The Yankees are expected to cast a wide net as they search for pitching this offseason because that’s what they do every offseason. They consider every option, act on what they feel are the best options, and move forward. The team will reportedly steer clear of big names like James Shields, Jon Lester, and Max Scherzer this winter, at least depending on which report you want to believe, leaving them to pick from second and third tier options.
One of those second or third tier pitching options also happens to be the youngest free agent on the market: 26-year-old left-hander Brett Anderson. He won’t turn 27 until February, right before Spring Training. The Rockies declined his $12M club option earlier this month and so far only the Royals and Astros have been in contact with his agent, according to Andy McCullough and Evan Drellich. The Yankees have not yet been connected to Anderson this offseason but they did try to trade for him both last winter and at this summer’s trade deadline, so they could circle back and try to sign him this offseason. Let’s see what he has to offer.
The Long List of Injuries
Unfortunately, we have to start here. Anderson broke into the big leagues very young and managed to accrue six full years of service time while throwing only 494 innings, including only 206.1 over the last four seasons. He’s been hurt. A lot. Here’s the list of injuries that required a DL stint:
- 2010: Elbow strain (missed 30 games) and then elbow inflammation (46 games).
- 2011: Tommy John surgery (102 games).
- 2012: Recovery from Tommy John surgery (120 games) and oblique strain (14 games).
- 2013: Stress fracture in right foot (102 games).
- 2014: Surgery for a fractured finger (83 games) and surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back (49 games).
Anderson has had some other minor day-to-day stuff over the years — missed a start with a blister in 2009, missed a start with back spasms in 2013, etc. — but those are the big injuries. It’s worth noting his finger was broken this year when he was hit by a pitch because the NL is dumb and doesn’t have the DH, so that one is sort of a fluke. I guess the other good news is that his arm has been healthy since he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2012, and because of all these injuries, he doesn’t have a ton of innings on that arm. But still, that is a ton of injuries.
Excellent When Healthy
So why bother with a pitcher as injury prone as Anderson? Because he’s been very good when he has been healthy. He posted a 4.06 ERA (3.69 FIP) in 30 starts and 175.1 innings as a 21-year-old his rookie year since 2009, and in the five seasons since, Anderson has a 3.56 ERA (3.41 FIP) in 318.2 innings around all the injuries. That includes a 2.91 ERA (2.99 FIP) in 43.1 innings for the Rockies this past summer.
Anderson is not a high strikeout pitcher by any means. He has a career 7.03 K/9 (18.6%), which is decidedly below-average, and his best strikeout season (9.27 K/9 and 23.0 K%) came when the Athletics stuck him in the bullpen in 2013. Anderson succeeds by being a ground ball pitcher who limits walks. His 55.4% career ground ball rate is the 12th highest among the 192 pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings since 2009. Over the last three years he has a 61.4% grounder rate.
In his nearly 500 career innings, Anderson has a 2.42 BB/9 (6.4 BB%) walk rate that has been as low as 1.76 BB/9 (4.7 BB%) in a single season (112.1 innings in 2010). Last year with the Athletics he had an uncharacteristically high 4.23 BB/9 (10.5 BB%), but that rebounded to 2.70 BB/9 (7.2 BB%) this past season even though three of his 13 walks were intentional. Nothing fancy here — Anderson throws strikes and keeps the ball on the ground.
The Yankees have stealthily put together a high strikeout, low walk, moderately high ground ball pitching staff the last few years. Since the start of 2012, the team’s staff has the fourth highest strikeout rate (21.4%), lowest walk rate (6.9%), and 15th highest ground ball rate (44.6%) in baseball. They’ve combined an average ground ball rate with excellent walk and strikeout numbers. Anderson brings everything but the strikeouts, though his repertoire suggests there are more strikeouts hiding in there.
Anderson is a three-pitch pitcher trapped in a five-pitch pitcher’s body. He does throw five distinct pitches, but he relies so much on his two fastballs (four-seamer and sinker) and slider than his changeup and curveball are nothing more than show-me pitches at this point. Here’s a quick breakdown of his average velocity and pitch usage throughout his career (via Brooks Baseball):
There’s a lot going on in there, but, most importantly: holy moly that’s a lot of sliders. Among those 192 pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings since 2009, only Luke Gregerson (55.8%!) has thrown a higher percentage of sliders than Anderson. All those sliders sure help explain the Tommy John surgery earlier in his career. Throwing that many breaking balls at that age is no good for the elbow.
Aside from the slider business, the table also shows that Anderson has gradually thrown more and more sinkers over the years — explains why his 2012-14 ground ball rate is higher than his career rate, as mentioned earlier — and that he’s throwing his changeup less than ever. He’ll throw a handful of curveballs each start but nothing more. He’s going to get you out with four-seamers, sinkers, and sliders primarily.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a second to actually see what these pitches actually look like. I assume the four-seamer looks like every other four-seamer in baseball history, so here’s a clip with a bunch of sliders, one changeup (0:10 mark), and one sinker (0:35 mark):
Anyway, here is how Anderson’s four-seamer, sinker, and slider have done at generating swings and misses and ground balls over the years. I’m not too concerned with the curveball and changeup since they aren’t among his main offerings. These are his money-makers.
|FB Whiff%||FB GB%||SNK Whiff%||SNK GB%||SL Whiff%||SL GB%|
Hitters seem to have had little trouble getting a bat on Anderson’s four-seamer, which is perhaps why he’s started throwing more sinkers in recent years. the swing-and-miss rate on his slider isn’t as sky high as I expected but it is still above-average, especially these last three years. All three pitches are far, far better than the MLB average when it comes to getting a ground ball. That’s not a surprise given his career grounder rate.
So yeah, it does seem like Anderson’s career strikeout rate is so low because hitters don’t have much trouble putting his fastballs in play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, quick ground balls are a good way to be efficient, but sometimes a pitcher needs a strikeout more than a ground ball. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a history of improving strikeout rates, mostly by ratcheting up breaking ball usage a notch, but I’m not sure how many more sliders Anderson can realistically throw. He could maybe change his pitch selection and throw more sliders early in the count.
Anderson’s stuff is good. He has a heavy sinker hitters can’t lift in the air and that’s a real weapon in tiny Yankee Stadium. His slider misses bats even though it doesn’t show up in his overall strikeout numbers. There’s plenty to work with here. Stuff and performance really isn’t Anderson’s issue. It’s staying on the field.
Given the injury history, it’s clear Anderson is a one-year contract guy at this point. I would be very surprised if someone guaranteed him multiple years at this point, even if he is only 26. Here are some contract estimates:
- FanGraphs Crowdsouring: One year at $7M.
- Jim Bowden (subs. req’d): One year at $6M.
- Keith Law (subs. req’d): One year at $10M.
I know it’s cool to say there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal but I don’t really buy that. We all lived through the Kevin Youkilis era, right? That was a bad one-year deal. Anderson’s injury history means there is a chance of getting zero return on the contract and that money (and the associated luxury tax) will just be flushed away for nothing.
That said, those contract estimates seem sensible to me, mostly because he’s still so very young and actually has some upside to offer. There’s no way the Yankees or whoever else signs Anderson could count on him for 200 or even 150 innings next year. I think you’d have to hope for 100 innings and take anything else after that as a huge bonus, especially if he pitches like he’s capable of pitching.
The Yankees already have a ton of injury risk in their rotation and I’m not sure it makes sense to double down on that risk and add someone like Anderson. He’d be better as the second pitching addition — re-sign Brandon McCarthy to shore up the staff and then bring in Anderson as the upside lottery ticket/depth guy to be the fifth starter, for example. I’m intrigued and think Anderson is a nice roll of the dice guy. But he couldn’t be the only pitching addition New York makes.