Are Nick Anderson’s Fifteen Minutes Up?

Nick Anderson
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that Andy Warhol didn’t actually say “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes”? I was shocked to learn the truth. Apparently, two museum employees invented the quote when they were working on a Warhol exhibit. That makes the saying more interesting to me, actually: two anonymous people creating the work of someone famous for the democratization of art is enjoyable. But I digress: the point of bringing that quote up is that Nick Anderson is well into his second fifteen minutes of fame, and I’m pretty sure that this, too, is something Warhol would approve of.

It’s hard to imagine a better pitcher getting a worse contract than the one Anderson signed this offseason. He was one of the best relievers in baseball, period, from his 2019 debut until tearing his UCL in 2021. Heck, he was top 15 in reliever WAR from 2019 to ’21, and he basically didn’t play in one of those years. Sub-3 ERA, sub-3 FIP, the fourth-highest strikeout rate in baseball (39.6%) — Anderson was an elite closer, and the Rays used him accordingly. The Braves are paying him only $875,000 this year. That’s some kind of bargain.

As Esteban Rivera detailed last November, there were reasons to doubt that Anderson would come back strong. He looked diminished in his last few appearances before hitting the IL; his biggest weapon, a fastball with excellent carry that left batters flummoxed, lost its usual carry. Vertical approach angle is all the rage in pitch design these days, and that’s the case because it neutralizes the biggest weapon hitters have: power on contact. You can’t hit a home run if you can’t hit the ball, and flat-angled four-seam fastballs are great at doing just that.

Again leaning on Esteban’s work, there was a problem: when Anderson got hurt, his delivery stopped working. More specifically, he stopped generating a flat angle with release point, because he started releasing the ball higher. Just like that, his fastball went from great to average. Throw in a heaping helping of injury uncertainty, and I’m not shocked that risk-averse front offices weren’t lining up to offer him a huge deal.

Right, then; let’s check in on Anderson’s 2023 season:

Same As He Ever Was (Except Strikeouts)
2019 41.7% 6.8% 3.32 2.35 2.44 2.90
2020 44.8% 5.2% 0.55 1.35 3.04 2.13
2023 29.8% 3.2% 3.20 2.44 3.04 3.21

Oh look, he’s fixed! Or, well, maybe we can’t say that with any certainty, but he’s certainly pitching well. I decided to look into the raw measurables of his fastball to see if the change he’s going for is working, and to add in small-sample 2021 so we can compare pitch shapes to when he was hurt. Is he back to a lower release point and more extension? Nope:

Nick Anderson, Release Characteristics by Year
Year VRel (ft) HRel (ft) Extension (ft)
2019 6.56 -0.7 5.9
2020 6.36 -0.68 6.4
2021 6.65 -0.82 5.9
2023 6.63 -0.53 6.1

Huh, weird. Well, is he back to inducing a ton of vertical break, which makes for a flatter approach angle? No and no:

Nick Anderson, Vertical Movement by Year
Year VMov (in) VMov (w/gravity) VAA
2019 19.9 -10.3 -4.87
2020 18.9 -11.4 -4.56
2021 18.3 -13.5 -5.12
2023 16.8 -14.0 -5.52

In fact, Anderson’s fastball is inarguably worse than it was at his peak. Whether we’re talking chase rate, whiff rate, swinging-strike rate, or just raw velocity, 2023’s version can’t hold a candle to how the pitch looked when he was at his best (this time, again, I’m excluding 2021):

Fastball Trending Down
Year Chase% Whiff% SwSt% Velo (mph)
2019 37.9% 26.7% 15.8% 96.0
2020 47.0% 27.8% 17.8% 95.2
2023 41.1% 14.6% 8.2% 94.0

Anderson clearly knows his fastball isn’t up to its previous excellent standard. How can I tell? He stopped throwing it. He’s a two-pitch guy, with a gyro breaking ball and a fastball, and he’s leaning on that gyro breaking ball more than ever. He’d thrown it just under 40% of the time in his career before 2023. This year, it’s up to a robust 50%.

Luckily for Anderson, his breaking ball has been up to the task. It’s a strange pitch, deceptive because it hardly breaks at all. He throws it off of his fastball; he does a great job of mirroring release points between the two pitches. Even as his fastball comes out higher and higher, it still looks just like the curveball (or slider, systems disagree) coming out of his hand.

If you wanted to, you could finish this analysis right there. It’s pretty clear that Anderson’s fastball is worse. It’s equally clear that he’s compensated for that decline by throwing his secondary pitch more frequently. Hey, neat thought, everyone should do that. But as much as I hate to say it, I don’t think this is the end of the story. Much as I want to, I can’t give Anderson a clean bill of analytical health. I think he’s a few batter adjustments away from turning back into a pumpkin.

Why? Two reasons, really. First, he isn’t throwing that breaking ball as hard as he used to. He’s averaging 80.4 mph on the pitch this year, down from 83–84 at his peak. In fact, the fastest one he’s thrown this year has only been 83.2 mph, slower than his 2019–20 average for the pitch. Velocity is a huge part of the game for this kind of pitch; giving a hitter less time to distinguish between a fastball and something that vanishes is the best thing it has going for it. Our two stuff models both think that the pitch is objectively worse this year.

Higher usage also feels like a double-edged sword for a pitch that gets plenty of its value from being a change of pace. When Anderson was at his best, he was drawing chases 40% of the time with his curveball and running a gaudy 25% swinging-strike rate on the pitch. This year, those numbers have plummeted: a 33% chase rate and 16.6% swinging-strike rate. That’s because batters are swinging less at it overall and also making more contact.

For me, there’s a clear connection here. “Throw more secondaries” is one of the biggest lessons of modern pitching theory, but it works better when your secondaries have a ton of movement. I’m not saying Anderson’s curveball is a bad pitch — it’s clearly not — but particularly at its current speed, it’s more solid than exceptional, and it has to do a lot to cover for his fastball.

You can see this effect throughout his game, but here’s a clear way of thinking about it: Anderson has thrown 22 first-pitch curveballs outside of the strike zone this year; batters have offered at three of them after swinging twice as frequently in 2019 and ’20 combined. In a similar vein, he’s drawing fewer chases and fewer swinging strikes with the pitch when he’s ahead in the count, at least on a rate basis. That tracks, really; batters are more keyed in on the pitch because he’s throwing it more often.

For Anderson’s sake, you’d hope that batters paying more attention to his curveball would make them late on his fastball. But that hasn’t been the case: he ran a 19% swinging-strike rate with the pitch when he was ahead in the count before his injury, but that rate has been cut in half this year, even as he’s shifted his pitch mix away from relying on so many fastballs.

The result is an unstable equilibrium that I don’t think will work out in Anderson’s favor in the long run. His fastball used to be the foundation of his game. Take that building block away, and everything else feels more unsettled to me. It’s hard to take a previously fastball-dominant game and adapt it to suit an average fastball, particularly when you only throw two pitches.

So far this year, Anderson has made it work. He’s generating a ton of popups, limiting opposing contact quality with his fastball, and also racking up more grounders than ever before. He’s also walking almost no one; a 3.2% walk rate can make up for a lot of problems. Heck, he’s still striking out 30% of opponents, though I’m skeptical that will continue; he’s missing an average amount of bats, and it’s hard to run strikeout rates that high without more empty swings than Anderson is creating.

The worst part of this for me personally is that I really want to be wrong. Anderson’s first year in the majors was my first year at FanGraphs, and he was one of the first players I “discovered” as a writer. I wrote about him three different times in 2019, most notably when he reeled off a 74% strikeout rate in his first six games with the Rays. I’ve never met him, but I feel a strange connection to him anyway.

That’s how I feel, but it doesn’t change what I think. Relievers are notoriously mercurial; they can be dominant one day and gone the next. Anderson might have been one of the best relievers in the game in Tampa Bay, but that doesn’t make him immune to the regression monster. Pretty much every reliever is a few slight changes away from dominance, but also a few changes away from losing their edge. Anderson hasn’t quite hit that point yet, but despite his solid numbers this year, I can’t shake the feeling that the good times won’t last. Enjoy his performance while you can, Braves fans; relievers, like fame, are ephemeral.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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10 months ago

Another fantastic article as usual, Ben, thank you. But Anderson’s CSW% is just as high as those halcyon days of 2019. I’m wondering if his command would somewhat mitigate the diminished velocity and movement on his fastball. Thoughts?