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WOODS JR. USING NEW CONFIDENCE IN RELIEF ROLE TO DEVELOP IN ARIZONA FALL LEAGUE

Right-hander Stephen Woods Jr. is using his newfound confidence as a reliever to develop in the Arizona Fall League. (Nicholas Badders / NWA Naturals)
November 8, 2021

After being acquired by the Royals in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft, right-handed pitcher Stephen Woods Jr. had to wait over 500 days before playing in his first proper games in the organization. A starting pitcher nearly his entire life, the New York native’s journey to the Naturals was a

After being acquired by the Royals in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft, right-handed pitcher Stephen Woods Jr. had to wait over 500 days before playing in his first proper games in the organization.

A starting pitcher nearly his entire life, the New York native’s journey to the Naturals was a winding road. Like for so many players, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed momentum he had spent years building up.

While drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 6th round of the 2013 Draft out of Half Hallow Hills East High School, Woods Jr. elected to first go to college. Three years later, he was chosen by the San Francisco Giants in the 8th round of the 2016 Draft out of the State University of New York at Albany.

In December 2017, he was a part of a package that sent Evan Longoria to the Giants and was suddenly in the organization that originally drafted him out of high school. His first action with Tampa Bay did not come until 2019, missing all of 2018 with a shoulder injury. A strong 2019 in High-A led to the Royals selecting Woods Jr. in the Rule 5 draft, then trading a player to the Rays to keep him in the system after not making the Opening Day roster out of summer camp in July 2020.

In his third Major League organization since being drafted in 2016 and no longer on the Major League Roster like he was for the first half of 2020, Woods Jr. experienced a difficult start to the 2021 season but a move to the bullpen during the summer and incorporating a cutter back into his arsenal helped re-establish confidence that had for a period of time, disappeared.

Seven of his first eight appearances with the Naturals were starts, but Woods Jr. moved to a relief role in the middle of June and went on to play a key role for the Naturals that helped capture the team’s second league championship.

Across 22.2 innings as a starter, he was 1-6 with a 10.72 ERA and .381 opponents’ batting average. In 24.2 innings (15 appearances) as a reliever in 2021, Woods Jr. was 4-1 with a 4.38 ERA and .232 opponents’ average.

Not only did his ERA and opponents’ batting average jump down, but his strikeout rate rose as well, from 6.75 K/9 as a starter (17 strikeouts n 22.2 innings) to 11.31 as a reliever (31 strikeouts in 24.2 innings).

“Being a starter my whole life, it was definitely tough for me to eventually become a reliever,” Woods said. “But I picked up on it and I took it on as a role that I’m going to succeed in. I’ve been told in my life that the day that it happens, that I become a reliever, I will be successful with my stuff. I had to pretty much just accept it and once I accepted it and once, I started working the way I needed to work as a reliever, I started seeing more and more success.”

While he spent most of August on the injured list, Woods Jr. returned to the mound in September and put together his best month of the season, pitching in four games and compiling season lows in ERA (2.08) and WHIP (1.62).

That success led to Naturals manager Scott Thorman calling on Woods Jr. as the first man out of the bullpen in Game 1 of the Double-A Central Championship Series, where he bridged the gap between starter Austin Cox and winning pitcher Josh Dye with a scoreless fifth inning.

“When you move into the bullpen, you can concentrate a little bit more and you don’t have to worry about going five innings or six innings,” Woods Jr. said, while noting that finding his confidence was one of the biggest keys to his improved success down the road.

Woods Jr. is enjoying his time representing the Royals with the Surprise Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League. Nicholas Badders / NWA Naturals

With that newfound confidence as a relief pitcher, Woods Jr. was one of eight Royals prospects assigned to the Surprise Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League in early October.

“It’s honestly a blast, it’s a privilege, it’s an honor,” he said. “It’s a lot of high talented, high prospects within each organization and we’re all just out here having fun playing the game with a little bit more spotlight on us, which is nice.”

As of November 7, Woods Jr. has pitched in seven games for Surprise. Over his first five relief appearances, the 26-year-old allowed just one run in seven innings (1.29 ERA) while striking out eight hitters and lowering his WHIP and AVG even further from where they were at the end of the season.

“I’m definitely working on my new changeup right now; it’s coming together nicely,” he explains on his goals for the Fall League. “It’s great to see that and then me having the confidence I left at the end of the year with the Naturals. I’m just bringing it all here and putting it all together.”

Where he will be the first to admit there is stiff competition both in the Fall League and in Kansas City’s system, Woods Jr. hoping his reinvigorated confidence pitching in relief, high-90’s fastball and developing off-speed will allow him to realize his Major League dreams in the near future.