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Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Why the Mariners’ Bryan Woo is one of baseball’s unlikeliest aces

Through his first six starts this season, Mariners pitcher Bryan Woo has a 1.07 ERA.   (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

Ask a baseball pundit about Bryan Woo’s rise and they’ll likely give you the same answer as a batter who’s faced his fastball.

“I never saw it coming.”

Yes, the Mariner with one of the most deceptive deliveries in baseball deked most who tried to evaluate his talent as well.

We are talking about a man who had to walk on at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before going in the sixth round of the MLB draft after undergoing Tommy John surgery. We are also talking about the man whose 1.07 ERA is the lowest in Mariners history through the first six starts of the season.

This is a Smart Car-sized sample for the second-year player, who hasn’t thrown more than 85 pitches all season. But the Oakland native who was undersized throughout adolescence has become the biggest story for the first-place Mariners.

And he’s essentially doing it with two pitches — both of which are fastballs that don’t exceed 95 mph.

This is a little like dominating a golf tournament with a 3-wood, 5-wood and a putter. Woo doesn’t have overwhelming velocity, yet his four-seamer and sinker comprise nearly 80% of his pitches. The problem for hitters is his one-of-a-kind delivery in which he A) hides the ball longer than most hurlers in the game, and B) releases it just 4 feet and 11 inches above the ground — the lowest in MLB.

In other words, by the time batters finally see what they are supposed to hit, it’s coming from an angle no other pitcher can replicate. The result for Woo (3-0) has been a 1.07 ERA, a 0.535 WHIP and an even 12-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, all of which would lead MLB if he’d pitched enough innings.

He hasn’t, of course, as elbow inflammation delayed his 2024 debut until May 10. But since then, the No. 5 man in the rotation has been a five-star asset for the first-place Mariners.

What do you make of all this?

“Honestly, I think I’ve just completely dove into basically our philosophy here of, you know, attacking hitters and going right at guys and trusting my stuff,” said Woo, 24. “The fastball velo has been pretty average, the secondaries have been OK, not great, but I think it’s just a testament to, like, every outing, I’ve just been able to make those adjustments to whatever you got that day.”

Woo has been a spectacular pitcher for the Mariners. He wouldn’t be such a spectacular publicist for himself. This has been a lot more than simply making adjustments. This has been the byproduct of a truly unique skill set.

As mentioned earlier, nobody has a release point as low as Woo’s. Few hide the ball as long, either. The combo essentially makes a 94-mph fastball feel like a 100-mph bullet. How did this come to be?

“Yeah, I mean, I guess the release point has kind of happened like, over time. I threw pretty over the top when I first started pitching in like high school. And then I think over the years, it’s just like gotten lower. Not by me trying to do anything or, like consciously changing it. I think it’s just happened naturally,” Woo said. “I think trying to incorporate like an athletic delivery. I used to play infield, so that feels more natural to me than, you know, trying to throw like a different way.”

Woo was a two-way player in college before turning his focus to pitching. And he didn’t perform particularly well on the mound at Cal Poly, where he posted an 8.75 ERA his first season and a 6.11 in his third.

But this is how scouts earn their money. The man had something that Seattle’s front office noticed, and the club picked him up in the sixth round of the 2021 draft before bringing him to the majors midway through last season.

So far this year, he has been the best pitcher on what’s considered by many to be the best rotation in MLB. Quite the tale.

If you think Woo’s release point is low, you should see where his name was in the recruiting rankings throughout high school. He said he doesn’t hold any grudges toward anybody who underestimated his ability, but he certainly embraces those who supported him.

Monday, he mentioned how a member of the Mariners pitching staff, Trent Blank was “a believer in me since day one, which there hasn’t been a lot of.”

Well, the belief is plentiful now.

It’s hard to think that this level of success will continue for Woo, who is pitching at a Cy Young level, but who knows? The challenge now is to keep him healthy and build his arm strength up to the point that he can go seven or eight innings deep.

His next start comes Tuesday against the White Sox. You might want to check it out. Hitters can’t see his pitches, but Woo is a must-see performer right now.