Is Ian Anderson rapidly pitching himself into top 40 starting pitcher consideration heading into the 2021 fantasy baseball season? *turns down TV volume, cups hand to ear* “Hey, what’s that sound?” If it were 2019 and there happened to be another human within ear shot, they would respond, “yes, that’s the sound of someone screaming.” To which I would reply, “did Eduardo Escobar see a cat?” “No, that’s just Madison Bumgarner wailing down the side of a mountain after tripping and falling off a cliff, subsequently opening up a spot in next year’s top 40.” Luckily, he landed on an ATV and drove safely to the top 80 starter campground, where he’ll likely preside for the next four years.
As Anderson trudges his way up the same mountain, covered in brambles from the forest floor below, there are those who might actually think top 40 consideration is a foregone conclusion — and why not top 30? After all, the 2016 MLB Draft’s third overall pick is 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 22 innings of work through his first four Major League starts. Does he deserve to be drafted as a top 40, or even top 30 SP next season? Today, we’ll dive into Anderson and some takeaways from his first taste of Big League action, including a refresher of his Minor League track record. At the end, I’ll answer that question.
Anderson made his Major League debut on August 26 at home against the Yankees, tossing six innings of one run ball on one hit and two walks, striking out six. The rookie actually held New York hitless through five frames in that contest, before sexy looking man-baby Luke Voit did what sexy looking man-babies do best and took him deep in the sixth. As a result of that outing, I ranked Anderson No. 8 in my August 27 Rest-of-Season Rookie Starting Pitcher Rankings, writing, “Despite the small sample size, I can’t have him any lower on his list, as he’s a dart throw that could save fantasy pitching staffs down the stretch.”
Well, now it appears Ian Andy is doing just that after hurling a quality start at Fenway Park against the Red Sox (6 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 1 BB, 8 K), a meh outing versus the Marlins (3 IP, 1 ER, 2 H, 4 BB, 4K) and finally, the best performance of his young career in Washington over the weekend. In that game, Anderson tossed seven innings of one-hit, shutout baseball against the Braves, scattering three walks and striking out nine. In that game, Anderson struggled with command early on before settling in and churning through the Nationals lineup with ease. Let’s take a look.
As has been the case for Anderson in 2020, the key in his gem against Washington was the fastball-changeup combination, which has produced a combined 22 strikeouts through four starts. Anderson’s changeup has been a pleasant surprise so far this season, as it was viewed as much-improved offering, albeit still his third-best pitch (55 grade) heading into 2020. From what we’ve seen, it’s actually been his go-to weapon, as his pitch usage with the changeup is at 32.3% and 15 of his 27 strikeouts have come on the pitch, which has achieved a remarkable 41.0 whiff % to this point. Meanwhile, opposing hitters have batted a mere .088 against Anderson’s changeup while slugging just .118. The pitch tends to sit around 86-88 MPH and sometimes creeps up to 89 MPH (average: 87.7 MPH), and while it’s nearly unhittable down in the zone with the amount of fade it possesses, hitters have struggled to square it up even when Anderson has struggled with consistency in his command. Speaking of which, did you happen to notice anything interesting while viewing the clip above? On a handful of occasions, Anderson left the pitch up or in the middle of the plate, and Major League hitters still can’t solve it. Take a look again at that swing and miss from Juan Soto over the weekend.
According to Baseball Savant, this pitch was directly in the heart of the plate, falling in the middle-third both vertically and horizontally. Judging by Soto’s reaction immediately afterward, he knows he should have been able to drive that pitch, but ultimately it ended up being just one of Anderson’s nine punchies in the contest. It’s a beautiful change, and it’s even more deadly when Anderson effectively locates it down and away — something he’s done so successfully in all of his outings this year, although quite inconsistently.
Now, the changeup isn’t the only component of Anderson’s arsenal that’s been working for him. He’s thrown the curveball fairly frequently at 23.4% and achieved a 46.9 whiff % on the pitch, although it’s been slightly more hittable when he’s missed with it (.231 AVG, .308 SLG). Then we have the fastball, which has composed 44.3% of pitches thrown and has set up the secondary stuff nicely, averaging 94.6 MPH. The whiff % on the fastball sits at 16.7% and opposing batters are hitting .133 against it. Both Anderson’s fastball and curveball have below average spin rates, yet they’ve been highly effective through his small sample size in the Big Leagues. When he’s spotting the two pitches north-to-south, it’s almost a non-factor — and it’s what he needs to continue to do to produce strong strikeout numbers.
— Bally Sports South (@BallySportsSO) September 13, 2020
This finally brings us to the paradox that is Anderson’s command, which has been both great and downright terrible at varying times throughout his professional career. In parts of four MiLB seasons totaling 377 2/3 innings, Anderson walked 4.0 batters-per-nine winnings while posting a 10.7 K/9. Those numbers have remained almost identical at the MLB level to the tune of an 11.0 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9 — so one could argue that we pretty much know the type of pitcher Anderson is going to be. Not so fast.
When Anderson first broke into pro baseball in 2016, he pitched 39 2/3 innings at Rookie level and finished with a 2.7 BB/9. Here are his season-by-season walk numbers in the years to follow: 4.7 (2017), 3.7 (2018), 4.3 (2019). In 2019, Anderson’s control numbers were baffling, as he walked 3.8 batters-per-nine at Double-A before losing his control upon being promoted to Triple-A, where it jumped to 6.6 BB/9. It’s safe to say that Anderson has been all over the map with his command, starting off as a young prospect on the cusp of elite control in 2016 and being erratic on an annual basis thereafter.
In attempting to forecast Anderson for 2021, a large portion of his fantasy value is going to come down to his ability to not only command his changeup down in the zone to compliment his 93-95 MPH fastball, but also to limit walks on a start-to-start basis. Even as he’s experienced tremendous success in 2020, he has failed to do this successfully, and so far, it has not haunted him — with the Soto clip above serving as one of many pieces of evidence. If Anderson can be a 3.0 BB/9 starter, he will have top 25 starter upside. But if you’re drafting him next season, you can’t assume that, and therefore top 40 has to be the highest you’re willing to value him at. Otherwise, you’ll be putting yourself in danger of wasting a high pick on a starting pitcher with inconsistent command — one you won’t be able to start with confidence week in and week out. Remember, we’re talking about someone who pretty much tops out at 95 MPH these days, although he’s touched 96-97 MPH in the past. His strikeouts will be healthy, but there won’t be very many double-digit K outings. Someone like that certainly can’t be walking four-to-five batters per game.
It’s worth remembering that through his career in the Minors, Anderson worked to a 2.91 ERA and 1.23 WHIP with 451 strikeouts across 377 2/3 frames. The Shenendehowa High School (N.Y.) product coughed up just 16 home runs during that span, translating to 0.4 HR/9 — a number that is, again, identical to his MLB performance thus far. For a former No. 3 overall pick, that’s commendable bottom-line production that backs up his top prospect status, and the underlying numbers have been great to this point as well. If you check out his profile over at Baseball Savant, he’s near the top of the league in a plethora of categories, save for spin rate — which I mentioned earlier.
Clearly, Anderson’s performance to this point is no fluke — but that doesn’t mean it’s 100% sustainable, either. I ranked Anderson No. 8 for rest-of-season rookie starters after just one start because he wields three above average-to-plus pitches and is Major League ready, and I would easily rank him ranked in the top five if I were to rework those rankings today. However, as I mentioned earlier, you can’t be drafting Anderson as a top 25 starter for next season, and top 40 is as far as I would be willing to go. He does possess top 25 starter upside, but with the minuscule 2020 sample size and his unpredictable command on a start-to-start basis taken into account, his range of outcomes is too wide to draft him with that valuation.
Anderson will likely be ranked somewhere in the 40-50 range for me next season, right on the outside-looking-in of top 40 status, and I’ll happily roster him with that valuation as a No. 3-4 fantasy starter (for those wondering, Sixto Sanchez is a top 25 starter for 2021). If he really closes out September on a high note, I can see ranking him as highly as the 35-40 range, but no further. Can Anderson be an ace? As a former No. 3 pick, I’d like to say yes, but he looks to be more of a No. 2 or No. 3 to me with his command questions and lack of elite velocity.
As always, I’m more than happy to discuss this topic further in the comments section or on Twitter, where you can find me @WorldOfHobbs.