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2023 Braves Season in Review: Nick Anderson

A strong debut in Atlanta was derailed by a shoulder injury.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Nick Anderson is a talented right-handed reliever who threw important innings early in the season, but just can’t seem to stay healthy. Despite controlling him for a few more years, the Braves sent him to Kansas City in exchange for cash in the offseason.

How Acquired

The Braves took a flyer on Anderson coming into the season with hopes of striking gold. Anderson hadn’t pitched much in the years prior with a bevy of injuries, but for minimal money ($875,000, which is barely above league minimum) and plenty of bullpen depth to lean on in case it didn’t work, it was a worthwhile addition.

What were the expectations?

Anderson once put together a superb regular season with the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays in 2019, with 2.1 fWAR over 65 innings, placing him firmly in the top 10 among all relievers in baseball. He also threw big innings for Tampa Bay (including 1.0 fWAR in just 19 games in the “regular” season) in 2020, as well as the Bubble Playoffs, working as one of their key relievers as they ultimately fell two games short of the championship.

Despite the success in 2019 and 2020, that was the last time Anderson pitched regularly. He logged just six innings in 2021 and missed all of 2022 with elbow surgery. As a result, it seemed like he could probably be an average-y reliever provided that he stayed healthy, but it was not really clear what to expect from him either health-wise or performance-wise given that about two years had elapsed since he got regular work.

2023 Results

Anderson found himself pitching important innings for the Braves right away, partly due to injuries to other relievers, and partly due to the fact it was hard to not give him the ball. He was especially good in the first two months with a stellar 2.36 FIP and 2.87 xFIP while striking out 32.2 percent of his batters faced and walking just 3.4 percent. It seemed like the Braves had hit the reliever lottery on a flier of a signing.

Unfortunately, things trended in the wrong direction during the final six weeks of the first half. Anderson’s excellent strikeout and walk numbers went the wrong direction (from a 32.2 percent strikeout rate down to 14.8 percent, and a 3.4 percent walk rate all the way up to 11.1 percent) and his stuff seemed to lose a tick. He was hardly unpitchable, but it seemed like some of the magic was starting to fade. His 78/55/66 (ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-) line through May turned to 51/104/125 afterwards, and he finished the season at 69/72/86, with 0.9 fWAR in 35 13 innings of work.

During the All-Star Break, the Braves placed Anderson on the 60-day Injured List with a right shoulder strain. It effectively ended Anderson’s season.

What went right?

As noted above, Anderson was very good in April and May. He was routinely pitching medium and high-leverage spots for the Braves and even recorded an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 save on April 11 against the Reds. When he was right, opposing hitters could do very little against his fastball-curve combination. Fun fact: FanGraphs had Anderson throwing his fastball exactly 50 percent of the time and his curveball 50 percent of the time.

He finished with a pretty insane 17 shutdowns to 2 meltdowns, one of the best ratios in baseball. Among relievers with 30 innings pitched at least ten shutdowns, only Devin Williams and Chris Martin had a better ratio (and there were only two relievers that managed to pitch 30-plus innings and have zero meltdowns).

Even after he started to struggle a bit, one thing that seemed to shine brightly was his small-sample reverse split. On the season, Anderson actually had horrible numbers against righties, with an FIP and xFIP each above 4.50. But, he dominated lefties with a 1.36 FIP and 2.77 xFIP. After June, his numbers against righties went completely bonkers in the direction of awful, but his numbers against lefties barely budged. Here’s him getting an awful swing from Daniel Vogelbach on a 94 mph elevated fastball that eventually set up another Braves comeback win late:

What went wrong?

The shoulder injury prevented Anderson from returning in the second half of the season. He made a handful of rehab appearances in the minors in September, but he never seemed all that close to being ready to return to Atlanta. The drop in command and his swing-and-miss rates in June and July were perhaps an ominous sign of something being wrong.

On June 13, Ben Clemens at Fangraphs wrote an article about Nick Anderson’s downturn, even before it had really happened. While things seemed to catch up to him in a hurry after that article was published, we never really got a chance to see whether batters would adjust and ruin the reason of his season because of his injury. In that sense, what went right is that the Braves got a bunch of innings and nearly 1 WAR out of Anderson before he turned into a rancid pumpkin, but what went wrong is that he couldn’t escape some red flags in his return to full-time work, and then it was unceremoniously cut short due to shoulder injuries.

Perhaps this is why the Braves had few qualms about shipping him off as soon as the season ended, despite his good top-line performance in 2023.

Aside from that, and the weird reverse split that saw him post a bad performance against righties, few things really went wrong while he was on the mound. One of his few bad outings of the year came against Baltimore on May 6, where he came in with a 3-2 lead in the sixth, and left with a 4-3 deficit... but that inning featured two defensive misplays behind him that led to the go-ahead run, and even the tying run scored as a result of a bloop single and a fly ball double that’s probably caught if the Braves position either their left fielder or center fielder a bit differently.

He had a similar two-run outing on May 24 where ball-in-play stuff saw him blow the lead. These sorts of weakly-hit flares, like this game-tying one by Miguel Vargas that left the bat at just 77 mph, were largely what victimized him when he was going well:

2024 Outlook

The Braves shipped Anderson to Kansas City for cash considerations in November. It seems like Anderson was going to be non-tendered regardless. Best of luck to Nick in Kansas City, where he should have an opportunity to pitch in the majors if his shoulder/elbow/body will cooperate. It remains to be seen whether he can recapture the fastball effectiveness and overall ability to retire righties that he had earlier in his career, but more importantly, he needs to be able to stay healthy.

Steamer currently forecasts him as barely above replacement level for a full season, which is a little surprising given how effective he was even in 2023. We’ll see what happens, but it probably won’t be relevant to the Braves at this point.

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