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Tim Anderson is defying statistical reason

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As exciting as he is, the numbers tell us that the White Sox shortstop should be...nowhere near this good. But he is!

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago White Sox are the best team in baseball. Consult the standings, consult your favorite website’s power rankings, consult your uncle that texted you in somber disappointment that Yermín Mercedes was hacking on 3-0 pitch in a 15-4 game. As of this writing, it’s inarguable.

After a questionable start in a season with lofty expectations, the Sox have absolutely shredded their competition in the month of May. Their run differential sat at +73 heading into Tuesday’s action, with the potential for it to rise again against the listless Minnesota Twins. They boast offensive talent for days and their pitching is coming through in a way that even the most staunch of optimists may not have foreseen (most notably Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease).

And in a historically clumsy transition by me here, it’s no surprise that Tim Anderson sits in the midst of all of this. The face of a franchise that currently sports the likes of Josê Abreu, Yoán Moncada, Luis Robert, and Lucas Giolito could again find himself abuzz with talks of MVP before it’s all said and done.

I’m going to file two disclaimers before I dive into the murky waters of Tim Anderson’s statistical output.

  1. None of the following is meant to be libelous towards Tim Anderson. There is such an absurd volume of exciting talent in Major League Baseball right now, and Anderson is in the S tier. He’s so much fun.
  2. I’m not going to utilize this space to go on any diatribe about Tony La Russa and unwritten rules. He’s wrong. We know it. Anderson knows it. Anybody living in not 1983 knows it. It’s bad form for the manager, the organization, and the sport as a whole in so many ways.

But to the focal point here: Tim Anderson.

He’s been good. Like, obscenely good. Anderson’s line in 2021 goes .331/.366/.488/.854 and feeds into a wRC+ of 141. His wOBA sits at .370. His average ranks ninth, while those other outputs rank in the top 40 among qualifying position players. His power hasn’t quite been there to this point, with a .157 ISO, but his last couple years indicate that he should be able to drive that figure back up over time. Among every single player that has stepped to the plate this season, Anderson has contributed a WPA of 0.8, putting him in 29th with the 11th-highest figure there.

What’s more is that Anderson is absolutely thriving with two strikes. While he’s only hitting .167 in 0-2 situations, he’s also going for .295 in 1-2, .290 in 2-2, and .286 in 3-2 counts. The man simply just hits—he currently ranks 21st in that category despite missing time on the IL—and serves as the perfect table-setter for such a potent Sox lineup behind him.

What’s even more interesting—and this is where Disclaimer 1 comes in—is that the peripherals indicate that Tim Anderson should really be nowhere near this. He doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard (29.7 Hard%), he hits it on the ground a lot (58.2 GB%), and he strikes out plenty (26.9 percent). His Contact% (70.3) ranks 139 out of 159 qualifying hitters. Here’s a peek at his percentile rankings through a month-and-a-half:

Tim Anderson percentile rankings
via Baseball Savant

There’s a lot of very average trends there. You look at that in a vacuum and you see a hitter that is kind of just...a guy. Which is interesting when you’re talking about a player typically associated with the elite at a position. Anderson is a dude. And, again, that isn’t in question here. But what’s also notable is the fact that Anderson, despite not regularly making hard contact or finding barrels, while also whiffing and striking out a bunch (and also not walking), is that his xBA and xSLG still look very strong. He’s not blowing his peripherals away in the face of all reason. The BABIP is .430. His xBA is .263 and his xSLG is .453. Obviously the former is an especially far cry from where the actual figure falls, but it’s not nearly as abysmal as one might expect given the abnormally high BABIP and mediocre periphs.

So I channel my inner Biff Tannen as I stare at the sky and demand to know just what the hell is going on here. Because all of that rather average contact straight into the ground and high strikeout rates while also never walking would seem to add up to something far more sinister in the box score than what we’re getting from Anderson. Instead, he comes through as much more of an anomaly.

I’ll tell you right now that I don’t have a firm conclusion for what exactly is allowing Anderson to thrive in the way that he is. Somebody more intelligent than myself might. But I don’t. What I am capable of providing is at least a couple of brief insights as to how Anderson is able to just hit, hit, and hit some more while maintaining such a top tier level of aggressiveness at the plate.

The aggressiveness is the first thing worth looking at. Only two players in baseball swing the bat more than Tim Anderson: Salvador Pérez and Javier Báez. And technically, at an even 58 percent going into Tuesday, Anderson and Báez are actually tied for the second-highest rate in baseball. Anderson doesn’t discriminate in matters of the zone, either, as indicated by his profile below:

Tim Anderson zone profile
via Baseball Savant

Obviously there are some tendencies: the inner half of the plate and the up-and-in portion of the zone most notably. But it’s not as if there are parts of the strike zone he avoids entirely. Low-and-away maybe. But, overall, it’s mostly fine because his swing mechanics follow a relatively elongated path that allows him to cover virtually every portion of the zone.

Here’s a random video in which he singles to the opposite field with that swing:

What that aggressiveness combines with those mechanics to do is hit the ball all over the field. He ranks toward the bottom of the league in Pull% (35.2) and has a career Oppo% just a shade over 25 percent. He does a lot of work in the middle of the field as well, though, where he sits at 40.7 percent for the year (24th among qualifiers). More than anything, his nature allows him to avoid the shift, which—and this is an obvious statement coming up—opens up the field far more than, say, Yasmani Grandal (who has been shifted against 94 percent of the time). Anderson has hit against the shift exactly one time this year.

Another potential explanation for how Tim Anderson keeps on plugging with subpar peripherals is just his general awareness of the count, which works in conjunction with his aggressiveness. Steve Paradzinski has a nice writeup on it over at On Top Sports Net, but Anderson is destroying opposing pitching when he’s ahead in the count. He’s hitting .481 when he’s ahead in the count and OPSing 1.255. Both of those are tops among his counterparts at the shortstop position. He’s reaching base at a .588 clip in those situations.

I noted above Anderson’s batting average outputs with two strikes. Which are good! But come on. What Anderson’s doing in those plate appearances where he’s ahead is just going full bore on the aggressiveness to a point where it’s probably making his manager absolutely seeth. That approach is just his nature. He’s not terribly unique in that regard among his peers at the position (Báez, Bo Bichette being relevant examples), but the ultimate extent to which he’s succeeding in those instances is just...wild.

There isn’t really a statistical or a mechanical explanation for what Tim Anderson is doing at the plate. But that also means that there isn’t a statistical or mechanical one that indicates any sort of regression is on the way. Because this is who Anderson has always been. I believe there’s a phrase for that: built different. Tim Anderson is, indeed, built different, and it’s totally fine that he’s going to continue to step in the box, hack and hack and hack, and just fill up the box score with hits. It’s aggressiveness, but it’s calculated. Some guys just hit. Tim Anderson is one of those guys.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.