What’s Going On With Ian Anderson?

Ian Anderson was one of the better stories of the 2020 season. Entering the year as the No. 3 prospect in the Braves’ system and the No. 44 prospect in all of baseball, he was seen as a future mid-rotation starter who could help quickly. He did just that and more: Added to the rotation in late August, Anderson finished seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting despite making just six starts. He put up a 1.95 ERA in those outings, and while the supporting data said he wasn’t the Cy Young-level pitcher that number might suggest, he was still awfully good. He was even better in the postseason, allowing just two runs over 18 innings, striking out 24 and giving up just 11 hits.

Anderson maintained his rookie eligibility entering 2021 and earned the No. 2 ranking in Atlanta’s system (Eric Longenhagen and I discussed putting him at No. 1 ahead of Cristian Pache) and the No. 13 spot in this year’s Top 100 list. He looked like the cornerstone of a young Braves rotation that would help lead them to National League East title contention.

His first start of the year was vintage Anderson (or at least as vintage as you can get for a guy who is still a rookie), as he gave up one run over five innings and struck out seven. His next two were far from it: 11 hits and seven runs allowed over 10.1 innings. Game score is far from a perfect measure, but it’s a simple and quick look at a start, and Anderson’s game scores of 47 and 45 in his last two outings represent the two worst marks of his career. This could be a blip, or there could be some tough luck in there. But a closer look at the data shows that this is more than just a randomly-generated bad run.

When asked to evaluate a pitcher not living up to expectations, these are the first three questions I try to answer.

  • Without knowing anything internally, is there anything to worry about in terms of health?
  • Has the pitcher changed anything in terms of usage and location?
  • Has the pitcher seen his pitch shapes change due to alterations in his mechanics or spin rate?

The Health Question

It’s impossible to know how a player is feeling without direct access to both the individual as well as the training staff. The good news here is that there is nothing in the data to suggest Anderson might be dealing with arm issues. As an outsider, the best analogue to pitcher arm health is velocity, and he is in-line with his 2020 data.

Ian Anderson Velocity
2020 94.1 80.1
2021 94.3 80.2
SOURCE: Statcast

Usage and Location

Anderson has never been knows for his precision, but his walk rate of 10.4% through his first three starts is a near match for his 10.1% mark from 2020. His stuff really moves, and the combination of big movement and plus command is for unicorns like Gerrit Cole. Anderson’s command is far from ideal, but there’s nothing in the data showing a decline from what we are used to. His usage remains roughly the same as well.

Ian Anderson Pitch Usage
2020 48.3% 20.8% 30.8%
2021 46.9% 22.5% 30.5%
SOURCE: Statcast

It’s a slight uptick in offspeed usage, but that should be a good thing; those are this pitches that perform the best. There’s nothing to see here, which leaves us with just one more option.

Changes to Shape and Spin Rate

There is where we actually find something. Anderson’s high release point serves him well in terms of pitch shape, allowing him to generate a classic rising four-seamer and contributing to his ability to get plus depth on his curveball despite below-average spin rates. But something has happened to his release point in 2021, and it’s not something we normally see in pitchers: He has gotten both higher and wider with it. You can see the difference in this animated GIF that shows the contrast between last year and now.

This is not an easy combination to achieve. Grab a baseball off your desk (or a coffee cup or anything roughly baseball sized). Slowly mimic your natural throwing motion and stop at your release point. Now widen your release point. The most obvious way to do that is to lower the angle, which creates more distance from your frame.

Without ultra high-speed video available to the common person, it’s hard to say how exactly Anderson is achieving both a higher and wider release point. It could be in his wrist load, or his body position, as he’s always relied on a body lean to create his angles. Or it could be greater extension of the elbow joint to create a longer fulcrum.

That should be a good thing. As I discussed in my piece on pitch shapes, the shapes pitchers generate are greatly dependent on arm angles. Anderson’s fastball already has plus shape, and adding both rise and run to the pitch should make it even better, but that’s not what’s happening.

As you can see, Anderson’s fastball does have a bit of extra run to it from what we’ve seen in the past, but more importantly, and more troubling, is that the pitch flattened out a bit in terms of verticality. What was once 12% more vertical movement than average for pitchers with similar velocity, release point and extension is now 1% less. Less rise means more hard contact, and Anderson’s barrel rate has gone from a minuscule 1.2% in 2020 to 12.2% this year.

So what’s going on here? My theory is that the wider release point is affecting Anderson’s grip on the baseball and impeding his ability to stay on top of the ball, keeping him from producing the kind of spin shapes that are necessary for his signature vertical attack. It’s hard to corroborate this without the kind of high-speed video that only teams have access to, but that belief is buoyed by Anderson’s curveball, which has lost about an inch of depth and more than 100 rpm, or roughly 7%.

Throwing a baseball with the kind of velocity and spin we see from major league pitchers requires remarkable mechanical consistency. Anderson’s recent performances are not the result of bad dice rolls, but of a small yet significant mechanical difference that has made him a less effective pitcher. This is far from some kind of nightmare scenario or forecast for doom, but it is something that needs to be addressed if he is to return to his 2020 form, as well as the future projected for him.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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1 year ago

This is great analysis. Love it. I assume that this is exactly the kind of thing that pitchers and coaches work on between starts? Finding the source of issues and trying to correct it. I can’t imagine maintaining big league mechanics where any small change can throw everything off. I think my release was a little different every single time I shot a basketball in high school, which is one of reason (of many) that my career stopped right there haha.