The Chicago White Sox aren’t any good. They aren’t supposed to be any good, though, so everything is looking good for their rebuild. Outside of Jose Abreu, everything with their team is about development, about seeing young players flourish into major leaguers, and if everything aligns right, a true star or two. One key to it all is Yoan Moncada, the powerful second baseman they got in the Chris Sale deal. They need him to be something good at the very least, but this isn’t about Yoan Moncada. His partner at the keystone, Tim Anderson, is quietly turning himself into a very solid young player.
Not every prospect turns into the star on a rebuilding team. Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant are the vital hearts of their team, but lesser players who contribute in a positive sense – your Addison Russells or Ian Happs or Yuli Gurriels of the world – are what fill out most of the roster. They’re what earn you that first seed to let the stars explode in October.
That said, in his first two seasons Anderson didn’t even look like that kind of player. He walked a total of 26 times in 245 games. He posted a heartening 97 wRC+ in his rookie year and earned 2 fWAR in large part for his defense, but took a big step back his second year especially offensively with his wRC+ sliding to 72, ultimately posting a 0.1 fWAR in 146 games. The White Sox were very bad all over the place in 2017 so nobody really noticed, but it was a little disappointing after an intriguing rookie season.
Nothing is forever though. People change. Anderson is a whole different hitter this season than the one we saw a year ago. Well, different for him anyway. His path is one that’s been well-trod in the recent past. That’s right: he’s stopped hitting ground balls.
Well, that’s actually a little inaccurate. He didn’t quite pull some kind of Yonder Alonso trick and convert fully to the Church of Fly Balls. But last year his 52.7 percent grounder rate was 10th highest in baseball. That’s dropped down to 42.4, good for 74th in baseball. So it’s a big change, and at least power-wise, it’s led to big results:
Tim Anderson power production by year
Big in a relative sense, at least, and big for someone who demonstrated middling power. In general the expectation for Anderson was basically what he did in his rookie year – swing a lot, hit doubles and play great defense. A home run total in the mid-20’s was not anything anyone expected or hoped for. And yet he’s on pace for just that, and if his own history is any indication he’ll only improve.
When he was younger, Anderson didn’t consider himself a baseball player, simply using it as a tool to pay for college. He didn’t even have any real offers from four-year colleges, only East Central Community College giving him a scholarship. At least one person, one team, was right, and it’s working out for him even if he wasn’t the perfect prospect.
He’s stupendously athletic – watch him play defense literally ever or check out YouTube for his basketball highlights – and anyone who’s interacted with him in the White Sox system has raved about his demand for learning. He wants to get so much better, and flew up their prospect rankings each year he was in the system. You can’t really quantify drive and ambition, but those things combined with preternatural hand-eye ability and the raw skills Anderson brought to the table to begin with could really pay dividends for the Sox.
What surprises me the most is that the embrasure of the whole launch angle movement isn’t something that should really benefit everyone the same, especially an allegedly slap-hitting infielder. If you’re a guy who doesn’t hit the ball all that hard, hitting more fly balls would actually be a detriment to you at times. Fly balls without the corresponding exit velocity just mean 300 foot outs. Sometimes going to ground does make sense.
Sure, you’d be more held in the sway of the BABIP gods, but players of that mold aren’t in the game for their bat first. That’s what Anderson looked like his first two years. He’s not made that huge leap to stark fly ball rates though, simply turned his batted ball profile into something resembling that of Justin Upton, just with a bit less punch. It’s working though. His walk rates are also up, which is encouraging, 7.5 percent this year compared to 3.0 and 2.1 his first two years, but the power is the big surprise.
Not every player that helps you win is a star. Anderson is turning into the type of player that the league is replete with, the type that the White Sox themselves could have used considerably more of during their recent “stars and scrubs” attempt at contention. If these trends he’s demonstrating continue he’s going to be a very good player, if something short of All-Star, especially considering the other shortstops in the American League and even just his division.
Yet these are the things the White Sox need if they want to break out of the cellar. The big names of the future are almost easier to plan for. Yoan Moncada is expected to be at least very good if not great. Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech—these are top flight prospects that you just assume will set the world aflame. But the sudden breakouts to very good; those are what help get the job done in the long season. Those are the guys that make the juggernaut run day-to-day. Anderson looks like he’s turned over a new leaf. We’ll see how the league responds.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about a myriad of baseball things at Beyond the Box Score, and specifically the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. He also co-hosts the podcast over there. Give him a follow on Twitter @MerrillLunch.