Okay look... the Braves’ starting rotation was nightmare for the majority of the 2020 season. Cole Hamels never got healthy, King Felix Hernandez opted out before he threw an inning in the regular season, Mike Soroka went down with an Achilles tendon injury, Mike Foltynewicz lost a bunch of weight and imploded in his sole outing, and almost everyone that the Braves brought in to cover those innings failed (sometimes spectacularly) to do so.
In fact, other than Max Fried being absolutely outstanding, the only other real bright spot (at least for any prolonged period of time) was the successful debut of Ian Anderson. In addition to being brilliant in the playoffs for the Braves, Ian posted a 1.95 ERA with a 11.41 K/9 in six regular season starts to help Braves fans try their best to forget the times of Robbie Erlin and Tommy Milone making starts for the team (shivers).
For the 2021 season, it appears as though the rotation will start the season in a more stable place. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that any members of the current rotation are going to opt out of the season and while injuries could feasibly happen, one would hope that all of the bad juju with injuries/regression that happened last year got worked out and the Braves won’t have as much of that. That, combined with the additions of Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton, has the unit looking in pretty good shape.
However, is “pretty good” going to be enough? How much is Anderson going to have to produce to keep the Braves on track for a deep postseason run in 2021? Let’s take a look.
Among the best teams, the Braves rotation is lacking
Before folks start yelling at me and giving me their best “well actually” takes, I am basing the relative strength of the Braves rotation versus other “elite” teams rotations using ZiPS projections for the 2021 season. This is obviously imperfect, but should give a decent comparison that accounts for enough ranges of outcomes to be useful for this.
For the 2021 season, the Braves’ projected rotation of Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Ian Anderson is projected by ZiPS to post around 13.4 WAR next season. Yes, there are going to be guys who make starts that aren’t those five guys which will alter the numbers, but lets go with that for now. Anderson, again according to ZiPS, is projected to account for 2.4 WAR of that.
When we look at the Braves’ likely competitors at the top of the National League, we see some interesting projections. The Dodgers were projected to get 17.5 WAR before they signed Trevor Bauer. The Padres (15.3 WAR and that doesn’t include Mackenzie Gore at the moment) and Mets (15.7 WAR) both also outstrip the Braves significantly in projections as well. The Dodgers are essentially a team that you design in a lab, but both San Diego and the Mets also have lineups that, in theory, can keep pace with the Braves’ lineup, so an advantage in the rotation is notable.
Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that the Braves have a bad rotation... far from it. There is also plenty of upside with the Braves’ unit so them outperforming their projections given how young they are wouldn’t be crazy. However, what this does highlight is that getting another 2ish or so WAR out of the rotation would go a long way. Somewhat fortunately, Anderson seems to be a guy that could provide that level of difference. If you projected his 2020 season out over, say, 160 innings, he would have posted an fWAR well north of 5. Now, that isn’t likely to happen as fatigue and the usual adjustment periods are going to come in some form. But if he could be 80 percent as productive as he was last year... that would go a long way towards the Braves keeping pace with the big boys of the National League.
Anderson has to figure out how to stay in games longer
There is no denying Anderson’s stuff at this point. He has a live fastball, his changeup took big strides last year, and he has the breaking ball to get major league hitters out. However, one thing that has been the case with him throughout his pro career is his pitch count and ability to pitch deep into games have not always been the greatest. Part of that problem is walks and while his walk rate last year of 3.90 BB/9 was livable, if he could cut that down, then we could see more six plus inning starts from him as opposed to the five inning or so average he had in his debut season.
Why does this matter? Well, to be blunt... the Braves bullpen is highly unlikely to be as good as it was last year. A lot of the key pieces are back to be sure, but Shane Greene and Mark Melancon are not on the team anymore and are going to be replaced by guys whose value is going to be, at minimum, more uncertain. There were a lot of times last year where the Braves’ starter would last three innings and it would take a Herculean effort from the bullpen and offense to win. With the bullpen presumably not being as deep , shortening the back end of these games in 2021 is going to have added value. Getting opposing pitchers out in short order will help that cause some, although it does seem like opposing pitchers give the Braves fits at times at the plate for reasons that escape me.
There are going to be times where Anderson is going to get pulled because the Braves are going to need a real hitter in there (boy, do I hate that there is no DH in the National League), but hopefully he can make those late game decisions by Brian Snitker harder.
(Small Ivan note: reading this, I was like, “But wait! Anderson going deeper into games means facing the third time through the order more, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing for anyone!” But in his tiny-sample 2020, he actually was far worse the first time through the order than the second or third, so it’s something to watch. He probably won’t be some kind of weird no-TTO-effect guy, but his changeup had a crazy-low xwOBA even when left in the zone, which could indicate that hitters are having trouble with the pitch itself, not with the recognition of the pitch.)
Anderson has to stay healthy
I don’t think its hyperbole to say that if Ian Anderson is healthy for all of 2021, that he has a really good shot at being in contention for NL Rookie of the Year. Other than a shortened Low-A season, he hasn’t had any problems staying on the field, which is a big plus. If the Braves want to make a real run in 2021, he is going to have to be around and at near full strength come playoff time.
With Anderson entering his first full season in the major leagues, Soroka coming back from a major injury, and Max Fried seemingly doing much better when he gets extra rest, maybe this means the Braves should consider rotating spot starts or even expanding the rotation for stretches during the season. Maximizing production from the rotation is going to be important this year because now its not just about figuring out how to beat the Dodgers in a series in October, but also having to deal with a very competitive division and then having Dodgers and Padres as potential obstacles in the playoffs. If the Braves are going to pull that off, Anderson is going to have to play a big part.