Ian Anderson Defies Averages

The former top pick is thriving with less-than-ideal pitch metrics.

One of the most fun things about any given non-pandemic-afflicted season is seeing prospects graduate to rookies. Who lives up to the hype and who doesn’t; who surprises and who disappoints. We have so much information at our fingertips, and there’s never been a better time to keep a close eye on the people we spend years hearing about before they ever set foot on a big league diamond.

So it’s truly a shame that the circumstances of this accursed year have somewhat muted hundred of first-appearances in the majors. Incidentally, Cespedes Family BBQ has been running a cool Twitter thread celebrating those with the misfortune to debut sans friends and family present. Give it a follow. It’s a weird year to be a rookie.

For those same reasons, there are more rookies than ever this year. Through the first 54 days of the 2020 season, we’ve already seen 189 MLB debuts, on pace to challenge the 250-odd first-time players we typically see in a full season. Again, weird year! To this point, Ian Anderson has been more successful than most of those other rookies. The third overall pick in 2016 out of an upstate New York high school (shout out to the Hudson Valley!), Anderson made a splash in his debut last month, holding the then-mighty Yankees hitless through his first five innings on the bump.

It feels as if there’s been little fanfare over Anderson’s arrival, given that Atlanta’s rotation currently resembles the Ottoman Empire circa 1914: disastrously disintegrating. Mike Soroka has been out for the season, and fellow budding ace Max Fried recently hit the injured list with back spasms. Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb bombed out of the rotation with aplomb, Félix Hernández opted out, and Cole Hamels has yet to pitch in 2020. Not ideal, to say the least.

Still, Atlanta has hung on to a surprisingly comfortable perch atop the NL East, much bolstered by the shot of stability and upside provided by Anderson. He’s allowed just five runs (four earned) on 10 hits over 22 innings in his four starts, and though the returns are early, peripherals don’t think the success is fluky. His 2.97 FIP, bolstered by a 19.1% K-BB rate, ranks third among rookie starters behind Dane Dunning and Tony Gonsolin. Even better, his 2.72 expected ERA is the sixth-best mark among all starters in baseball. Welcome to the big leagues, kid!

Most starting pitcher prospects at least dabble with an arsenal four or five pitches deep, even if they ultimately rely on only a few of them in the majors. Anderson, meanwhile, has gotten through his career thus far with just three pitches that he throws with equal confidence: a heavy fastball that lives in the 94-95 mph range and pairs well with a high-80s power changeup, along with a good, bendy curveball that’s tight and effective:

 

That was a nice pitch, but let’s start with the fastball, which, despite its velocity, will forever be branded with the dreaded low-spin label. The results it’s gotten have been somewhat counter-intuitive, limiting hitters to a .133 batting average and excellent .300 expected wOBA, despite drawing whiffs on just 14.1% of swings, one of the worst marks in the league. He’s not the only fireballer with a dearth of whiffs despite premier velocity, but it might make us reconsider his upside a little bit. All is well and good now, but if his fastball suddenly starts resembling Garrett Richards‘ and Jon Gray‘s in terms of results, it probably won’t be.

So, how are we getting those results? Let’s take a step back. Thanks to the low spin, Anderson probably isn’t going to try and conform completely to the modern platonic ideal mix of fastballs above the zone and curveballs below it. But he does have another unique trait that gives his fastball a leg up on he competition. Here are the top ten starting pitchers in baseball ranked by average release extension:

Starting Pitcher Release Extension

(Source: Baseball Savant)

Apropos of nothing, Luis Patiño pairing top-tier extension with a fastball that’s already 97 mph is a downright frightening thought for the rest of the NL West. Anyhow, release extension is simply how far from the rubber — or close to the plate — the pitcher releases the ball. Usually, higher extension is a good thing, because the hitter has less time to react simply by virtue of the ball being in the air for less distance.

Thanks to his elite extension, second only to 6-foot-8 behemoth Tyler Glasnow, Anderson’s fastball looks to the hitter nearly a full two miles per hour faster than it actually is, the fourth-largest difference among all major league relievers, not just starters.  It may not miss bats, but that kind of dissonance between the radar gun and what hitters are actually seeing is more than enough to keep them uncomfortable and cause plenty of weak contact. This is totally anecdotal, because there are only so many hours in the day to back everything up with data, but just from eyeballing his first few starts, it was striking to see how frequently hitters were simply unable to do much with fastballs left right down the pipe:

Thinking of extension, I want you to focus on Anderson’s throwing arm as he delivers. Short-arming the ball à la Lucas Giolito is becoming all the rage around baseball as pitchers pursue an ideal elbow spiral and simplified motions that will unlock their bio-mechanical best, but it’s not for everyone, all the time. I suspect that in spite of the command issues it might cause, Anderson’s long-armed windup is doing more for him than it might others. If you can, pause one of those clips right as he begins to drive forward into the pitch. Anderson has long arms, and the ball is coming from a pretty good distance behind the rubber. As the hitter tracks the ball from all the way back there, it suddenly explodes over the plate from 53 feet away.

Low spin be damned, that’s a lot to handle! It’s another reminder that pitchers are always more than their most popular or visible metrics. There are a lot of ways to get outs, and though he’s a typical power pitching prospects in many respects, Anderson has plenty of singularness working for him as well. With raw stuff that good, the margin for error is high. This is why it’s fun to dream!

Besides, the low spin is under no circumstances ever the end of the world. As Ben Clemens reminds us in this piece from the winter exploring the exploits of a pitcher-who-must-not-be-named, spin isn’t valuable in and of itself. Spin is valued because it aids movement, and in terms of missing barrels, more movement is typically good. And despite that tenth percentile spin rate, Anderson’s fastball actually gets about 10% more rise than similar pitches by velocity and extension. To put that in perspective, he gets roughly the same rising action as Giolito, who throws in a similar velocity range but spinning at 250+ rpm more than Anderson. I’m a big feline person and have never quite understood the phrase “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” but it sure seems to apply here.

It’s tough to say for sure, but there are a few factors that could be giving him that extra movement bump. According to Brooks Baseball, he throws his fastball with an average spin direction of about 190 degrees, corresponding to roughly 12:15 on a clock face. This means the spin on his fastball is almost entirely vertical, which, combined with a solidly above average 91% spin efficiency, should create more rise than usual and less side-to-side movement than usual. A visual reference might be helpful; here’s a mashup of Anderson’s fastball alongside one from Dillon Tate:

It’s hard to follow anything as small as a baseball travelling 94 miles per hour, but the extra tail on Tate’s pitch is unquestionably visible to my eyes. Tate gets similar velocity and low spin to Anderson on their fastballs, the former with an 87% spin efficiency that’s close enough to the latter for comfort. However, Tate throws his with an average spin direction of 220 degrees, or roughly 1:15 on a clock face. It’s a matter of millimeters, but this means that the spin on Tate’s fastball points just a tiny bit more to the third base side than Anderson’s, which points almost straight at home plate. That’s what I mean when I say that the spin on Anderson’s pitch is vertical. So, naturally, Tate’s fastball moves more to the third base side, while Anderson’s is nearly straight as an arrow. Those tiny margins are where differing pitch movement comes from, and Anderson seems to be using it to his advantage.

Of course, there is the command issue. As is often the case with young pitchers, perhaps the biggest knock on Anderson is his control and command, neither of which were particularly polished in the minor leagues. He’s walked an even four hitters per nine innings in his pro career, and the margins are thin when you’re allowing at least two or three free baserunners every start. I kind of lied to you a minute ago, because if there’s a pretty easy, if imprecise, way to take a data-based gander at whether he’s leaving a lot of stuff over the plate. Just take a look at a heat map of where he’s put his fastballs this year:

A well-placed fastball on the outside edge is usually a pretty good pitch, but Anderson is making a dangerous habit of leaving the ball belt-high and closer to the middle of the plate than he’d like. The general difficulty hitters have with his fastball is helping him get away with it, for now. That doesn’t mean it’ll always be the case. Offenses will adjust, and sooner or later Anderson will need to be more fine with his pitches if he wants to avoid damage. That’s growth!

That’s also far more words on the fastball than originally anticipated, so let’s move on to the secondaries. Spoiler: For both lack of space and interest, I’m going to skip over the curveball, for the most part. As we saw earlier, it’s a good pitch; consistent and pretty aesthetically pleasing, as far as curveballs go. And it’s certainly done its job to this point, holding hitters to an outstanding .161 expected wOBA and drawing whiffs on 46% of swings. But, like Anderson’s fastball, we’re in for a bit of a surprise.

The curve was considered Anderson’s calling card by most prospect sources, but it’s thus far taken a tertiary role in Anderson’s arsenal, as he’s relied on the changeup to do most of his dirty work in non-fastball situations. On the whole, he throws it nearly a third of the time, a rate that spikes to nearly 40% with two strikes. Reviews on the pitch were positive but mixed coming into the season; MLB.com called it “a viable third weapon” and Baseball Prospectus named it a clear second-option to the curveball, while Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen graded the pitch an above-average 55/80, with a future value (60) even higher than the curve’s. But before we look at the data, let’s just look at some nasty pitches. I’ve pulled one from each start in an attempt to get a look at what he can tease on any given night:

That’s a pitch I can get behind! Do you know how hard it is to get Juan Soto to miss that badly on a pitch down the middle? Neither do I, but I imagine it’s pretty tough! Let’s get a quick rundown of what this changeup is and what it’s done so far:

Ian Anderson‘s Changeup

(Source: Baseball Savant)

This is an even smaller sample size than what we have on the fastball, but so is just about everything pertaining to rookies right about now. We go off of what we have, and based on what we have, Longenhagen might have been right to be bullish on the pitch. Results like those are hard to come by in any four-game stretch. Interestingly, the stat most bearish on the pitch is CSW%, suggesting that the pitch is more likely to be good than great in the future. In spite of all the whiffs, it isn’t fooling hitters so much that he’s getting a ton of called strikes with it, which can be just as important.

Even so, expected stats paint an even more promising picture. Despite the sizable gap between the pitches actual wOBA and its expected mark, the latter still ranks roughly in the top 25% of qualifiers around the league. And while the lack of called strikes is dragging his CSW% down, the whiffs are still cream of the crop, helping the pitch become one of the most dangerous changeups in the league with two strikes. In fact, that 38.5% putaway rate — the proportion of two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout — is the second best in all of baseball. Maybe even the absolute best, if you’re particularly invested in classifying Devin Williams‘ reverse-frisbee as a screwball!

Top Changeup Putaway Rates (Min. 25 Pitches)

(Source: Baseball Savant)

I love this list for a few reasons. Putaway rate isn’t necessarily a great stat to go on without context because, given its small-sample nature, it’s not super sticky and can be prone to fluctuation. Still, this is a pretty solid shortlist of some of the game’s most competitive changeups. That Anderson has generated the same number of strikeouts with his changeup as Sixto Sánchez is a promising sign. Anderson’s changeup might not have been highly lauded in the minor leagues, but Sánchez’s offering is already among the most effective in the game. The same might be said of Jesus Lúzardo, and even Zac Gallen by now. Either way, it’s good company to be in.

Interestingly, Baseball Savant finds the movement on Anderson’s changeup to be well-below average. That might be a little surprising. I felt as if I saw a fair amount of darting arm-side movement as I watched him draw whiffs in real time. Of course, accepting that our eyes can lie to us is the entire point of these data-driven exercises. Statcast isn’t lying to me when it tells me that most changeups with similar velocity and extension move a few inches more in either direction.

If you’ve been paying attention, though, we just came to the conclusion that Anderson has been good in large part because there aren’t too many pitchers out there with similar velocity and extension. These numbers are all relative, and there’s never not more context and nuance to be added to any of them. It can be easy to conflate what above or below average means quantitatively as opposed to qualitatively. Anderson’s changeup may well have subpar movement in terms of inches, but that doesn’t mean the effect of the movement is also subpar. Similar to spin’s lack of value in a vacuum, the raw number ultimately takes a backseat to results.

It doesn’t help that the changeup is a unique kind of secondary pitch, in that it’s in a highly symbiotic relationship with a pitcher’s fastball. A changeup is rarely much without a fastball to contrast it with. How well any given pitcher’s changeup performs often has just as much to do with how it works with their fastball as any of its independent qualities. In the mind of a hitter 60 feet away, that relationship is infinitely more important than how it compares to similar changeups.

So there you have it: a not-so-brief rundown of what’s been expected and unexpected in Ian Anderson‘s first taste at the big leagues. Probably for better than worse, I have no cringe-y puns or would-be poignant conclusions; just a top prospect who’s finding ways to be interesting despite being well-known to the prospect crowd for a half-decade or more.

An Atlanta baseball fan visiting Baseball Savant might be disappointed to learn that their new star pitcher isn’t the high-spin beast in the Verlander mold that every team dreams on. But fear not, Atlanta baseball fan. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there are certainly more than a few ways to throw strikes and get outs. Despite baseball’s cultural milieu that instinctively devalues anything that isn’t typical of a mid-century white male, being unique is a great way to be good at baseball if one doesn’t fit the usual star archetypes. Even in his simple arsenal and plan of attack, there’s a lot of uniqueness to like about Ian Anderson.

(Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

Zach Hayes

Zach is a graduate student at Brown University focusing on sports, politics, and culture, and contributing baseball analysis at Pitcher List and Prospects365. Follow Zach on Twitter (@PineTarKeyboard) for periodic rants about Chicago sports and politics.

  • Avatar Clay Aldrich says:

    Fried hit the DL in order to give him adequate rest in advance of the playoffs. The claim of back spasms was an excuse to give him that rest.

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