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2021 Braves player review: Ian Anderson

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Anderson wowed, and then got derailed by injury

Atlanta Braves vs Houston Astros, 2021 World Series Set Number: X163853 TK1

When Ian Anderson made his debut in 2020, it was the beginning of his monumental lift of the team’s pitching amidst a rotation falling to pieces around him. He kept on keeping on during the first half of the 2021 season, giving the Braves better-than-solid pitching while the team scuffled. Unfortunately, in mid-July, it was Ian Anderson’s turn to suffer a pitching-related malady, as a shoulder ailment kept him out of action for weeks. He struggled when he returned, but eventually righted the ship and was a big part of the Braves’ postseason success.

Acquisition

Ian Anderson was drafted with the third overall pick in the 2016 draft. At the time he was taken, he was described alternatively as either a reach of a pick, or a key part of a draft strategy that featured him as a means to an end moreso than deserving of the pick in his own right. That always seemed a little strange, since presumably he could’ve been a worthwhile third overall pick and an effective enabler of a particular strategy, and he made the “reach” moniker look silly in retrospect as he breezed through the minors and made his major league debut in his age-22 season.

Expectations and Projections

Ian Anderson was super-good across 10 total starts in 2020, including six in the regular season and four in the playoffs. He put up 1.1 fWAR in just 32 13 regular season innings (lol 6.8 fWAR/200), and his postseason FIP (and ERA) were actually better than what he managed in the regular season. His xFIP suggested that he was benefiting from fly balls not leaving the yard, which he was, considering he had a 4.5 percent HR/FB during the homer-happy 2020 season, and didn’t allow a longball in the playoffs that year, but even so, a 78/92 regular season/postseason pair of xFIP- marks is nothing to sneeze at, unless you’re allergic to awesome.

As a result, Anderson was getting above-average hurler projections before the 2021 season began, with both Steamer and ZiPS seeing him as a 3.0ish WAR/200 guy, albeit not one that was going to reach 200 innings, given that he hadn’t even come close to 150 professional frames in a year before. Instead, they saw him as getting around 2 WAR in 2021, in around 120 innings.

2021 Results

Guess what? Ian Anderson got around 2 WAR in 2021, in around 120 innings. 1.9 fWAR in 128 13 innings, to be precise.

Behold! Ian Anderson’s career! (Postseason performance in yellow.)

Anderson basically cruised through the first half of the season, throwing up FIPs of 3.62 / 3.79 / 2.27 across April, May, and June, with xFIPs of 3.13, 3.71, and 3.24, basically outperforming the 2020 version of himself by a bit xFIP-wise. Results-wise, he garnered a bunch of WPA in those three months, had nearly twice as many starts with a Game Score (v2) above 50 as below, and had only one results clunker in 15 outings.

But then, disaster struck, and in more ways than one. Anderson’s first two July starts had fine results, but two of his three worst xFIPs of the season. Whether related or not, things came to a head on July 11, which ended up being, to that point, Anderson’s worst-ever start. He was clearly unable to pitch like he had been, and while the Braves left him out there for a tough-to-explain 17 batters, he was toast and then hit the shelf with shoulder inflammation, where he’d stay until the last few days of August.

When Anderson returned, he still did not look right. He stifled the Giants for 5 23 scoreless in his first start back, but it came with an 0/2 K/BB ratio, and his worst xFIP of the season aside from the start he left injured. His next outing, at Coors Field, was a disaster, with an 0/4 K/BB ratio, which remains the worst start of his career. Anderson seemed to rebound after that, putting up a 2.90 xFIP in his next three starts, although one included the Giants taking him deep three times, a career high (worst). Comparing heatmaps from his pre-injury outings against everything that came after, it looks like the post-injury struggles really had to do with diminished changeup and curveball location; the changeup location and consistency improved a ton after his two no-strikeout efforts immediately after returning.

What went right? What went wrong?

Up until July, things mostly just went right for Anderson. And even though things went wrong and plagued his July, August, and early September with absence or ineffectiveness, he still rebounded to have a strong overall pitching line and mostly kept runs off the board in the postseason.

While pretty much every granular metric fell back from 2020 levels, that’s not too much of a concern for Anderson. After all, 2020 was a small sample of extreme effectiveness, and Anderson showed some improvements in the command of all his pitches (when he wasn’t hurt). His curve and changeup didn’t have whiff rates of nearly 40 percent in 2021, but they still both got misses on over a third of swings opposing batters took. It’s hard to say what really serves as evidence for “hitters were more prepared” for a pitcher’s stuff, but that kind of seems like what happened with Anderson in 2021 — yet he maintained above-average performance anyway, even as hitters swung at a bunch more of his strikes.

The biggest issue was just that same bane of pitcher performance overall — arm injury. Anderson wasn’t mangled as badly as some others — after all, shoulder injuries are terrifying, and his only cost him weeks instead of most of a season, but it still dented his overall production a fair bit and forced the Braves to scramble for further rotation options.

Road to the Title

Naturally, Anderson was a huge part of the team’s success in both the regular season and postseason, finishing with positive WPA and cWPA in each. He totaled 15.05% cWPA in the playoffs, with most of that coming as a result of his five scoreless, no-hit frames (4/3 K/BB ratio) in Game 3 of the World Series, in a game the Braves won 2-0.

Not that Anderson was a stranger to dominant outings during the season, or anything. One that stands out was his attempt to duel Zack Wheeler on June 10: while the Braves eventually lost the game due to a real bad bullpen implosion, Anderson threw seven scoreless, keeping them in it as Wheeler threw eight shutout frames and struck out 12 of Anderson’s compatriots.

Outlook for 2022

Ian Anderson is still in the league-minimum portion of his earnings scale, and will return to the Atlanta rotation for 2022 with some pretty solid expectations. Steamer currently projects him as, once again, a 3 WAR-per-200-innings arm, but only able to rack up about 160-170 frames. That makes perfect sense given what we’ve seen out of Anderson so far, and the question for him will be whether he can find some kind of edge to improve on that baseline. Anderson has a fairly unorthodox approach to pitching, so it’s not clear exactly what avenues he has to improve, but even if he just keeps putting up numbers akin to the first 160 frames of his major league career, that’ll still be pretty awesome, given that he’s racked up 3 fWAR in that period.