Braves Send Struggling Ian Anderson Back to Triple-A

Ian Anderson
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to weathering an endless barrage of Jethro Tull jokes, Ian Anderson has played an outsized role in the Braves’ success since reaching the majors in late 2020. The 24-year-old righty has struggled this year, however, and on Sunday, the Braves optioned him to Triple-A Gwinnett in hopes that he can recover the form that helped his team come within one win of a trip to the World Series in 2020, then win a championship last year.

Anderson has pitched to a 5.11 ERA, the sixth-highest in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings, and a 4.24 FIP in 105.2 frames this year. He has been frustratingly inconsistent, allowing four runs or more in eight of his last 14 starts, five of those while failing to complete at least five innings. In his other six outings in that span, he’s allowed two runs or fewer.

Consider the sequence of Anderson’s last eight starts, a mix of good and bad outings versus good and bad teams: 4 IP/4 ER (vs. Dodgers on June 24), 2 IP/7 ER (vs Phillies on June 30), 5 IP/1 ER (vs. Cardinals on July 5), 5.2 IP/2 ER (vs. Nationals on July 10), 5.2 IP/ 1 ER (vs. Nationals again on July 15), 3 IP/7 ER (vs. Angels on July 24), 6 IP/0 ER (vs. Diamondbacks on July 30), and 4 IP/4 ER (vs. Mets on August 5). In the penultimate start in that stretch, he held Arizona to one hit and one walk, matching his season high of nine strikeouts, and on Friday, he yielded seven hits and four walks to the Mets, striking out just three. That’s not only a lot of variance, but it’s also a 6.62 ERA and a 12.4% walk rate over a six-week stretch, too much for any team — particularly a contender — to stomach.

“We need to get him right,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker of the move. “Hopefully, he can take a step back, reassess things and get himself going. He’s experienced a lot during his young Major League career, but he’s not a finished product.”

“They think I’m a big part of this,” said Anderson. “I need to get back to what I know I can be, and what they know, as well… Now it’s just kind of about getting confidence back and figuring some things out.”

Anderson relies on a three-pitch mix, with his changeup — thrown from a high and vertical arm slot — the star of the show. That pitch is still exceptional, but his results on both his four-seam fastball and his curve have receded significantly since he reached the majors, in part because he throws the latter less often when he falls behind in the count — and he’s falling behind more often. Always a pitcher with a reverse platoon split, he’s also been rocked for a .316/.380/.505 line by righties this year.

Anderson’s jump from last year’s 3.58 ERA is the third-largest in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings in both seasons:

Largest ERA Gains from 2021 to ’22
Rk Pitcher Team 2021 2022 Dif
1 Ranger Suárez PHI 1.36 3.68 2.32
2 José Berríos MIN/TOR 3.52 5.19 1.67
3 Ian Anderson ATL 3.58 5.11 1.53
4 Lucas Giolito CHW 3.53 4.91 1.38
5 Patrick Corbin WSN 5.82 7.02 1.20
6 Robbie Ray TOR/SEA 2.84 3.96 1.12
7 Cal Quantrill CLE 2.89 3.88 0.99
8 Sean Manaea OAK/SDP 3.91 4.74 0.82
9 Germán Márquez COL 4.40 5.18 0.78
10T Charlie Morton ATL 3.34 4.09 0.74
Tyler Mahle CIN/MIN 3.75 4.49 0.74
Minimum 100 IP in both 2021 and ’22. All statistics through August 7.

Factoring parks and scoring environments into this, Anderson’s 39-point gain in ERA- (from 83 to 122) drops him to fifth, with Giolito and Ray leapfrogging him, but any way you slice it, that’s an unflattering list to land on.

There’s more to performance than just ERA, and Anderson’s year-to-year rise in FIP from 4.12 (98 FIP-) to 4.24 (107 FIP-) barely stands out except for its crossing from one side of league average to the other. Pair that with his rise in xERA, from 4.27 to 4.46, and the metrics suggest a pitcher primed for some regression in his run prevention. It’s worth recalling that last year, Anderson missed nearly seven weeks due to shoulder inflammation. He posted a 3.56 ERA and 3.60 FIP before landing on the IL in mid-July, then a 3.62 ERA and 5.68 FIP from August 29 onward, with 14 walks and seven homers in 32.1 innings. All of which means that over the past calendar year, Anderson owns a 4.76 ERA and 4.58 FIP in 138 innings, a performance that clashes greatly with the glowing first impressions he made via his six-start 2020 debut (1.95 ERA, 2.54 FIP) and his outstanding October performances (1.26 ERA and 2.90 FIP in eight starts, four of them scoreless and one of them hitless, but only one longer than five innings).

Relative to last year, Anderson is missing far fewer bats. He struck out 29.7% of hitters in his 32.1-inning debut in 2020, was down to a more modest 23.2% last year, and has further slipped to 19.8% this year. Meanwhile, his walk rate has risen from about 10% in his first two seasons to 11.8% this year:

Our built-in graph maker uses strikeout-to-walk ratio as opposed to strikeout-walk differential, in which case the line would more or less run in parallel to the strikeout rate but below it; either way, it’s not a pretty picture. One saving grace is that Anderson has ridden the league-wide home run rate trend, dropping from 1.12 per nine to 0.94, helping to keep his FIP in check.

Exacerbating his problems is a 57-point rise in BABIP, from .261 to .318. That’s the fifth-largest jump among pitchers with 100 innings in both 2021 and ’22, with Anderson surrounded by names familiar from the previous leaderboard:

Largest BABIP Gains from 2021 to ’22
Rk Pitcher Team 2021 2022 Dif
1 Kevin Gausman SFG/TOR .274 .367 .093
2 Lucas Giolito CHW .269 .353 .084
3 Patrick Corbin WSN .305 .384 .078
4 JT Brubaker PIT .284 .344 .059
5 Ian Anderson ATL .261 .318 .057
6 Ranger Suárez PHI .257 .305 .049
7 Shohei Ohtani LAA .269 .312 .042
8 Marco Gonzales SEA .239 .282 .042
9 Adam Wainwright STL .256 .297 .041
10 José Berríos MIN/TOR .277 .310 .033

Statcast has enhanced our appreciation of the fact that not all BABIPs are created equal; some pitchers are better at generating soft contact than others. A peek at Anderson numbers reveals a mixed bag, in that he has generally done a good job of avoiding the barrel of the bat, where the most damage is done, but that batters are hitting him increasingly harder anyway. To the extent that there’s a trend, it’s not a great one:

Ian Anderson Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB EV Percentile Barrel% Percentile HardHit% Percentile xwOBA Percentile
2020 1.91 86.7 79 1.2% 99 32.1% 80 .242 96
2021 1.59 88.3 60 9.5% 20 38.7% 49 .317 43
2022 1.57 89.4 26 6.2% 72 41.0% 25 .327 27
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The two yellow cells represent this table’s surprises. While the other categories shown follow the trend of great -> acceptable/good -> lousy from 2020 to ’22 (and are easiest to appreciate as percentile rankings), Anderson’s barrel rate — a minuscule 1.2% in 2020, representing one measly, stinkin’ barrel in 81 batted ball events — was surprisingly poor last year. Somehow, that’s been the rare bright spot this year. In fact, Anderson has cut down his barrel rate via all three of his offerings (he throws his sinker just 1.2% of the time, hence my omitting it), but his results on contact for both his fastball and curve have gotten notably worse:

Ian Anderson Pitch Comparison, 2021 vs. 2022
Pitch Year % Vel AVG SLG wOBA GB% Barrel%
4-Seam 2021 47.1% 94.6 .216 .349 .284 50.9% 9.4%
4-Seam 2022 46.6% 94.0 .313 .447 .379 41.4% 6.4%
Change 2021 31.4% 88.1 .197 .370 .291 57.0% 10.6%
Change 2022 33.6% 88.1 .210 .341 .281 58.3% 7.3%
Curve 2021 21.1% 80.7 .268 .415 .309 38.3% 8.1%
Curve 2022 18.6% 81.7 .295 .492 .353 42.0% 4.0%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Batters are elevating Anderson’s fastball more often on contact; his average launch angle on those pitches has increased from five degrees to 14, and his batting average, slugging percentage and wOBA allowed on the pitch have each risen by nearly 100 points. In terms of Statcast’s pitch values, his fastball has declined by 19 runs, from -13 (which is to say it prevented 13 runs relative to average) to +6. The slugging percentage against his curveball has risen by 77 points, and his wOBA against the pitch by 44 points. Only his changeup has generated better results than last year, but not by enough to offset the deterioration of the other two offerings.

Anderson’s pitch movement numbers point to some problems. His four-seamer, while thrown with similar velocity to last year, has decreased in spin rate from an already-low 2,045 RPM to 1,927 RPM, which represents a drop from the 10th percentile to the first. With that, the pitch’s average drop has increased from 13.2 inches to 14.4, meaning that it’s getting less ride, and unsurprisingly it’s less effective in the upper third of the strike zone and higher; its wOBA against has increased from .219 to .255 to .365 from 2020 to ’22. Meanwhile, his curve is getting 4.5 fewer inches of vertical break (from 48.4 inches to 43.9).

Whatever it is that’s going wrong for Anderson, the Braves would be better off righting him, as Snitker said. The move to farm him out comes in the aftermath of the team’s acquisition of Jake Odorizzi at the August 2 trade deadline, which gave the Braves six healthy starters (Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Spencer Strider and Kyle Wright being the others), albeit two with workload concerns. The 23-year-old Strider, a 2020 fourth-round pick who’s pitched to a 3.11 ERA and 1.97 FIP, has totaled 89.2 innings thus far; he pitched 94 across five levels last year, including the majors. The 26-year-old Wright, a 2017 first-round pick, has thrown 128.2 innings with a 3.22 ERA and 3.75 FIP after totaling 143.1 innings last year, all but 6.1 of them at Triple-A Gwinnett. If Anderson is in working order, it will become easier to preserve the October availability of all of them.

Procedurally, Anderson is part of the Gwinnett roster, but he won’t report immediately. He’s been added to the Braves’ taxi squad, meaning that he will continue to travel with the team to Boston and Miami this week, and Snitker has already announced that he will serve as the 27th man and start one game of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Marlins. Most likely, after that he will report to Gwinnett.

With fewer than two months in the season, the odds are that it won’t be a long stay. But if the Braves are to replicate last year’s October run, their odds are higher with Anderson pitching to the form that he demonstrated in 2020 and ’21.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

Is it weird for a changeup specialist to have a big reverse platoon split? It feels weird.

1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

Given that his best pitch is, by its nature, worse against same-handed batters, it doesn’t surprise me much.

1 year ago
Reply to  EonADS

OPS vs x pitch is pretty suspect, but LHB apparently still do better vs CH than righties, it’s close though.

1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

I’ve never seen it proven with numbers, but I’ve always understood changeups to be more effective against opposite handed hitters since it breaks away. Similar to a slider (obvi w/ less movement) to a same handed hitter.

1 year ago
Reply to  chipjosh

Ok, yes. I think I had that exactly backwards, which is sadly common.

1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

You have reverse splits