Three years ago, left-handed pitcher JP Woodward was like many high school seniors around the country. The Boys’ Latin alum had zero collegiate offers to play baseball and was ready to start the next chapter of his life without sports.
But a small part of him still had that baseball itch. Then 6-foot-4, Woodward knew his height would get the attention of Joe Kinney, the head coach at Lafayette at the time. He sent Kinney an email saying he was interested in trying out for the team. He was told he had a spot in the fall but nothing more.
That one email turned into a second chance that Woodward has run with, and he took the next step in his baseball journey last month when he signed an undrafted free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“It’s crazy to think about how fast it’s happened,” Woodward said. “Thinking about three years ago, not knowing if I had to play a college game and [now] being a professional athlete. … Some time [I’ll] have to take a step back to realize how fortunate I am. It’s every kids dream and I’ve worked my tail off to get here.”
Tim Reilly, who took over for Kinney as the Leopards’ head coach July 1, remembers Woodward’s less-than-impressive beginning as a walk-on. Entering Lafayette, Woodward weighed 235 pounds and was a self-described “chubby kid.” Reilly remembers watching the team doing box jumps and being unimpressed with Woodward.
“[He] looked out of shape and uncoordinated and was tripping on the box jump, and [I was] thinking, ‘We have a lot of work to do,’” Reilly said. “Obviously the story gets a lot better.”
From the day he started at Lafayette, Woodward went to work transforming his body. He didn’t take weightlifting seriously before college, but he soon started seeing results. Woodward returned to Lafayette after his first winter break as a completely different pitcher. After topping out in the low 80s that fall, his fastball velocity had jumped to around 84-86 mph and he had a good slider to complement it.
“He came back and it was obvious we had to keep him,” Reilly said.
Andrew Sacks, who trains Woodward at Prime Sports Performance in Glen Arm, Md., started working with Woodward the summer after the pitcher graduated from Boys’ Latin. Woodward began by practicing good form in exercises like squats, deadlifts and bench presses. He also worked to improve his pitching mechanics.
Once he mastered the fundamentals, Woodward was able to move on to building strength. After building a strength foundation, Sacks focused on making sure the pitcher could apply it as fast as possible by using power medicine balls and other plyometric exercises. As Woodward became more explosive, his velocity started to jump.
By the spring of his freshman year, Woodward had lost 45 pounds of what he called “bad weight.”
“He knew he was doing this [because] he wanted to play at Lafayette and get in pro ball and get in [the] majors,” Sacks said. “He saw the long-term development and did the basic stuff to help the end game.”
Woodward pitched out of the bullpen his freshman year, posting a 4.78 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 26.1 innings pitched. As he continued to get stronger and add velocity, Woodward became the team’s Friday starter as a sophomore. Though he only posted a 5.97 ERA during the past two seasons, scouts still saw upside.
He struck out one batter per inning during the past two seasons, and his velocity continued to jump as he got stronger. His fastball now sits at 90-93 mph and can touch 95, and he’s put on “good weight” to get up to 215 pounds while also growing to 6-foot-6.
Woodward first received draft attention last summer when he pitched in the Cape Cod League, which is the top college summer league in the country. Before the 2020 MLB Draft was shortened to five rounds due to COVID-19, he expected to be drafted in the middle rounds. After talking to an adviser, he decided to sign as an undrafted free agent.
“I had a feeling all along I wanted to sign, just with the uncertainty going on,” Woodward said. “I didn’t want to have any regrets in 20 years just over a little bit of money. I was a walk-on at Lafayette, and it’s every kid’s dream to play pro baseball and who am I turn to turn it down.”
Minutes after teams could contact undrafted players starting at 9 a.m. June 14, Woodward’s phone started blowing up. A day later, Woodward announced he had signed with the Phillies.
“They really care about their prospects, whether it’s their first-round picks or [other prospects], they’re going to do all they can to get [them to] the big leagues,” Woodward said. “For someone who’s earned everything they’ve gotten, I love that about them.”
With the minor-league season canceled, Woodward said the Phillies are hoping to do some type of fall instructional league for prospects. That’s still up in the air with daily coronavirus cases rising in recent weeks, but Woodward is still working to make sure he’ll be ready. He knows he can get stronger, and he has plans to add a few more ticks on his fastball while keeping his delivery consistent to ensure hitters cannot recognize any pitch coming out of his hand.
To those that have seen him grow over the past three years, they know he’ll be ready whenever the opportunity comes.
“I think he knows what he had to do to get this opportunity and there’s no doubt in my mind that he knows he’s not done,” Reilly said. “It’s not, ‘Wow, I signed with a big-league team.’ All the conversations with him and his dad have been about what’s next. He’s continued to work harder since he signed and I’m excited to see where that takes him.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lafayette College Athletic Communications