Tim Anderson’s High-Wire Act

Tim Anderson is a befuddling player. Over the last two-plus seasons, he has posted a 133 wRC+ despite a minuscule walk rate (3.3%) that is the third lowest among all players with at least 500 plate appearances, ahead of only slap hitters José Iglesias and Hanser Alberto. That puts a lot of pressure on his ability to produce on contact. So far, so good: In that same time frame, he has a .390 BABIP, tops among all hitters and a full eight points above the next closest player (coincidently, his teammate, Yoán Moncada). The normal expectation is that a BABIP figure that high is unsustainable, and the projection systems tend to agree. The FanGraphs Depth Charts pegged Anderson for a .336 BABIP in 2021 and, correspondingly, a batting line just three percent better than league average.

If Anderson is going to be a productive hitter, then, one of two things needs to happen: He sustains a BABIP that is not just 100 points above the league average but also one of the best figures of all-time; or he improves in plate appearances that do not end with a ball in play. So how likely is either?

Let’s start with the BABIP. Anderson does not hit the ball especially hard. In the last two seasons, he ranked in the 33rd and 40th percentile, respectively, in hard hit rate, according to Baseball Savant. Last season he almost doubled his barrel rate, going from 5.1% in 2019 (23rd percentile) to a career-high 10.1% (65th), but that 2020 figure constituted all of 16 batted balls. Nor has he shown too much selectivity in his career or discriminated against pitches within or near the strike zone, as you can see in the sea of red below.

One thing working in Anderson’s BABIP favor is his speed. He is one of the fastest regulars in MLB, ranking in the 92nd and 87th percentile in sprint speed in 2020 and ’19, respectively. Mike Podhorzer found a mild positive correlation between sprint speed and BABIP, though if you break it out by left and right-handed hitters, I imagine it would be lower for the latter because of the extra bit of ground they have to cover exiting the batter’s box.

That helps explain how Anderson is able to outperform his BABIP, but not to the historic levels he’s currently at. So I decided to build a general additive model — trained on all batted balls from 2019 and ’20, with launch angle, exit velocity, and spray angle as the inputs and whether the ball in play was a hit as the output — to see what his outcomes should have been. (One note: This model did not consider fielder orientation or park effects.) The result: Anderson led the league in BABIP overperformance for all players with at least 250 batted balls the past two seasons, with a BABIP that was about 62 points higher than expected based on the model’s parameters. Faster players tend to do this; Adalberto Mondesi finished second in this experiment, followed by Delino DeShields, Raimel Tapia, and Trevor Story. Regardless, it’s clear that a lot of good batted ball fortune has helped drive Anderson’s results.

Could substantial improvements to plate discipline help Anderson stave off BABIP regression? I’m skeptical. This will be his age-28 season, and at this point in a player’s career, strikeout and walk rates are relatively stable, if on the decline.

These phenomena are generalized and do not apply to every player in the same manner, but expecting major changes (say more than a percentage point) in either Anderson’s walk and strikeout rates would be wishful thinking.

Drilling down further into his swing decisions makes me even more dubious of improvement on either front. Anderson is among the most aggressive swingers on pitches in and especially outside of the strike zone, and he does not compensate with higher-end contact rates.

In a vacuum, frequently swinging at pitches in the strike zone and making contact at a tick above average on those pitches is a good thing. That is not to say every pitch in the strike zone is worth swinging at for a hitter, but all else being equal, Anderson has been a positive in that department, adding seven runs over the past two seasons in the zone and shadow regions, per Baseball Savant. (I’m including the shadow region because FanGraphs’ plate discipline stats consider a larger strike zone than our Baseball Savant counterpart.) The issue with Anderson is that his aggressiveness extends beyond the strike zone: He is more swing-happy relative to his peers on pitches outside but makes contact at a below-average clip. Couple that with the fact that contact on those pitches generally yields worse results, and you have someone actively hurting his batting line.

Anderson’s propensity to swing at bad pitches has helped lead to a 14.5% swinging-strike rate in the past two seasons. A player’s overall strikeout rate is usually about twice that of his swinging-strike rate, but since 2019, for Anderson, it’s closer to 1.5 — a product of his extreme swing profile.

There’s a simple explanation here: Players who swing frequently outside of the strike zone are usually also going to be swinging a lot at pitches in the strike zone, which have higher rates of contact. Because swinging-strike rate is capturing those out-of-zone swings, it is going to look high relative to a player’s overall strikeout rate since he is also putting a lot of those in-zone swings in play. This is all to say that Anderson’s strikeout rate should remain stable given his swing profile and his age. Any changes in his walk rate will require more patience, and we haven’t seen much sign of that over the last two seasons.

One last interesting quirk worth keeping an eye on this season is Anderson’s success with two strikes. The league-average strikeout rate in two-strike plate appearances was 42.5% in 2019 and ’20; he was a shade over that rate at 44.9. But while the league-average wOBA in those plate appearances was .239, Anderson posted a .288 figure. The difference is that his wOBA in two-strike situations when he didn’t strike out was a sky-high .519, almost 25% better than the rest of the league (.416). That sort of result is generally not repeatable.

Digging through Anderson’s plate skills and batted ball profile leave me a bit pessimistic. I think he has real BABIP-inflating skills, but his .390 figure is still exceptionally high. Worse results on contact will force him to make up ground when he does not put the ball in play, and not only does the evidence at hand suggest this is a tall order, but it’s also worth remembering that even an above-average BABIP like his projected .336 figure via Depth Charts results in a projected wRC+ of 104. In other words: Barring a total change in his approach at the plate, Anderson will live and die on BABIP.

But regardless of how likely he is to keep it going, I hope he continues this high-wire act. Players who put the ball in play and leverage their speed are incredibly fun to watch, and when Anderson steps up to the plate, he puts pressure on the defense and is rarely cheated on pitches in the zone. Before the start of the 2020 season, Matthew Trueblood over at Baseball Prospectus outlined some of Anderson’s adjustments in the batter’s box that, along with his quick hands and excellent barrel control, have made him someone who can succeed despite his warts. I cannot wait to see if he can continue bucking convention.

Carmen is a part-time contributor to FanGraphs. An engineer by education and trade, he spends too much of his free time thinking about baseball.

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3 years ago

Tim Anderson has the worst BB/K ratio in baseball history (minimum of 2000 PA). His lack of plate discipline is historically bad.

3 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

This is why Im not hot on him batting at the top of the order. Good things happen when you put the ball in play. Im huge, huge, huge on players that do not strike out, and can draw walks. Smart hitters, contact hitters, moving runners over, putting the ball in play. But still I like TA’s makeup and am glad to have him.

3 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

I don’t know if I necessarily agree that this is attributable to “bad plate discipline”. The stats are so extreme that it has to be his approach, as opposed to not actually knowing the strike zone. He has just decided to be aggressive and basically swing hard at everything, and been surprisingly decent at it, notwithstanding the lack of walks.