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Nick Anderson has looked merely mortal

Anderson certainly hasn’t been bad, but he has gotten into some trouble recently.

League Championship - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Oh, to be the best reliever at the back end of a bullpen full of elite relievers. How good must you be? We’ve seen this play out. The Rays have an arsenal of unhittable reliever after unhittable reliever, a carousel that shortens games in a brilliant fashion. The team went 26-2 this season in games in which they held a lead after just five innings.

None of these relievers, though, were better than Nick Anderson, a 30-year-old right-hander who came over in a trade with the Marlins in the middle of 2019. In 23 appearances down the stretch last year, Anderson pitched to a 2.11 ERA while striking out 53 percent of hitters and walking just three percent.

After the trade to Tampa Bay — even by that time, really — Anderson had become one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. He followed up his excellent rookie year with an equally successful sophomore campaign, though he only pitched in 19 games this season because he spent some time on the Injured List with forearm tightness. Anderson’s numbers were still great, of course: a 0.55 ERA, 45 percent strikeout rate, five percent walk rate, a .143 wOBA allowed. Anderson was still the sixth-most valuable reliever in baseball this season, and each of the five relievers above him threw at least 34 percent more innings than he did. That’s what it’s like to be the best reliever at the back end of a bullpen full of elite options.

I’ll be the first to tell you not to overreact to a small sample — even during a normal, 162-game regular season, relievers are subject to tons of luck — and what’s happened so far in the postseason should not be an indictment on Anderson’s talent level. He’s elite, end of story. But, in the playoffs, Anderson has looked, at times, merely mortal. And, on Thursday night, one (not even bad) pitch to Carlos Correa put the Astros right back in this ALCS:

That came right on the heels of another tough outing, when, in Game 2, Anderson loaded the bases after allowing three straight singles to Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick and Aledmys Díaz. With George Springer at the plate, Anderson induced a double-play ball that scored a run, but then walked two more hitters to re-load the bases. Alex Bregman flew out to center to end the game, so Anderson’s shaky outing concluded without disaster. But it was the first time in his major league career where Anderson allowed multiple hits and multiple walks in an outing.

Anderson’s postseason stats aren’t bad, but they are a touch uncharacteristic for him: In six appearances, he has thrown 9 23 innings, allowing eight hits, four runs, with just six strikeouts and two walks. That’s good for a 3.72 ERA, a 16.2 percent strikeout rate, 5.4 percent walk rate, and a 5.26 FIP. Admittedly, it’s not great, but, at least from a FIP perspective, this is something that Anderson has experienced in regular season samples of this size before:

A better way to see this, actually, is to look at a distribution of six-game samples, as opposed to the line graph shown above. The vertical line represents Anderson’s postseason FIP:

So, yes, while Anderson has been a little rough around the edges in October, this level of performance has been captured in his FIP over same-sized samples during regular season play. What’s a tad more concerning, though, is that his strikeout rate during the postseason represents a big deviation from the norm, even over samples this small:

Over 82 different six-game stretches during Anderson’s regular season career, he has never posted a strikeout rate below 21 percent. While a 16 percent rate isn’t that much off his career-worst, it’s still worth noting considering that this is unlikely to have happened by chance alone. There might actually be something here, whether that’s a downtick in performance, opponent familiarity as a result of facing the same hitters multiple times in a series, or potentially overuse. Anderson never threw more than 22 pitches or 1 13 innings in any appearance during the season; this October, he’s already had three appearances with at least 22 pitches thrown and two with more than 1 13 innings recorded.

If Anderson is laboring a bit more, it hasn’t necessarily shown up in his fastball velocity, which has actually slightly ticked up in the postseason. Even just last night, Anderson threw three of his four hardest pitches of the postseason as well as six of his hardest 10. Generally, the intrinsic characteristics on his two pitches look about the same, but the results are noticeably different:

Nick Anderson’s pitch results

Pitch RS xwOBA RS Whiff% RS CSW% PS xwOBA PS Whiff% PS CSW%
Pitch RS xwOBA RS Whiff% RS CSW% PS xwOBA PS Whiff% PS CSW%
Fastball .259 29.9% 31.6% .352 15.9% 26.7%
Curveball .151 53.5% 43.4% .319 40.9% 30.2%

This information doesn’t tell us much going forward, however. Yes, Anderson’s results have been worse in the postseason than he typically is during the regular season, but is it even him being worse? It’s worth noting that the Rays have played against the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros, three pretty solid offenses that all strike out less than the major league average.

So while Anderson has looked decent this postseason, it’s hard to draw any conclusions here. And, as one of my Twitter followers, Nick Lobraico, smartly pointed out, “In the playoffs Anderson gets pushed hard, and he does end up allowing more runs, but he’s helped the Rays win games much more than he hasn’t.” The Rays will take a not-100-percent Anderson because a not-100-percent Anderson is still better than the vast majority of relievers in baseball. And, really, all that matters in the postseason is winning, and, before yesterday, Anderson had pretty clearly contributed to victories. It just needs to stay that way.

Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.