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Brett Anderson has become a ground ball machine

Brett Anderson's evolution as a pitcher has been repeatedly disrupted, but he's still evolved.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Anderson pitched his best game of the season on Friday. He threw seven innings and gave up one run on five hits. He struck out ten batters while walking just one. The effort lowered his season ERA to 3.13 and his FIP to 3.43. Perhaps more significantly, however, Anderson’s seven innings bumped his season total from 82 to 89. The last time Anderson threw more than 83 innings in a season was in 2011. He threw 88 innings in 2013 and 2014 combined, and Anderson needs to pitch only 34 more innings this year to match his 2012-2014 total. He hasn’t pitched much due to injury, is the point.

Due to missed time, Anderson’s seasons have been nothing but a series of small samples from 2011 to now. The purpose of this article is to investigate how Anderson has evolved over the course of several injury plagued years, and what is contributing to his success right now.

The 2015 version of Brett Anderson is getting a lot more ground balls than previous iterations. In fact, Anderson leads all of baseball with a 68.7 groundball rate, which is a full four percentage points better than wormicidal maniac Dallas Keuchel. In Anderson’s rookie season in 2009—when he pitched a career high 175.1 innings—he had a groundball rate of 50.9 percent. That’s good, but it’s not even close to the level he’s at now. He improved that rate to 54.6 in 2010, when he tossed 112.1 innings. In the following shortened seasons, Anderson’s groundball rate fluctuated between 57.5 and 62.9 percent.

While Anderson is generating a lot more groundballs than he has before, he’s suppressing home runs at a rate close to his career numbers; his FIP and xFIP are both 3.50 for his career. In this department, 2014 was the anomaly. In that season, as a member of the Colorado Rockies, Anderson posted a 2.91 ERA and a 2.99 FIP in 43.1 innings. But his FIP was the product of an extremely low 3.3 percent home run to fly ball ratio. Among all Rockies starters since 2002 who threw at least 40 innings in a season, Anderson’s HR/FB was the lowest. This unsustainable component of 2014 Anderson was reflected in his 3.55 xFIP.

In 2015, however, Anderson has a HR/FB that is roughly league average—11.8 against 10.7 percent for the league. His 2015 xFIP of 3.36 is a tick lower than his 3.43 FIP. While Anderson's shortened 2014 deserved sustainability scrutiny regarding key numbers that probably wouldn't have lasted, his 2015 FIP and xFIP aren't outliers.

Anderson's normalized homer rate and increased ground ball rate might be the product of an evolved repertoire. Anderson’s pitch usage has changed quite a bit since 2009. In his rookie year, Anderson had a two-pitch mix. He threw his four-seam fastball about 50 percent of the time and his slider about 33 percent of the time. In descending order, he also mixed in changeups, curveballs, and sinkers.

During Anderson’s second season, he threw both his four-seam fastball and his slider, his two primary pitches, for a combined ten percent less than he did the previous season. He threw the other three pitches in his repertoire—the changeup, the curveball, and the sinker—each about ten percent of the time in 2010. Anderson began to evolve into the pitcher he is today in 2011, but that’s when his injury woes really began. That season saw a spike in slider usage, making it his most used pitch, followed by a fall in usage of the four-seam fastball and a turn to the sinker as his primary third pitch. Tommy John surgery derailed Anderson in 2011, and he has pitched only partial seasons ever since—including this one, at least for the time being.

Brett Anderson in 2015 is a different pitcher, which is notable because he’s getting different results in one critical aspect of his game. One way to look at it is that he’s now a three-pitch pitcher reliant on the slider, the sinker, and the four-seam fastball. The usage rate of these three primary pitches ranges between about 23 and 29 percent. Another way to look at it is that Anderson has a repertoire comprised of two chunks: the ground ball inducing chunk, consisting of the three pitches just noted. The other chunk is designed to keep batters off balance—Anderson’s curveball and changeup, which get thrown about ten percent of the time each, compose that chunk. The chart below indicates that the first chunk is responsible for about 83 percent of the groundballs Anderson has induced.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, Anderson’s 2015—so far—has two notable implications. The first has to do with the Dodgers this season. Brett Anderson has been serving as a quality third starter behind aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and a bridge to the back end of the rotation. Mike Bolsinger has pitched well, but nobody in Los Angeles wants him to be the team’s third best starting pitcher. Health will always be a concern with Anderson, but at this very moment there’s no reason to believe he’s about to break down, though he’s also been subject to freak injuries while on the mound and at the plate. A healthy and effective Anderson will go a long way toward a deep playoff run for the Dodgers—even more so if he becomes the team’s fourth starter if the Dodgers upgrade at the trade deadline.

The second implication has to do with Anderson’s future. If his newly developed repertoire continues to generate ground balls anywhere close to the rate he’s been at so far—and if he remains healthy—the 27 year old will be in a great position entering free agency. Specifically, Anderson has the chance to be a simultaneously sought after and under the radar free agent. He’ll join a free agent class of starting pitchers that includes David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, Doug Fister, and possibly teammate Zack Greinke. Anderson’s the least successful of these pitchers, but he’s also the youngest by a couple of years. Brett Anderson has been around a long time, but his career might just now be getting off the ground.


Eric Garcia McKinley is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. He writes about the Rockies for Purple Row, where he is also an editor. You can find him on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.