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Tyler Anderson: King of soft contact

At Coors Field, most hitters clobber the ball — but not when they’re facing this Rockies southpaw.

Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers
The Rockies could always use some soft grounders.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Rockies always seem to need pitching. The Ubaldo Jimenezes of the world tend to lose their magic pretty quickly. Plus, whenever they deal for a great pitcher — say, the RaysJake McGee — he struggles to adjust to Colorado, and the club ends up disappointed. Over the 24 years they’ve existed, the Rockies rank 25th in the majors in fWAR and 24th in RA9-WAR; the struggle, evidently, is real.

Last year, though, things appeared to get a little sunnier. The team improved to 15th in fWAR and 21st in RA9-WAR, and its rotation — 14th in fWAR and 13th in RA9-WAR — led the charge. Several young starters finally broke through, with Jon Gray, Chad Bettis, Tyler Chatwood, and Tyler Anderson all earning two wins. That last name stands out, because of one area in which he excelled like few Rockies pitchers ever have.

Anderson does a few things well. He pounds the strike zone, which allows him to limit his walks (his 5.9 percent free pass rate ranked 30th among 137 starters with at least 100 innings). Along with a moderate strikeout rate, that gave him a 14.9 percent K-BB rate, more than two ticks above the major-league average for starters. But that’s not where Anderson makes his living. No, he succeeds with something a little more uncommon for a Rockies hurler.

Here’s a leaderboard from last season, with an extra stat added in on the end:

Soft contact leaders, 2016

Rank Name IP Soft% Home ballpark elevation
Rank Name IP Soft% Home ballpark elevation
1 Kyle Hendricks 188.0 24.9% 596
2 Tyler Anderson 114.1 24.2% 5183
3 CC Sabathia 179.2 24.0% 54
4 Steven Wright 156.2 23.5% 20
5 Tanner Roark 207.2 23.3% 25
Ranking among starters with 100+ innings in 2016. Contact data via FanGraphs; elevation data via this sketchy website

Like Hendricks, Sabathia, Wright, and Roark, Anderson doesn’t let hitters get good wood. Unlike those four, he pitches (roughly) half his games a mile above sea level. That ability, unsurprisingly, isn’t one the Rockies find very often. Indeed, in the batted-ball era — i.e. the past 15 years — only one Colorado season has featured a better adjusted soft contact rate:

Rockies soft contact, 2002-16

Season Name IP Soft% MLB_Soft% Soft+
Season Name IP Soft% MLB_Soft% Soft+
2006 Aaron Cook 212.2 15.5% 11.2% 138
2016 Tyler Anderson 114.1 24.2% 18.8% 129
2006 Jason Jennings 212.0 13.8% 11.2% 123
2004 Jeff Fassero 111.0 17.6% 14.5% 121
2003 Jose Jimenez 101.2 19.1% 15.9% 120
2004 Jason Jennings 201.0 17.0% 14.5% 117
2009 Ubaldo Jimenez 218.0 18.4% 15.7% 117
2003 Aaron Cook 124.0 18.1% 15.9% 114
2006 Byung-Hyun Kim 155.0 12.6% 11.2% 113
2003 Darren Oliver 180.1 17.7% 15.9% 111
Ranking among Rockies SP with 100+ innings in a season 2002-16. Data via FanGraphs

Prior to 2010, FanGraphs’ contact quality data was more subjective. In the new decade, Baseball Info Solutions (the firm that provides it) switched to an algorithm-based system. Over the seven years since that change, Anderson is in first place by a mile; the next-closest hurler is 2012 Jeff Francis, with a 110 Soft+.

What allows Anderson to rack up so many soft balls? In August, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello spoke with the lefty, who cited his aforementioned control, his ability to get ground balls — only 24 other starters beat Anderson’s 50.9 percent ground ball rate — and his ability to avoid the danger zone. That last one is what I’d like to narrow in on.

Baseball Savant divides the strike zone into nine sections, with four sections for the areas outside the zone (here’s a visual for reference). We’ll slice the plate into the upper area (zones 1-3), the middle area (zones 4-6), and the lower area (zones 5-9). Which one does Anderson occupy the least?

Anderson zone rate

Area % of all pitches MLB rank
Area % of all pitches MLB rank
Strike zone (1-9) 42.7% 36
Upper zone (1-3) 11.4% 57
Middle zone (4-6) 15.7% 110
Lower zone (7-9) 15.5% 90
Rankings all among 266 pitchers with 1000+ pitches in 2016 Data via Baseball Savant

Anderson told Petriello that he wanted to “keep hitters off balance” to prevent them from squaring him up. Evidently, he’s done just that — he ranks in the middle of the pack in middle pitches, but places much higher when he puts the ball higher (or lower). In simpler terms, Anderson doesn’t serve up many meatballs, which means a lot of his balls in play are of the “soft” variety.

The one thing I’ve neglected to mention here: What happened on all that soft contact? Unfortunately for Anderson, not a whole ton of outs. When hitting the ball softly, opponents had a .202/.207/.207 triple-slash, good for a .182 wOBA. While that doesn’t seem bad on its own, it was the 11th-worst mark among starters. Still, with a process this effective, the results should come around in 2017.

The new-look Rockies will depend on their rotation to carry them through the season, and it looks to be up to the task. Anderson started 2016 in Short-Season A and finished it with a better ERA- than Corey Kluber and Jake Arrieta. If he can keep getting soft grounders in 2017, who knows how much improvement he’ll make from here?


Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.