James Wood’s Swing Adjustments Have Made Him MLB’s Top Prospect

Just Baseball named the Nationals outfielder the top prospect in all of baseball at the June update. What went into the billing?

James Wood of the Washington Nationals bats during the ninth inning of a spring training game.
WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA - MARCH 21, 2024: James Wood #50 of the Washington Nationals bats during the ninth inning of a spring training game against the Minnesota Twins at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches on March 21, 2024 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

*Editors Note: James Wood has not appeared in a game since May 23 due to a hamstring “tweak”. As of June 5, Wood was back practicing with Triple-A Rochester.

James Wood is a rare physical talent. A basketball player in high school, Wood stands at 6-foot-7 with athleticism and adjustability that you rarely see from the very few baseball players who are built like him.

The former second round pick of the Padres immediately stood out at the lower levels, with far more polish than many evaluators envisioned. His performance and ridiculous upside made him a key target for the Nationals in the trade that sent their then-face of the franchise, Juan Soto, to San Diego.

In his age-20 season in 2023, Wood continued his mashing ways, tearing through High-A competition to the tune of a .972 OPS while managing a palatable 27% strikeout rate. At the end of May, the Nats challenged the outfielder with a Double-A promotion, where the whiff began to tick up.

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He still did damage on fastballs, but higher quality secondaries got him on his front leg too frequently for him to sustain success to the degree that he had enjoyed at the lower levels. He remained productive with an OPS of .826, but his strikeout rate ballooned to 34%.

While his Double-A stint made it clear that Wood is capable of punishing mistakes at the highest level, it also highlighted his swing inefficiencies that could restrict him from hitting MLB pitching with any kind of consistency. This was excellent feedback for him to go into the offseason with, as the Nationals top prospect set his sights on an MLB debut in 2024.

Hitting in general is a delicate art. One little feel, cue, or even thought can make a world of a difference. Likely in an effort to be as simple as possible in the box, Wood featured a short stride previously, but the lack of gather made it difficult for him to get into his back side, which in addition to being a position of power, facilitates adjustability to secondary stuff and overall control of the barrel.

Within the first couple weeks of Spring Training, it was clear that Wood had found something heading into big league camp. While most hitters are searching for their timing after the layoff, Wood looked as comfortable as ever.

After posting an OPS north of 1.200 in his 22 Spring Training games, the 21-year-old carried his momentum into his first taste of Triple-A, where through 45 games, he is slashing .355/.465/.596 with a strikeout rate that has nearly halved from his Double-A figure at 18%.

His output against secondary pitches is particularly eye-popping, seeing both his contact rates and exit velocities leap significantly. This is particularly ridiculous because Wood is also hitting over .400 against heaters.

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2023 vs. Secondaries (AA).222/.292/.365 Contact: 55%Avg EV: 86.6 mph
2024 vs. Secondaries (AAA).286/.381/.524Contact: 65%Avg EV: 90.6 mph
2023 Sample: 87 games
2024 Sample: 45 games

The Mechanical Changes

Such a stark difference in contact rates and damage is almost always accompanied by a mechanical adjustment, and Wood’s absurd performance against all pitch types made me eager to dive into his swing. Sure enough, there were some major changes.

From a setup perspective, you may notice his narrower stance and his hands starting a smidge higher and further behind him. Most hitters have a harder time getting into their back side and staying there from a wider stance, with a narrower setup often facilitating a stronger feel for their base.

While may sound counterintuitive, Wood’s narrower stance and bigger pre-swing move aids his ability to find the back hip and stay there. A slow and controlled load, Wood starts it earlier, getting to his slot and seeing the ball closer to the pitcher’s release.

His previous move was quieter, but it lacked rhythm and often left him looking rushed with less control of his body. A wider base, lack of a countermove and rushed load made it really difficult for Wood to stay back on off-speed, as well as control his lower half in general. Looking at the video from last year, there were even instances where he was early or late on heaters simply because of the inconsistency of his timing mechanism and base.

There’s a few things that stand out in the video above. His posture and bat angle right as he gets to his slot particularly stand out. He is more upright with his torso prior to launch, helping him maintain his direction while being more adjustable in the box with a stronger feel for the barrel.

You may notice how much steeper Wood’s swing path is in the 2023 video, which also makes it much more difficult to square anything up on the outer half. The difference in barrel control between the two clips is evident just before contact, as his barrel kind of flails under the ball in the 2023 video.

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Now that Wood’s path enters the zone earlier and stays through it longer, he is able to catch pitches on the outer half deeper. Catching pitches on the outer half too far out front made it difficult for Wood to do much of anything with pitches away from him with the most likely outcome being a swing that is out and around the baseball as he goes out to get it.

Catching balls on the outside half of the plate five inches deeper than last season on average, Wood is able to do more damage away from him, maintaining his direction and driving the ball the other way with more authority.

In his 87 Double-A games last season, Wood launched just five home runs on pitches located on the outer half — a figure he has already exceeded in his 45 Triple-A games this season with six homers. The underlying batted ball data is even more impressive.

2024 Outer Half (AAA).367/.477/.636Pull%: 29%90th% EV: 108 mphHardHit%: 49%
2023 Outer Half (AA).231/.316/.413Pull%: 49%90th% EV: 105 mphHardHit%: 43%
2023 Sample: 87 games
2024 Sample: 45 games

Acknowledging the limited sample, such a dramatic shift both mechanically and data-wise makes it much easier to buy into a what we have seen through a little under 50 games. In addition to improving his barrel control and adjustability, Wood’s getting to his launch position earlier and in rhythm with a more efficient path has also resulted in even more impressive results against velocity.

Against pitches 90 MPH and above, Wood is hitting over .400 with an in-zone contact rate of 90%. He got to plenty of heaters in Double-A last season, posting an OPS over .900 against 90+ MPH, but with an in-zone contact rate of just 81%.

Here’s Wood getting to an upper 90s Jhoan Duran fastball six inches above the top of the zone and lacing it 113 MPH.

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How Does Wood’s Game Translate?

There’s never been any doubt about the upside that the 6-foot-7 center fielder possesses, but with little precedent for a player of his archetype and hit tool questions, it was also difficult to ignore the potential risk and wide range of outcomes.

Wood’s uptick in strikeouts at the Double-A level seemed to only fan the flames for those who had reservations as to whether he would hit enough at the highest level, and while that is fair, it is important to give young bats the opportunity to adjust after their first taste of adversity.

It’s also worth noting that “adversity” for Wood was an .827 OPS in his age-20 season in Double-A, albeit with a 34% strikeout rate. However, when evaluating prospects, the goal is to project how things translate to the highest level, and his poor performance against secondary stuff did not help combat the concern that he was feasting on fastballs and mistakes from inexperienced pitchers.

Had he returned this season with similar pre-swing moves and struggles, then the perspective on him may have started to shift towards an Oneil Cruz-type, who will get his when a pitcher makes a mistake, but can be easy for pitchers to put away when they execute their pitches.

That of course was not the case with Wood, as his Double-A stint made it clear as to what he needs to do for his Minor League success to translate in D.C. His swing adjustments have allowed his feel for contact to shine through, something that was probably being undermined by his sporadic timing and some mechanical breakdowns in the box.

What once looked like a below average hit tool now looks to be at least average, which paired with his elite power and plus speed can make him one of the most dynamic players in baseball. He could be pushed to a corner in favor of a stronger up-the-middle option, but he tracks the ball well with huge strides that help him cover plenty of ground and give him the ability to play an MLB-caliber center field.

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Sometimes bigger players who run well lack the acceleration to allow that speed to consistently translate in a game setting. That does not seem to be the case with Wood, who will often turn in run times below 4.2 seconds to first base and was clocked at last year’s Futures Game at 30.9 feet per second. For reference, anything above 30 feet per second is considered elite, by Baseball Savant.

After swiping 18 bags on 21 tries last year, Wood is already 10-for-11 through his first 45 games this season, though a hamstring issue could slow him down a bit in that department for the time being. Over the course of 162 games, Wood looks like a strong 30/30 candidate.

Of course, we will need to see the 21-year-old’s swing adjustments continue to translate over a larger sample and eventually at the MLB level first, but considering the fact that he is now Just Baseball’s No. 1 overall prospect, consider us buyers of what looks like a finished Wood.