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Getting to Know Chase Anderson’s Arsenal

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Toronto Blue Jays John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Chase Anderson’s spring could be going better. His start yesterday was a vast improvement over his past 3 appearances, but he’s still walked 7 and given up four home runs against only 6 strikeouts in 9.1 innings. It’s safe to say we can expect better results in the future, but walks, strikeouts, and home runs have never been his strong categories as a pitcher. His 20.2% career strikeout rate is a little below average for NL starters over the past six years, his 7.8% walk rate is right about on the average, and his 1.35 home runs allowed per 9 is almost 20% higher. That paints the picture of a fifth starter who isn’t unacceptably bad at anything but doesn’t really bring much to the table either. That’s reflected in his 4.54 career FIP, which is 9% worse than average on a park adjusted basis. Only 9 starters have averaged 100 innings per season over the past six years and performed worse relative to their park and league. It’s pretty grim.

Except, let’s look at some of the names who fared worse than him on the FIP- leaderboard. You have the James Shields and Yovani Gallardos of the world, formerly good pitchers who stick around because someone had already promised to pay them. You have Tom Koehler and Chris Tillman, who spent years soaking up innings for the Marlins and Orioles because the rules say someone has to. But then you have old friends R.A. Dickey and Marco Estrada. It’s those two who are the clue to what the Jays see in Anderson. Both used unusual approaches to become masters of weak contact, and managed for years to post quality ERAs with decidedly mediocre FIPs. Anderson is that type of pitcher, and for his career he’s done a better job than anyone since Dickey was in his prime of consistently getting hitters to get themselves out. While is 109 FIP- puts him at the back of the bus, his 94 ERA- puts him near the middle, in the company of guys like Jake Odorizzi, Trevor Bauer, and Michael Pineda. Let’s try to figure out how he manages that trick.

First, a look at how his pitches move:

chase anderson two axis pitch movement

Like Tanner Roark, the last pitcher profiled, Anderson throws five pitches. He doesn’t spread things out as evently as Roark, though, with his four seamer (FS on the chart) accounting for 42% of pitches thrown in 2019 while his fifth pitch, the two seamer (TS), was only thrown a little more than 7% of the time. Looking at his pitch profiles, it’s not hard to see why he favors one fastball over the other. His four seamer had right around average velocity for a starter, but got a little more than an inch more vertical and horizontal movement than other pitchers’ four seam fastballs thrown at similar speeds. Vertical movement on four seamers is key to both missing bats and generating weak contact in the air. His sinker, while also having pretty good velocity, gets four fewer inches of sink and an inch less run than the typical sinker thrown at similar speeds. Compared to Tanner Roark, whose sinker also doesn’t move a ton but who gets clear separation between his two fastballs, Anderson’s sinker doesn’t seem to have a distinct shape. The four seamer looks like it should play as an above average pitch, but the sinker looks more like a minor variation than a separate weapon.

Anderson’s third fastball, a cutter (FC on the chart, thrown 18% of the time), has great rise and on average very little horizontal movement. The green dots cover a pretty broad area in a roughly diagonal line, and I wonder whether he can manipulate the shape on the pitch a bit, from a true cut fastball to something more like a hard slider. Cutters seem to be a specialty in Milwaukee, with Anderson’s 2019 teammates Zach Davies and Drew Pomeranz joining him on the cutter movement leaderboard. The Brewers had notable success in teaching Wade Miley a cutter in 2018, completely revitalizing his career. Cutters seem to be a point of developmental emphasis with that organization, and the results have been pretty impressive.

Anderson’s one true breaking ball is a curve (CU, thrown 10% of the time), which, like Tanner Roark’s, gets excellent depth. Anderson’s is closer to the traditional 12-6 shape, though, with below average horizontal movement, while Roark’s is more of the two-plane variety, running hard to his glove side as it drops.

Finally, Anderson’s change (CH) is his primary off speed pitch and his second most commonly thrown overall at 23% of all his pitches in 2019. It gets below average drop but elite horizontal runt, sixth among pitchers in 2019 in terms of horizontal break relative to average.

Overall, Anderson seems to have more pure stuff than Roark does. He throws a little harder, and has three pitches with above average movement profiles to Roark’s one.

An interesting thing about Anderson is that he’ll move from one side of the rubber to the other depending on the handedness of the batter he’s facing:

chase anderson release points

I haven’t bothered to break this out by pitch type, because there isn’t much differentiation to see. But he pretty clearly likes to stand on the side of the rubber that is closer to the batter (remember that these graphs are from the catcher’s point of view, so the pink cluster is on the catcher’s right, where a lefty batter would be standing).

Now, let’s look at where he likes to throw his pitches, starting with his four seamer:

chase anderson four seamer

These scatters are pretty broad, but you can see that he likes to work middle away to righties early in the count, and more up and in when he’s going for the strikeout. Against lefties, there isn’t much pattern except that he avoids the bottom third of the zone. The pitch has worked pretty well against lefties the past couple years, getting pop-ups on about 15% of balls in play, compared to a league average of 7.3%. Anderson actually leans on the pitch more to right handers, though, throwing it about 54% of the time compared to 30% to lefties. It accounts for more than half of his pitches to righties across all counts. That’s been to his detriment, as righties barreled the pitch almost 12% of the time, about 50% more than average. Trying to get the pitch up in the zone more might help, as would increasing his variety.

chase anderson sinker placement

The sinker seems to be a pitch Anderson only really uses against lefties. He keeps it on the outer half, and throws it either early or when he’s behind. It looks like he mostly uses it early or when he’s behind, but not much when he’s going for the K. That makes sense, because lefties made contact on just over 90% of their swings against the pitch. It also didn’t work to get grounders (~37% ground ball rate). It’s not a very good pitch, and Anderson clearly knows that.

chase anderson slider placement

The change is another pitch Anderson throws more often to lefties. It’s mostly used down and away to batters on either side of the plate. Remember that he stands on the inside edge of the rubber when throwing to lefties, then targets the outside corner. To lefties, that means that it starts inside and comes all the way across the plate, accentuating it’s excellent horizontal movement. To righties, it would look like it headed out of the zone away before breaking back onto the outside corner. The pitch has given left handed hitters fits, getting them to swing and miss 32% of the time and allowing only an 80.7 mph exit velocity when they do manage to put in play. It’s also his best pitch to righites, getting an above average 30% whiff rate and allowing only an 84.9 mph average exit velocity. The change is probably the main secret to Anderson’s success. It got barreled (meaning hit at over 95 mph at angles where batted balls do the most damage) only 2.9% of the time, or about 40% as often as all pitches in 2019. Hitters feel compelled to swing (53% of the time, vs. a league average 47%), but they just can’t do anything with it.

chase anderson curve placement

Anderson’s curve is his other weapon against righties, but last year it seems to have deserted him somewhat. His goal with the pitch seems to be to get chases down and away. He only located it in the zone 38% of the time to right handed hitters. Unfortunately they seem to know that, and they chased it only 17% of the time. When they did swing, they made contact a very high 87% of the time and posted an above average 88.7 mph exit velocity. It was a good source of both swings and misses and weak contact in 2016 and 2017, so there’s hope that he could find it again.

Against lefties, he seems to try to throw it almost exclusively early in the count on the outside corner to try to steal strikes. That worked reasonably well, as lefties swung at only 26% of curves located in the zone. Lefties only put five curves in play against him in 2019, but in past years when they’ve hit more they’ve been mostly unable to do any damage. It would probably stop working if he did it more often, but as on occasional ambush weapon it looks pretty good.

One thing Anderson doesn’t do is throw curveballs when he’s behind in the count or when the count is full. He did it only four times in all of last season. That suggests that he doesn’t really trust his command enough to try to throw the pitch for quality strikes without worrying about hanging it over the middle of the plate or missing in the dirt.

chase anderson cutter placement

Finally, the cutter. Anderson throws it almost exclusively to his glove side. This is away to righties and in on the hands to lefties. The cutter has been prominent in Anderson’s arsenal since 2017, accounting for a little over 10% of his pitches each season after being only rarely used in 2016. It’s been a relatively average pitch against righties, for whom it tends to arrive right on the outside edge of the plate. He got a 23% whiff rate and allowed an 87.8 mph exit velocity last year, both of which are right in the range of league average. It’s probably his second best weapon against them after the change.

To lefties, he seems to like to run it inside on the hands, where it’s been pretty effective. They actually swing and miss a little less than right handed hitters do, but like the four seamer it gets pop-ups at twice the league average rate, and like the change it gets barreled at less then half the average rate.

The theme here seems to be platoon splits. Anderson has several pitches that lefties don’t seem to be able to do much of anything with. He doesn’t blow them away (20.6% strikeout rate), and actually walks them more than he does righties (8.7% vs. 7.1%). Instead, he just makes life really uncomfortable, getting ugly swings on pitches on the edges of the zone. His 84.7 mph average exit velocity allowed essentially turns all lefties into Mallex Smith or Jose Peraza, and consequently he’s been able to suppress home runs and only give up a .249 BABIP to left handed hitters in his career.

Righties don’t strike out much less (19.8% of the time) and do walk less, but when they swing they do a lot more damage, with exit velocities, home run rates and a BABIP that are all a little worse than league average. That’s probably because while Anderson’s signature skill is weak contact, only one pitch, his change-up, really works that way against right handed hitters.

Anderson’s approach relies on generating a lot of weak contact from left handed hitters, and using that to keep the damage righties do from sinking him. It’s a fairly narrow path to walk, but he’s managed to do it over the course of 850 innings so far. They Jays are betting that he has at least one more season worth of tricks up his sleeve.