Brian Anderson and Hope for the Marlins

This image represents an exception to the rule of Anderson’s outfield defense.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Not every franchise is in a position to enjoy the present. Each year, 10 clubs qualify for the postseason, meaning 10 fanbases experience some form of pleasure. The supporters of the other 20 teams, however, are necessarily forced to contend with various levels of discontent. Some are able to recall recent success, if not much hope for the near future. Those who follow the Giants and Royals belong to this category. Others, like those in San Diego or the south side of Chicago, endure the present while waiting for an Astros- or Cubs-style turnaround. For these fanbases, “[The] Past and to come seem best; things present [the] worst.

One club that is forced to dwell only on the past and future is the Miami Marlins. They certainly have past glories: they’ve won the World Series in their only two playoff appearances. Their present, however, is just as certainly is bleak. Since 2011, the club has endured a spending spree that went nowhere; the resulting sell-off; the death of a bright, young talent; another firesale; a deteriorating relationship between management and their best player; and… yeah… it’s rough for the Marlins.

That said, there are some reasons for hope in Miami. All those sell-offs and losing seasons have allowed the club to acquire some promising prospects. In the low minors, the upper minors, and even at the major-league level, there are players in the Marlins’ system about whom analysts and fans can get excited. Going into the season, the two players expected to have spend the most time with the Marlins were Lewis Brinson and Brian Anderson. Brinson has struggled thus far, to the tune of a .188/.231/.347 slash line, a 54 wRC+, and -0.4 WAR (All-Star campaign notwithstanding). Brian Anderson has had a more successful debut, however, giving Marlins fans their first taste of hope for a brighter future.

Anderson is the type of player who seems to have always been on the cusp of something more. Baseball America, for example, commented as he entered the draft that “Anderson’s tools and production haven’t matched up.” A comparatively down junior season caused him to slide from a potential first-round pick down to the Marlins pick in the third round (76th overall), where he signed for an underslot bonus at $600,000. In the Marlins’ system, he was consistently a top-10 prospect, rising as high as No. 4 (by Baseball America) after the 2016 season. He hit well at Triple-A New Orleans in 2017; even so, though, he entered the 2018 season regarded as a 45-50 future value player, someone who might factor into the back end of top-100 lists.

As a prospect, Anderson has typically been regarded as an effective fielder with good hands and a plus arm, meaning he could function at third base while also having the tools for right field. At the plate, he profiled as a decent hitter; if his power developed, he could be looking at 15-20 homers. At worst, in other words, a solid utility player; at best, an average regular. Low variance, but still not a bad outcome for a third-round pick.

Halfway through the season, Anderson has surpassed those expectations. He has, for example, already reached the WAR threshold for an average player. In 362 plate appearances (going into Sunday’s games), he’s recorded a slash line of .292/.367/.416 (118 wRC+) and 2.0 WAR — all this while playing positive defense in right field (8.3 UZR/150 in 442 innings) and mediocre defense at third base (-2.4 UZR/150 in 303 innings). At this pace, we are definitely getting something beyond an average regular.

Going beyond some of the more superficial numbers, we find that Anderson probably still has some potential for better production. One worry that followed Anderson into the season was that he would strike out at too high of a rate in the majors. To this point, Anderson has struck out at a rate of 18.5% while walking 9.1% of the time. On the surface, this seems to suggest that Anderson has a good grasp of the strike zone and solid plate discipline. The underlying numbers back this up, too, as Anderson chases pitches out of the zone less than average (25.4% versus 30.5% across the league). On pitches in the zone, he is still reasonably selective, swinging at 68.4% of pitches where league average is 67.1%.

This selective — some would say passive — approach can be problematic when a player does not make contact on his swings. Anderson neither fails nor excels on that point, clocking in near league-average contact on pitches inside and outside the zone. All this leads to a swinging-strike rate of 9.5%, lower than the league average of 10.7%. Again, all signs point to a player who has a strong sense of his approach at the plate, and this approach can indeed be effective.

The other knock against Anderson was his power profile. He has historically flashed solid 60 power in batting practice, especially to the pull side. There was hope that he could harness that power to get to 15-20 homers on the year, but people generally agreed that, at the moment, Anderson was at his best using his line-drive swing to consistently pepper the alleys.

Looking at the Statcast data, we see this evaluation of Anderson borne out. The power potential is clearly there, with Anderson recording an average exit velocity of 90.7 mph, good for 51st in baseball out of qualified hitters. He clearly hits it hard, topping 95 mph 43% of the time. The problem for Anderson is launch angle, which comes in at a mere 8.6 degrees. (League average is 10.8 degrees.) We see this same tendency expressed in Anderson’s 50.8% ground-ball rate, 22nd highest in baseball. However, this can be changed — if he so desires — by some adjustments with a hitting coach. With a high swing plane, he has the potential to tap into the power that clearly exists in his swing.

The final question for Anderson is going to be his defense. While he has performed well in right field, his bat will have to continue to develop if he wants to overcome the positional adjustment and continue to be an asset at that position. Meanwhile, while Anderson’s defense at third base has been worse than in right field, it still is not unplayable. Furthermore, his past history — Anderson was named best defensive infield prospect going into the 2018 season by Baseball America — suggests that he should be able to stick there long term and eventually become an positive contributor in the field.

Brian Anderson represents a glimpse of hope for those downtrodden Marlins fans who have once again observed an exodus of team stars. In an admittedly small sample, Anderson has performed well, producing at a level that pushes towards the top of his range of outcomes. Even better, his underlying numbers suggest room for potential growth. More young players are beginning to join him in Miami, with Lewis Brinson performing considerably better in the month of June (lowering his K% and hitting a 123 wRC+) and Sandy Alcantara earning a promotion after a promising start to the year in Triple-A. This youth movement continues to give hope for a better future for the fanbase, hope that will help get them through the trying times that make up the Marlins’ bleak present.

Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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I’m glad the Marlins have something to be happy about that will be around for the long term (unlike Realmuto who I think will be traded).