2021 season, striking out 37.4% of the hitters he faced and walking just 8.1%. He seemed to be on the fast track to the major leagues, destined to join Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo at the top of the Reds’ future rotation for years to come.

But it hasn’t been quite that easy for Williamson. In his first season in the Reds organization, the left-hander took a big step back. He started 2022 in Double-A, with the Reds likely hoping he’d just need a little more seasoning at that level before moving up. But Williamson’s velocity was down. His control and command were diminished. The strikeouts plummeted and the walks skyrocketed. While he did eventually end the 2022 season in Triple-A, Williamson’s numbers at the end of the season (4.11 ERA, 4.60 FIP, 22.2 K%, 13.9 BB%) hardly resembled a future stalwart in an MLB rotation.

Coming into the 2023 season, he was nowhere to be found in top-100 prospect lists. However, there was renewed hope for Williamson based on early reports in spring training. A rotation spot was there for the taking. It didn’t pan out, as he got hit hard during spring games, forcing the Reds to option him to Triple-A. Even in Louisville, Williamson struggled to right the ship. He started eight games, posting a 6.62 ERA and 6.63 FIP while his strikeouts stayed low (16.4%) and his walks stayed high (12.1%). Out of necessity, the Reds called him up in May for a spot start in, of all places, Coors Field. Against what seemed like long odds at the time, Williamson pitched well in his MLB debut and has remained in the big-league rotation ever since.

Of course, it hasn’t been all roses for Williamson. His Baseball Savant card reflects that in a sea of blue. In his first handful of starts, he looked much like the pitcher who had been struggling in the minor leagues. His velocity remained down, he wasn’t striking out many batters, he was still walking too many batters, and his command within the strike zone left a lot to be desired. Through his first six starts in the big leagues, Williamson had a 5.40 ERA, 6.08 FIP, and 5.58 xFIP in 31.2 innings. It looked like he’d find himself back in Louisville sooner rather than later, assuming the Reds could find a healthy alternative for the rotation spot.

But as injuries piled up, Williamson stayed in the big leagues and got to work with pitching coach Derek Johnson. Slowly but surely, signs of the former top-100 prospect have re-emerged.

In nine starts and 43.2 innings since June 19, the 6-foot-6 lefty has a 3.92 ERA, 4.23 FIP, and 4.39 xFIP — a vast improvement from his marks in six starts prior to that (5.40 ERA, 6.08 FIP, 5.58 xFIP). Those numbers include a start in Baltimore on June 26. You may remember that was the start in which Williamson had to pitch through a monsoon because the umpires wouldn’t stop the game, resulting in three runs and four walks in two innings before a rain delay was finally called. This isn’t how baseball works, of course, but if we could throw out that start, Williamson would have a 3.46 ERA, 4.08 FIP, and 4.17 xFIP since June 19.

The most encouraging aspect of Williamson’s recent performance is an increase in strikeouts and a dip in walks — two areas where he was struggling to get results dating back to last season. Over his last nine starts, he has an above-average strikeout rate (24.1%). And while his 9.2% walk rate is still higher than league average for starting pitchers (7.9%), it’s much more palatable than the double-digit rates he was posting in the minor leagues and early in his MLB career.

Since the rainy Baltimore start, those numbers have been even better (24.8 K%, 8.5 BB%).

Williamson has taken a significant step in the right direction, especially considering where he was not long ago, when most had started to count him out. It culminated in brilliant start against the Marlins on Monday, which Williamson said “might be the best start of my life.” The 25-year-old spun 6.2 innings of one-run baseball, striking out nine and walking no one to help snap the Reds’ six-game losing streak.

What, exactly, has changed for the southpaw?

Renewed velocity

Even as Williamson was still searching for better results, a glimmer of hope appeared: his fastball velocity started to rise.

In the Mariners organization, Williamson’s fastball sat at 92-94 mph and could reach 96. It was the prototypical four-seamer that worked best when thrown up in the zone, where it could blow by hitters and set up his plus secondary pitches, a slider and changeup. Last year, his velocity fell to 90-92 mph. His four-seamer averaged 91.4 mph in eight Triple-A starts this season and was exactly the same through three big-league outings. Since then, however, his fastball has averaged 93.1 mph and topped out at 96.0 mph — back where it was in 2021.

Williamson regularly started averaging 93 mph with his four-seamer in his June 19 start against the Rockies, and he started to maintain better vertical movement on the pitch in that start, too. Let’s compare the data in the six starts before and nine starts after that point.

While Williamson isn’t exactly blowing the four-seamer by hitters now — the whiff rate is still below average for a four-seamer — the results have improved. In addition to the increased velocity simply being harder for hitters to catch up with, Williamson has also added some “rise” to his fastball, which means his fastball isn’t dropping as much as it did early in the year. This is particularly advantageous since he likes to throw the pitch up in the zone, and fastballs with more rise tend to get more whiffs and weak popups the higher they’re thrown.

Williamson’s four-seam fastball hasn’t developed into an unhittable pitch or anything of that ilk. But it has certainly improved — and it needed to considering he throws it 36% of the time — which can give him a bit more margin for error.

Improved control and command

Williamson was trying to get his young career back on track when he began throwing a cutter late in 2022 while at Triple-A Louisville. Several pitchers around baseball have adopted a cutter to get their careers back on track, with the most notable example being former Red Wade Miley, who started throwing it in 2017 under the guidance of Johnson.

Usage of the pitch at an all-time high in the pitch-tracking era. Why? Because batters fare worse against cutters than the other two types of fastballs, four-seamers and sinkers, as Michael Baumann recently outlined at FanGraphs. Many pitchers with underwhelming four-seamers or sinkers have started adopting cutters. The cutter is designed to look like a four-seam fastball, but instead of tailing away to the pitcher’s arm side, it moves the opposite way toward their glove side. When tunneled effectively, it can be especially hard for batters to tell a cutter and four-seamer apart when a pitcher frequently throws them both.

Williamson reintroduced the cutter to his arsenal early this year in the minor leagues and has thrown it 27.2% of the time in the majors. In his most recent start, it was his primary pitch over his four-seam fastball. It’s clear, though, that Williamson intends to use the cutter and four-seamer as his primary pitches, which means his command needs to be on point. And it certainly has been over the last two months.

Location+ is a component of the Pitching+ model that attempts to measure a pitcher’s ability to throw a certain pitch in the ideal place, depending on the ball-strike count. An average pitcher has a score of 100; anything higher is above average, and anything lower is below average. For reference, starting pitchers this season range from a Location+ of 93 (Michael Kopech) to 109 (George Kirby).

In Williamson’s first five starts, he sported a Location+ of 95. But he has steadily improved his command throughout the season:

(Note: Pitching+ data for Williamson’s July 17 start is unavailable.)

It hasn’t been just one pitch carrying the load, either. Williamson has improved his command of all five pitches he throws.

The biggest improvement has come on his newest pitch, the cutter.

Williamson added velocity to his cutter as well, now sitting at 90 mph as opposed to 87-88. But most importantly, Williamson has dotted the edges of the strike zone with his cutter. Behold:

Here’s a hexbin chart showing Williamson’s cutter location over his last nine starts:

Among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100 cutters since the start of July, only two (Zach Eflin, Lance Lynn) have thrown a higher percentage on the edge of the strike zone than Williamson (52.7%)

Williamson has thrown his cutter to hitters on both sides of the plate, and his improved command has seen him get the pitch inside more against righties and away from lefties. He has even gotten more comfortable throwing backdoor cutters to right-handed hitters, where he has piled up called strikes. Better results have followed.

Williamson’s secondary pitches have also improved. He switched from a slider to a sweeper as his primary breaking ball. His sweeper is about 2 mph slower than his slider, but it gets 10 more inches of horizontal movement on average. It has been his go-to pitch for swings and misses against left-handed hitters, boasting a 32.1% whiff rate. But he’s not afraid to throw it to righties, either.

Most of the batters Williamson faces are right-handed, though, and he has piled up swings and misses with his changeup. The pitch gets nearly three inches of drop above average as it tumbles away from righties. Williamson has a 43.4% whiff rate on his changeup, which is bested by only three starting pitchers in baseball with at least 50 swings against the pitch. And the names in front of him are mighty impressive: Shane McLanahan, Spencer Strider, and Blake Snell.

Final thoughts

When it comes to Williamson’s improvements, we’re still talking about a small sample size. There’s still a long way to go before declaring him a finished product. After all, it wasn’t long ago that he was struggling in Triple-A. He’s still young, and he’ll still have bad starts — especially as a flyball pitcher in Great American Ball Park.

But there are clear signs Williamson is getting better, as his improved results have followed tangible changes. It isn’t just random variance or luck (although, yes, his .259 BABIP is due for regression). He’s rediscovered his fastball velocity. He’s learned to better utilize his cutter, which is still a relatively new pitch for him, and play it off his four-seamer. And perhaps most importantly, he’s significantly improved his control and command — he’s not only throwing more strikes, but he’s locating pitches on the edges of the zone. All of this has helped him do two basic things that every pitcher strives to do: get more strikeouts and issue fewer walks.

Williamson’s improvement is a testament to his hard work as well as the guidance of Derek Johnson. And if Williamson can maintain these gains over a longer stretch, he has a strong chance to stick in the Reds’ rotation for a long time.

Featured photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

3 Responses

  1. Pinson343 says:

    It’s been a remarkably steady progression. Except for the rainy start in Baltimore and the windy start in Chicago, he’s gradually progressed from one start to the next.
    And there are other examples of Derek Johnson’s excellent work this season.

  2. Brian Van Hook says:

    Good stuff, Matt, thanks for doing it.

  3. Brian Van Hook says:

    Would add that Williamson, Connor Phillips and Jake Fraley are making that Suarez/Winker trade look better and better.