Tyler Anderson’s Comeback Train Rolls Into Pittsburgh

According to Stanford Healthcare’s website, a chondral defect “refers to a focal area of damage to the articular cartilage (the cartilage that lines the end of the bones).” It can be caused either by injury or by a preexisting disorder, and it is often not repairable. Efforts to treat the defect can include a process in which non-viable cartilage is removed and small holes are made in the bone to create pathways for stem cells to travel to the area of missing cartilage, with the hope that the cells will create new healthy tissue. It can also be fixed with bone and cartilage from a donor “that is specifically matched to the size and dimensions of the defect.” In any case, the procedure is an extremely delicate one, and recovery is a slow, arduous process with no guarantee of success.

After years of pain in his left knee, however, a procedure like those was something that left-handed pitcher Tyler Anderson could no longer put off. He underwent surgery in May 2019, having thrown just five games that season. His return — not to mention the quality of pitcher he might be post-surgery — was ambiguous enough that the Rockies waived him that September, allowing the Giants to claim him. As it turned out, Anderson was healthy enough that he pitched a full season in 2020 (albeit helped by the pandemic-imposed delay in starting the year). And he was impressive enough that he now has a guaranteed big league job for 2021.

The Pirates made Tyler Anderson their first major league free-agent signing of the winter on Tuesday, agreeing to terms on a one-year, $2.5 million contract. He will step into the rotation slot vacated by the trade of Joe Musgrove; between him, Steven Brault, and Mitch Keller, it’s probably a toss-up as to who will be the Pirates’ Opening Day starter.

Anderson, 31, threw 59.2 innings for San Francisco and allowed a 4.37 ERA and 4.36 FIP. By ERA- (101) and FIP- (103), he was basically a league-average starter, just like he was from 2017 to ’18. He allowed two runs or fewer in five of his last 10 starts, including a three-hit complete game thrown against the Diamondbacks on August 17.

A few promising outings were probably beyond what the Giants thought they’d be getting out of Anderson. In his five 2019 starts, he gave up 27 runs in 20.2 innings, and his knee discomfort was visible enough after his first two turns that the Rockies placed him on the injured list, hoping a couple of weeks off would sort him out. After three more appearances, though, it was apparent that more serious steps had to be taken.

Now that Anderson has recaptured the pre-2019 version of himself, he’ll no doubt be looking for ways to turn the clock back even further — all the way back to 2016, to be precise. That year, Anderson wasn’t just average; he was excellent, with a 3.54 ERA and 3.59 FIP in 114.1 innings and a career-best 2.4 WAR. And he did it all as a rookie, and not a highly touted one, entering the year as our 23rd-ranked prospect in the Rockies’ system.

A soft-tossing lefty, Anderson made his money by throwing strikes and avoiding barrels as opposed to missing bats. Unfortunately for him, that skill has consistently deteriorated as he’s aged (the table below does not include 2019 due to the tiny sample size).

Tyler Anderson Statcast Percentiles, 2016-20
Year Exit Velo HardHit% Barrel% xwOBA xSLG BB%
2016 100th 97th 95th 85th 84th 80th
2017 85th 72nd 21st 53rd 41st 69th
2018 71st 81st 65th 63rd 58th 55th
2020 77th 85th 65th 31st 42nd 39th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

What’s strange about that decline is that Anderson is still working with a lot of the same ingredients he did in 2016. He leads with his four-seamer, with the changeup close behind as his No. 2 offering and the cutter as his third pitch. His velocity is similar as well, with his fastball hovering just over 90 mph.

The problem is that the recipe just doesn’t pack the same punch anymore. Opponents are hitting Anderson’s strikes harder and chasing him out of the zone less often, a problem exacerbated by his zone rate dipping significantly in 2020. Fewer chases means fewer whiffs, and fewer strikes means more walks, making for the smallest gap between his strikeout and walk rates in his career.

Even this, though, doesn’t represent the largest difference between 2020 Anderson and 2016 Anderson, That would be his groundball rate: Once above 50% in his rookie season, it plunged all the way to 28.5% last year. That was accompanied by a fly-ball rate of 44.1%, the highest of his career by nearly five points. Oracle Park is awfully forgiving of fly-ball pitchers; unsurprisingly, Anderson’s 6.1% HR/FB rate clocked in at less than half the MLB average. PNC Park will be less welcoming; does that make Anderson’s batted ball profile a huge red flag?

Not necessarily. First of all, keep in mind that fly-ball rate includes infield flies, which, as Ben Clemens has pointed out, are virtually automatic outs. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings in 2020, Anderson had the 10th-highest infield fly rate. Because he has a four-seamer with a good perceived rise (90th-percentile vertical movement, according to Baseball Savant), it benefits him to try to get opponents to swing under the ball rather than at the top half. You can’t say the same thing about his changeup, which had a groundball rate in 2020 that was roughly two-thirds of what it was in 2016. But oddly enough, more changeups getting hit in the air didn’t hurt him either: The pitch had a .264 xwOBA in his rookie year and a .277 xwOBA last season, with basically no change in exit velocity.

Anderson doesn’t need to be a groundball machine to limit hard contact, but he does need to limit hard contact in order to pitch effectively. How could he do that? He could lean more heavily on his changeup, making it his No. 1 the way former teammate Kyle Freeland has. He could also throw his rising four-seamer higher in the zone and get rid of his awful sinker. Those adjustments, though, run the risk of driving his walk rate higher, which can’t happen without a major increase in whiffs.

There are pitchers that help teams win, and then there are pitchers that help teams merely survive the season. A Pirates team patched together by an owner seemingly content with fifth place in the division could sure use the latter, and for the money they were willing to pay in this contract, they should consider themselves fortunate if they get it. There’s still a chance Anderson belongs to that first group, though, and he’ll get 32 or so games to try to prove that. I suppose being an innings eater for a last-place team is its own kind of pitching through pain, but Anderson, of all people, knows there’s a way out.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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3 years ago

Nice article, and I appreciate the coverage of the smaller FA signings and not just the major ones.