Another Reason the Brewers Sit in First Place

Give this to the Brewers — as much as everyone still expects them to fade, they haven’t faded yet. They’ve played at least .500 baseball in April, May, and June, and they’ve held at least a share of first place in the National League Central for more than a month. Sure, the Cubs remain the favorites. Sure, the Cubs are the more talented ballclub. But the Brewers have effectively cut the season in half, which does wonders for both the odds and morale. The first-half Brewers have been a great story.

A team doesn’t overachieve without players doing the same, and we’ve dedicated posts to several of Milwaukee’s pleasant surprises. We spent the whole first month writing about Eric Thames, and we’ve also addressed Jimmy Nelson, Corey Knebel, and so on. There’s another player I’ve been intending to write about, too. The Brewers rank eighth in baseball in starting-rotation WAR, and Nelson’s the leader of the group. And yet he is only barely holding off Chase Anderson.

Anderson’s a player I was interested in before, prior to an underwhelming 2016. As a bounceback starter, Anderson’s done plenty to get back on the radar, and I hope you’re prepared, because this post is going to be fairly heavy on the images. To start right off, this plot shows changes in plate-discipline statistics for starting pitchers over the past two years. I considered starters with at least 50 innings in each season. On the x-axis, you see changes in the out-of-zone swing rate. On the y-axis, changes in the in-zone swing rate. As we’ve gone over before, ideally, a pitcher would get more out-of-zone swings while still suppressing swings at would-be strikes.

In this plot, I’ve highlighted Anderson in yellow.

Anderson has the second-biggest increase in chase rate. He also has the eighth-biggest decrease in in-zone swing rate. He’s improved by a combined 9.3 percentage points, which is the best out of the whole sample. In 2017, Chase Anderson has done a better job of screwing with hitters’ idea of the strike zone.

That’s one encouraging point. Here’s another, that might have something to do with that. We just folded in a new data source, that includes more accurate pitch classifications and velocities. As such, I compared average fastball velocities for starters in 2016 and 2017. Anderson’s four-seam fastball is up by 1.8 ticks, which is the third-biggest increase in the sample, behind Tyler Chatwood and Yovani Gallardo. Now, Gallardo doesn’t make for great company, but his season aside, more velocity is a good thing. It’s good to throw harder, especially when your results are showing simultaneous improvement. Any explanation? Here’s an excerpt from Tom Haudricourt:

Anderson is throwing harder because he put on 10 pounds of muscle over the off-season with dedicated workouts in his hometown of McKinney, Texas, at Michael Johnson Performance, operated by the former Olympic gold-medal sprinter.

“I’m stronger this year,” he said. “I’ve been able to maintain my velocity and not dip into the 80s (later in the game). To be able to throw it past guys is nice, too.”

All right. I’ll take it. Anderson is absolutely throwing harder. And now we can focus a little more, because this isn’t just about comparing 2016 and 2017. There’s also the matter of what’s been taking place within the 2017 season itself. Here are Anderson’s four-seamer average velocities by month:

  • April: 93.2 miles per hour
  • May: 93.8
  • June: 94.5

Even within this season, Anderson’s velocity has shown improvement. It was up in April, compared to last year, but it’s only gone up even more, and while the average pitcher does gain a little zip as he gets away from spring training, Anderson is well above what’s normal. For a little perspective, last June, among starting pitchers, Anderson’s average fastball velocity ranked him in the 35th percentile. This June, said fastball velocity ranks him in the 77th percentile. Chase Anderson has become a hard thrower, and his numbers are looking better than they’ve ever been.

Anderson’s riding a hot streak that began on May 27. Since then, he ranks fourth in ERA. He’s third in wOBA allowed, and he’s ninth in K-BB%. An interesting Anderson has become a legitimately good Anderson, and further changes have taken place under the hood. I’m now going to use some heat-map images from Baseball Savant. To begin with, here’s where Anderson has located his fastballs. On the left, games through May 21. On the right, games since May 27.

Anderson has gone from working heavily arm-side to working more heavily glove-side. You also see a little more activity higher in the zone, and that set of images is part of the reason behind this next set. Here is how Anderson has worked against right-handed hitters:

Same idea — Anderson has moved a chunk of those inside pitches over to the outer half. It’s also worth noting that, last season, Anderson started to develop a cutter, and he’s more recently shown signs of getting it under control. He’s used it predominantly against righties around the outer edge, and over Anderson’s recent stretch, he’s been able to throw that cutter for far more strikes. This is all part of a process, and these pitches aren’t being located randomly.

There’s still more. So the story goes, last year, Anderson was shown a new curveball grip. He used to be known for his changeup, and it’s still a pretty good changeup, but the curveball has become yet another weapon, and recently Anderson has been able to lift it up instead of throwing it too often below the lower edge.

Anderson is throwing his curveball early in the count, and he’s throwing it for strikes. He still does get chases out of the zone, but hitters tend to be reluctant to go after curveballs, if they don’t have to. So it can work to Anderson’s benefit to locate more curves around the knee or the thigh. The heat maps are pretty tough to misinterpret. Anderson’s started throwing a little higher in general, and the curveball’s a part of that pattern.

There’s one more thing, and it’s reminiscent of something I pointed out the other day about Brad Peacock. This next image comes from Brooks Baseball. This shows Anderson’s average horizontal release points, broken down by batter handedness.

You see that recent divergence? Coincidence or not, it’s linked to Anderson’s hot streak. Against righties, Anderson has thrown more from the third-base side of the rubber. Against lefties, though, there’s been a shift. Here are some screenshots to give you an idea of what I mean:

There are not very many pitchers who intentionally work from different sides of the rubber. Anderson’s not the only one — there’s Peacock, and Francisco Liriano, and Miguel Gonzalez, and a few more — but this is uncommon. It tends to be about playing the angles, so long as the given pitcher is comfortable. For Anderson, against righties, he can get those pitches sweeping away. He can throw from a right-handed hitter’s hip. Against lefties, the ball might now be more difficult to see. Fastballs will tail away a little more. And Anderson might just feel like he has better command of certain spots when he sees them from this perspective.

The point being, there’s been a lot going on with Chase Anderson lately. He already came into the season stronger, and that was immediately evident, but he’s gotten only stronger still. His fastball has become more of a weapon, but he’s also changed how he’s used it, while refining his new cutter and curveball. Add in a subtle move on the mound and the fact that Anderson has long had a quality changeup, and you’ve got a four-pitch pitcher at the top of his own game. How much longer this can go, only the hitters will tell us. You could say we’re waiting on the numbers to normalize. But we’ve been saying the same basic thing about the NL Central. The Brewers seem like they’re just better than we thought. Anderson is one of the major reasons why.

We hoped you liked reading Another Reason the Brewers Sit in First Place by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Chase Anderson, aka Eno’s Boy Toy