Tim Anderson is Quietly Having a Wild Year

Tim Anderson isn’t exactly toiling in obscurity. Playing in the nation’s third-largest city, he made headlines earlier this year after one of his trademark bat flips drew a retaliatory plunking from Brad Keller. That sparked a benches-clearing brawl and placed Anderson at the center of the sport’s ongoing discussion about the proper way to play the game. In the aftermath, Anderson appropriately defended his right to play with emotion, and the episode helped reinforce the sentiment that he’s the kind of player a healthier league would market aggressively.

And yet, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Anderson has been quite good this season. He missed more than a month with a high ankle sprain, but when healthy, he’s hit .328 while posting a 124 wRC+. He’s posted nearly 3 WAR even with all that time on the shelf, more than a four-win pace over 162 games. (All stats are through the start of Thursday’s action.)

What’s less clear is how encouraged we should be by Anderson’s 2019 campaign. Prior to this season, he had established himself as a reliable big leaguer, albeit one with a mediocre stick. A cursory look at his year-to-year numbers suggests that, big BABIP spike aside, not too much has changed:

Same As The Old Guy?
2016 27.1 3.0 .149 54.3 0.375
2017 26.7 2.1 .145 52.7 0.328
2018 24.6 5.0 .166 46.6 0.289
2019 20.8 2.5 .170 49.7 0.390

Other than the .390 BABIP, there isn’t much in his profile that suggests he’s a new man. The modest reduction in strikeouts is mostly cancelled out by a lower walk rate, and his ISO relative to the league has actually dropped in 2019. His average launch angle is also two degrees lower, for whatever that’s worth.

Sometimes though, a player’s BABIP is more than just an indicator of whether he is running hot or cold. Obviously, anyone with a .390 BABIP is getting some good fortune on floating liners and seeing eye singles, but that shouldn’t mask Anderson’s tangible improvement this season.

Anderson’s hard hit rate is 39.2%, by far the best of his career, and five percentage points higher than the league average. His average exit velocity is up more than two ticks from his previous career best, and is also above league average for the first time in his career. His xBA is in the league’s 89th percentile, and his .326 xWOBA is both above league average and far closer to his actual .361 wOBA than I was expecting when I started writing this article.

Still, you don’t need me to tell you that a .390 BABIP is unsustainable. It’s the 10th highest average of the decade, one of the 30 highest in the last 40 years, and not where we should expect Anderson to settle in the long run. But even a look at BABIP norms can’t adequately describe just how extreme his 2019 numbers look in a historical context.

For one, it’s very difficult to be a productive hitter while running a 2.5% walk rate. Over the last 40 years, Anderson’s 124 wRC+ is the best mark of any hitter with a walk rate under 3%, and third-best of anyone sub-3.5% (let’s take a second to acknowledge the absurdity of Alfonso Soriano’s 39-homer, 41-steal 2002 season, where he also hit .300 with a 3.1% walk rate). Most players who never walk are aggressive, slap-hitting middle infielders or speedy outfielders who don’t pack enough punch for pitchers to justify working around them. It seems that Anderson is just barely in the Goldilocks zone, where he’s strong enough to hit for meaningful power without striking so much fear into his opponents that he walks a fair amount by default.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s even more difficult to hit for a good average with such a low walk rate. Since World War II, there have only been five players who hit better than .320 with 15 or fewer walks in at least 400 plate appearances:

Walkless Wonders
Player Year PA BA BB% wRC+
Tim Anderson 2019 403 .329 2.5 124
Mariano Duncan 1996 417 .340 2.2 114
Brian Harper 1989 412 .325 3.2 121
Dave Stapleton 1980 472 .321 3.8 112
Garry Templeton 1977 644 .322 2.3 108

I don’t know if “good” is the right adjective here, so let’s just call it “notable” company. If anything though, the comparison undersells how impressive Anderson’s batting average is this year. The league is hitting just .253 in 2019, far lower than the circuit’s .270 average in 1996 when Duncan produced his quirky season. Normalize for the era, and Anderson looks even better:

Introducing BA+
Player Year BA League BA Batting Average Plus
Tim Anderson 2019 .329 .253 130
Mariano Duncan 1996 .340 .270 126
Brian Harper 1989 .325 .254 128
Dave Stapleton 1980 .321 .265 121
Garry Templeton 1977 .322 .264 122

I don’t have the tools to calculate BA+ for the entire player universe, so I can’t say definitively whether Anderson has the best BA+ of all time among batmen in his walkless cohort. But if he isn’t right at the top of the list, he’s very, very close to it.

That seems like a long way of saying that Anderson probably won’t succeed exactly like this next year. Frankly, it’s an easy conclusion to reach: We’ve never really seen a player walk this infrequently while hitting for as much power and average as Anderson is doing right now, so we shouldn’t expect him to turn the trick twice.

That doesn’t mean Anderson can’t build off his 2019 performance. He’s striking out less and hitting the ball hard more often now than at any point in his career, and between his launch angle, speed, and feel for the barrel, he seems like a good bet to hit for average going forward.

Where does that leave him in the long run? Inevitably for a contact-oriented player, there’s a fair amount of guess-work in that; even for players of Anderson’s ilk, BABIP is a volatile beast. If he can keep it around .340, his career average, there’s no reason he can’t be a useful, perhaps even slightly productive hitter. That, combined with decent defense at the six, makes for a pretty nifty building block.

It’s hard to be a good player with a lousy walk rate, and it’s really hard to be a good player with a lousy walk rate and pedestrian power. Throughout his career though, Anderson has found a way to thread the needle, and this year he’s starting to square up the ball more often. If he can sustain that ability to consistently make solid contact, it would represent real progress from his 2016-2018 production — even if his BABIP drops and makes 2019 look like the high water mark.

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Rational Fan
4 years ago

Javy Baez and Tim Anderson – trying to break the no-walk = no-success stigma. There have been so many MLB players in the history of the league and it took this long to find two players to defy the expected.

It’s what makes baseball fun and unique. There’s no one way to succeed and even the ways we assumed would lead to automatic failure have their counter points and success stories.

He is one of baseballs most exciting and entertaining players – as is Baez. Doing the unconventional is sometimes more fun than being great at the conventional.

4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

Prior to 2000-something there were many players that hit a lot more and walked a lot less. Vlad Sr was one of them – he walked some but he swung at anything close which is really what I think we are talking about. Well, that and a bit of luck which is what puts you above or below 3% and that AVG can definitely fluctuate both ways. Don’t read too much into arbitrary cutoffs – Soriano was recognized in this article as just missing an arbitrary cutoff – lots of players have hit for average and been averse to walks. This has not been a 100 year search IMO.

That BA+ isn’t any use here. Using it to compare previous generations is just highlighting the low AVG of our time. Players of today hit for low average by choice – they choose HR and K – that doesn’t mean its harder to hit for average so I don’ t know that the gap between average and Tim matters a whole lot. Any list that attempts to measure relative AVG would have Ichiro, Tony Gwynn and some historic seasons like George Brett in it. I am not older than that but there were probably some great hitting seasons from the past… whatever Barry Bonds did for a while has to be unparalleled in this era.

Its not an unfair stigma. Most players cut from that mold fail. The only thing that they are proving is that great players don’t come from molds. Sabermetrics is always going to struggle with that.

If you really want to know what I think of Javy and Tim – I think they are a reflection of our time which is close to zero coaching from the organization. I think they present some ideas but I don’t think they do much with the actual players. I can’t imagine that anyone asks them to take a walk or helps them work on it or says anything about an ugly at bat. I am sure they work, but its probably very much their choice of what they work on with people that they want to work with. To think that is the era of walks there are two people doing it incredibly infrequently tells you something about how hands-off it probably is. I am sure players are in shape, but I don’t think they hear much about poor decisions and lack of preparation. I see more bad baseball today, than I ever have before – but that is subjective of course. In the past I think you got an earful or lost some ABs for doing something dumb, but I think they just write lineups and go through the motions when they get together as a team… which I would bet is less then ever before. These guys could walk more if they needed to, but I don’t think they get much pressure to do anything they don’t want to. I just saw this past week an incident where a coach said something to a player in passing and the player had to be restrained. I think its like that. They do have their celebrations down though.