Brewers Add Veteran Depth in Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

For the past five seasons, Brian Anderson has been one of the few steady presences on the Marlins. With a long list of big names leaving town semi-regularly, one of the only things fans in Miami could count on was seeing Anderson’s name every day somewhere in the middle of Don Mattingly’s lineup card. But after starting just 155 games over the past two seasons and suffering numerous injuries, Miami’s front office decided to let him go too, non-tendering him into free agency. And now he is taking his talents to Milwaukee, inking a one-year deal with the Brewers worth $3.5 million.

From 2018 to ’20, Anderson was a consistently above-average performer, with a 115 wRC+ and 7.3 WAR across 341 games. He did basically everything at a solid or better level: he drew his fair share of walks (and was plunked a non-insignificant number of times), his strikeouts weren’t a problem, and while his plus raw power didn’t fully actualize due to a high groundball rate and the unforgiving dimensions of his home ballpark, he still slugged 44 homers during that stretch. He basically defined what it meant to have 50 or 55 grades on every offensive skill, making him successful all around.

After an uneven 2021 season and a left shoulder injury that required offseason surgery, Anderson’s production seemed to rebound at the beginning of 2022. He missed most of June with a back issue but had a very solid 117 wRC+ through the All-Star break, right in line with his best seasons. But on July 23, Anderson dove for a ground ball and landed on his left shoulder — his third left shoulder injury in a little over a year, and one that landed him on the IL for three weeks. After returning, his numbers fell significantly below his career norms, as he slashed just .188/.276/.318 in 174 plate appearances the rest of the way. This prolonged slump dropped his season wRC+ to 90, setting a career low for the second consecutive year.

It’s unclear which version of Anderson the Brewers will be getting, but his shoulder problem last year clearly affected his performance, especially in catching up with fastballs up in the zone. He has always been a fastball hitter, with significantly better results against them compared to other pitch types, but a weakened front shoulder may have reduced his ability to lift his bat quickly enough to make consistent contact with high heat.

Brian Anderson Slugging vs. Fastballs
Year SLG on Fastballs Whiff% on High Fastballs
2018 .469 28.6
2019 .440 27.3
2020 .598 32.6
2021 .500 27.3
2022 .374 32.3
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Anderson recorded a career-low level of damage on contact against fastballs last season, with an elevated whiff rate against heaters on the upper third or above the zone. But these swing-and-miss numbers look even more concerning when splitting the 2022 season into two halves. Before his July 23 re-aggravation of his shoulder injury, Anderson’s whiff rate on high fastballs was 26.8%, better than his career averages. In 43 games after returning from the IL, it skyrocketed to 37.8%, by far a career high. If these issues continue, then pitchers will keep targeting him with a pitch type that he had previously mashed, potentially dooming his entire offensive profile.

Despite a 40-game cold streak, Anderson’s underlying power numbers were actually among the best in his career. A good metric to use to understand how hard a hitter can consistently impact the ball is 90th percentile exit velocity, which is a blend of raw and in-game power. Despite a compromised left shoulder, Anderson just put up the highest 90th percentile exit velocity of his career last season, and even more promisingly, 11 of his 20 hardest-hit balls came after returning from his injury, including a 112-mph line drive homer that marked his hardest-hit ball in three years. Notably, only two of those rockets came against high pitches, but he did consistent damage to fastballs over the middle of the plate. While his average exit velocity dipped by a tick or two in the past couple years, his exit velocity numbers on aerial contact (line drives and fly balls) remained in line with his career averages, a possible sign of a return to form in a new ballpark that grades out as 26% more homer-friendly for right-handed hitters compared to Marlins Park.

Brian Anderson 90th Percentile Exit Velocity
Year 90th Percentile EV
2018 104.9
2019 104.6
2020 103.7
2021 103.5
2022 106
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

While there are many unanswered questions about Anderson’s left shoulder, his throwing shoulder is perfectly intact and ready to do what it does best. His defensive range at both the hot corner and the outfield corners has been a bit below average, but he’s made up for that with a capital-C Cannon of an arm. According to Statcast, just two third basemen averaged a better throwing speed than Anderson’s 88.9 mph; in right field, where teams tend to place their best outfield arms, he was alone on the top of the leaderboard, averaging over 96 on the gun. In about 1,600 outfield innings, he’s been credited with -7 RAA (a range-only metric), but he’s just about made up for it with his arm, logging +6.9 throwing runs per UZR. On the infield dirt, each of RAA, UZR, and DRS have him within a run of league average at third base, so it’s pretty safe to project solidly average defensive performance regardless of where he’s stationed on the field. Anderson is also no stranger to a utility role, making at least 40 outfield appearances and 40 third base appearances in three different seasons.

The Brewers, who narrowly missed the playoffs last season, are continuing their rather quiet offseason, with their total big league guarantees adding up to just $8 million. As a result, they’ll be relying on a variety of younger, less experienced hitters to fill their lineup, like Garrett Mitchell and Tyrone Taylor in the outfield and Brice Turang and Luis Urías on the infield dirt. The hope is that each of these young players takes a step forward, but Anderson provides insurance in the case that doesn’t happen. His consistency in the corners allows him to take starts from many different players if needed, and he should stabilize a Milwaukee roster that will try to compete even without substantial upgrades.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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1 year ago

This is a low key solid pickup

1 year ago
Reply to  lavarnway

Yessir. Not so much because Brian Anderson is likely to be a plus plus player but because he only needs to be decent at two realistic objectives — corner defense and hitting LHP — to allow several other roster components to excel.

Taylor, Urias, Turang, Mitchell, and possibly Toro can all be utilized more favorably thanks to the addition of BA.