The day has finally come for Braves fans, as top pitching prospect Ian Anderson will make his much-anticipated debut for the Braves (barring more poor weather). While maybe not the exact path we had hoped to see the season take, the Braves have made it down to Anderson on the depth chart, and he will get a chance to solidify himself in the spot the Braves hope he will fill for many years to come. Anderson was a favorite of Braves scouts when he was drafted in 2016, and was underrated by other franchises, allowing the Braves to get him to a nice underslot deal at the top of the draft. By taking him third overall, they made him the franchise’s highest draft pick since Mike Kelly went second overall in 1991, and Anderson was quick to prove the Braves made a wise decision.
Playing up north in New York hurt Anderson a bit both development-wise and exposure-wise, but the Braves scouts knew what they had and he was quick to display his talents. Anderson made five starts in the Gulf Coast League in his first season and didn’t allow an earned run over 18 innings pitched, prompting a quick promotion to Danville. He finished out the season there with a 3.74 ERA over 21 2⁄3 innings. This brought soaring expectations into his first full season, and he exceeded them with a stellar campaign in Rome. A minor undisclosed injury and late-season care on the organization’s part led him to have his innings severely limited, but he still cleared 100 strikeouts in only 83 innings and had a 3.14 ERA with zero home runs allowed.
2018 was the true breakout season for Anderson and started the hype for him to be the guy of the future in the system. Anderson got off to a strong start in Florida over his first nine starts, going 42 innings with 52 strikeouts, 19 walks, only one home run allowed and a 3.64 ERA. He then turned up the dial even more and went on a fantastic tear through the Florida State League. Over his final eleven starts in Florida he didn’t allow more than two earned runs in any of them and had a 1.71 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 58 innings. Batters had just a .530 OPS against him and (minimum 100 IP) he had the second lowest ERA, lowest FIP, lowest xFIP, highest strikeout rate, second highest K-BB%, lowest batting average against, and lowest home run rate in the league. The Braves decided that was enough to get him to Mississippi for a few weeks and in four starts he had a 2.33 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 19 1⁄3 innings. He finished the season with two straight scoreless outings totaling 12 2⁄3 innings with 19 strikeouts and only three walks. He finished the season third in the organization in strikeouts and second in strikeout rate and found himself in the top 30 prospects across baseball headed into the 2019 season.
21 years old heading into 2019, Anderson was poised to take the next step in his career and he did just that with another fabulous season. He led the organization in strikeout rate and strikeouts, finishing fourth across all of minor league baseball in the latter category. He started with a bang by striking out seven batters in four innings in his season debut and he didn’t slow down, with eight games of nine or more strikeouts in his final sixteen games in Double-A. His 31.8 percent strikeout rate at Double-A improved his personal best for the third consecutive season and he was the Southern League’s xFIP, strikeout rate, and strikeout-minus-walk rate leader while finishing third overall in strikeouts. The only concern was a major uptick in home runs, though it was eventually expected because there was no way to possibly maintain only allowing one or two home runs in a season. Anderson finished the season in Triple-A, and for the first time in his career he faced adversity as he struggled across his five starts. He had one truly effective start, but outside of that adjustments to the new ball and level hurt him as he had a 6.57 ERA with 18 walks and five home runs in 24 2⁄3 innings. He still struck out his fair share of batters with 25, but overall he saw major regression. We can’t really know how he responded to that adversity and how he made those adjustments, but I think it’s fair to say he wouldn’t be brought to Atlanta if he couldn’t properly grip the baseball.
Statistically there aren’t any massive holes in his game, the only real flaw being an elevated walk rate that he has been improving as he’s progressed. Still, I would venture to guess he’ll have an above average walk rate for the first couple of seasons in his career but has the talent and delivery to overcome these issues. His strikeout rates have always been elite and his batted ball profile better than average, so as long as he keeps the walks somewhat limited it won’t be his downfall. There’s nothing here that really stands out a concerning as other than that terrible five games in Gwinnett when he was adjusting to a new ball he has made steady improvements even as he’s rocketed up the ladder.
Anderson is the rare top prospect in that his fastball isn’t the reason he’s so highly touted. His fastball is decent, he can run it up as high as 96 and has solid command of it for this stage of his career, but he unfortunately never added velocity as some scouts had hoped. Even now, Anderson is still skinny and has room to grow into his frame, so it’s not out of the question that he could get a tick or two on it later, but overall his fastball is closer to average. He has very low spin rates, something that’s been mentioned frequently, but it doesn’t seem to really hurt him much as he can still force weak contact and use his fastball effectively when he locates. He’s willing to go up and down in the zone and his mix of locations allows his fastball to play up. Where he struggled last season in Triple-A was when he couldn’t grip the ball well and pitches tended to flutter towards the middle of the zone or miss it completely.
Where Anderson makes his name is in his offspeed stuff, with both pitches grading out as potential plus pitches. The curveball plays well above its spin rates with a tight spin and a consistent shape that runs it away and down on an 11-5 plane. It’s not a pitch that often gets the ugly chases well out of the zone, but he locates it well and forces frequent whiffs and weak contact from right handed batters. Anderson’s best pitch, and one that sets him apart from most 22-year-old arms, is his easy plus changeup. Most guys don’t come up with as advanced a feel for the changeup as Anderson has, but he’s used his change as an elite weapon against left-handed hitters and thus doesn’t have much in the way of platoon splits. This is the pitch that probably took the biggest hit from the grip issues, but if he’s solved it, it’s a beauty. It sits about 8 mph below his fastball and with his already low spin rates the ball just fades away from hitters and can leave them coming up empty. He uses it in any count against any hitter and the evidence of its effectiveness can be found in Anderson’s 30.5% strikeout rate against left-handed batters last season.
Early expectations for Anderson should be tempered, as with any prospect. With pitchers I don’t worry about the quick jumps as much - good stuff is good stuff - but his struggles at Triple-A were very concerning for his short-term projections. His walks are going to be there and that will limit his early ceiling, and if he can’t get proper command of the ball and starts giving up home runs like he did in Triple-A he could run himself out of the rotation quickly. Anderson is almost certainly an upgrade over what the Braves have run out in 2020 and I expect he has enough to keep them in games and turn the ball over to the bullpen with a chance to win. The strikeout stuff should be there and he should have decent success if he’s made the appropriate improvements, but the expectation that he will be an immediate stopper is premature. The biggest concern for Anderson is his tendency to work deep into counts as evidence by both high strikeout and walk rates, and in 2019 he averaged more than 17 pitches per inning. One of his primary goals needs to be efficiency and improving early at-bat counts so he can fill up innings and help the bullpen. With his offspeed stuff being by far his most effective it’s important to get ahead anyway, but he’s replacing guys that were mostly kicked out of the rotation for their inability to eat innings and he could quickly run the Braves out of patience if he’s only going four innings per start because of elevated pitch counts. By next season, I think he will have reached that level of being a real number three for this rotation, and he’s definitely got the poise and the stuff to be an immediate impact arm if all goes well, but I’m limiting my early hype until I see that the changeup is back where it needs to be and that he can keep his fastballs closer to the corners. At the end of the day I don’t doubt at all Anderson’s viability as a major league starter and expect he will play out his Braves career as a solid major league arm