Brian Anderson, Baseball Man

On September 8, 2017, the Tigers put Nick Castellanos in the outfield for the first time since his cup of coffee back in 2013. He homered that night, and has hit for a 131 wRC+ in the 555 plate appearances he’s taken since. Today, I’d like to talk about another third-baseman-turned-outfielder, also improved since his move from dirt to grass, and whose present condition of employment with the Miami Marlins, a notably bad baseball team, likely explains why we aren’t talking about him more: Brian Wade Anderson, 25. He has been, to date, 2018’s most valuable rookie.

That that last sentence is true at all, even temporarily, even for a moment, should register as a bit of a surprise. As he came up through the Miami ranks after being drafted out of the University of Arkansas in 2014, the reports on Anderson were solid but unspectacular. The 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual, published before the eponymous season, noted that “Brian Anderson is an average-ish defender at second base, but looks unlikely to hit any better than the synonymous former Diamondbacks starting pitcher.” Ouch. That same year, our own Kiley McDaniel was a little bit more sanguine on the young man’s future (“a plus runner with a plus arm … and present average raw power that projects for a tick more”) but still ranked him 7th in a notably weak system overall.

The consensus at the time was that Anderson had a good arm, a solid glove, good instincts on the bases, and enough bat to take him just so far but not further, and for the first two years or so of Anderson’s career, that sounded about right. But then Anderson did what unspectacular position-player prospects who make it to the big leagues anyway always do, which is start hitting and not stop.

He won the Marlins’ Minor League Player of the Year award in 2016, then put up a 160 wRC+ in Triple-A in 2017 to earn himself the opportunity to play a little bit of third base for a Marlins team playing out the string in the September before the selloff. That same selloff then put him in the position, at the beginning of this year, to lock down the Fish’s starting third base position out of spring training, which he did, and start at the hot corner in each of the Marlins’ first 24 games, bumping his career wRC+ to 101 in the process.

And there he was, playing in the major leagues, just like that. But a funny thing happened early this year: Although Anderson’s base running was largely as advertised (his BSR, over at Baseball Prospectus, has been in the top four or five league-wide all year, although our own BsR has him as a below average runner), and his offense was more than good enough to keep him in the starting lineup (driven, in large part, by an advanced ability to lay off of breaking pitches outside of the zone), his defense at third base was lacking whatever panache might have been expected of it coming up through the system. And so, on April 27th, the Marlins started Anderson in right field. It was an understandable shift given Anderson’s performance at the hot corner to that point, and allowed his biggest defensive strength — his powerful arm — to play up, while moderating the negative effects of his limited range. It also didn’t hurt that Martin Prado came off the disabled list around the same time.

As it was for Castellanos before him, the shift down the defensive spectrum seemed to be all the change Anderson needed to blossom into a better version of himself. He’s flourished offensively since the move to right field — a 118 wRC+ in 382 plate appearances, with an unusual-for-him .437 slugging — and his aggregate combination of playing time, offensive prowess, and defensive competence has led to an unexpectedly valuable rookie season for the 25-year-old. Once again: Brian Anderson, who as recently as three years ago was ranked 7th in a weak Miami Marlins system, and as recently as two years ago was hitting not especially well in Double-A, is now leading all major league rookies in WAR. That is, on the whole, quite a remarkable accomplishment.

Now, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The guy Anderson one spot in front of — Juan Soto — is six years younger than him, a far better hitter already at 19, and still likely to have a markedly better career than Anderson ever will. He’ll probably win the NL Rookie of the Year award this year, too. Anderson’s WAR lead is in part a function of the Marlins being a very bad baseball team this year, and therefore able to give a largely untested rookie a ton of playing time and room to grow. Anderson has 491 plate appearances this season while Soto has 278. The gap between the two men is a mere 0.2 WAR, and we can’t pretend WAR is fine-tuned to the point that such differences are especially meaningful. They aren’t, and as 2018 continues, Anderson will likely be eclipsed.

But I’m a sucker for guys who nobody expected to be all that good being good anyway, sometimes despite themselves, and I’m a sucker for these strange baseball stories bursting out of nowhere and forcing themselves into the conversation because of their improbability. It’s entirely possible that this moment, right now, where he’s leading the major leagues in WAR for rookies, will be the high point of Brian Wade Anderson’s career. I hope it isn’t. I wish him many happy days ahead. But if it is, it’s worth pausing for a moment and celebrating the path he’s taken to get here. Brian Anderson, baseball man, has arrived.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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Monsignor Martinez
Monsignor Martinez

And this is why I voted “Marlins outfield” in the poll that was done earlier this year. Too likely that at least one Marlins player unexpectedly puts up good numbers, while at least one of Stanton, Yelich or Ozuna either gets injured or under performs.