When Nick Anderson signed with Atlanta on November 11, 2022, it was a blip on the transactional radar for many fans.
Anderson was a low-risk, high-reward signee as a relief pitcher trying to come back from two injury-plagued season - adding depth to a Braves bullpen that was going to experience a significant turn-over in high-leverage arms coming into the 2023 season.
Going into this year’s Spring Training, what had been forgotten by many during the last two years is that Anderson was one of two relief pitchers named to the All MLB first team in 2020 when he had a ludicrous 756 ERA+ in the COVID-shortened regular season.
To put it bluntly, Anderson was dominate in 87 games combined in 2019 and 2020, the latter half of which were spent with the Tampa Bay Rays. In 81.1 innings, Anderson posted a 156 ERA+ with a stellar 0.959 WHIP and a fantastic 15 strikeouts per nine innings while only walking slightly more than two batters per nine innings.
After his stupefyingly overpowering 2020 regular season (0.490 WHIP, for example), Anderson only made six appearances with Tampa before elbow issues – that ultimately lead to a brace procedure for his ulnar collateral ligament – ended his 2021 and caused him to mis the entirety of the 2022 campaign.
Originally a low-round draftee by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012, Anderson’s professional career started in the Independent Leagues before landing with the Minnesota Twins organization in 2015. He didn’t make his MLB debut until 2019 with the Miami Marlins as a 28 year-old, pitching in 45 games before being traded to Tampa at the 2019 trade deadline.
Now 32, Anderson has been a key member of the Braves bullpen that has been better than is often opined due to the struggles from several key pitchers that has magnified what has otherwise been one of the better overall bullpen performances in the National League.
Through May 31, Anderson has pitched so well this season, that it is easy to forget that he was optioned to the minors before the end of Spring Training - being recalled prior to Opening Day. In 22 games, he’s given the team 23.1 innings of performance yielding a 0.814 WHIP, 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, a 9.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 129 ERA+.
Ten years ago, the Braves got a unexpectedly fantastic 2013 season (and a solid 2014) out of David Carpenter (the West Virginian, not Texan of the same name who also pitched for the Braves in 2015). Carpenter’s 2013 season was outstanding with a 211 ERA+ and sub-1 WHIP in 65.2 innings across 56 games.
Like his fellow right-hander from a decade ago, Anderson is providing the Braves with outstanding value, although Anderson’s pre-Braves performance was stronger than Carpenter’s time prior to Atlanta.
What is it that has made Anderson effective this year, thus far?
Anderson has primarily a two-pitch arsenal, with his curveball and four-seam fastball making up more than 99-percent of the pitches he’s thrown this season (or 100-percent, depending on the service you peruse). Slightly more than 50-percent of the time, he’s thrown his curveball, with FanGraphs deeming it worth 1.3 runs above average whereas they see his fastball at 3.9 runs above average.
Anderson’s pitch usage has changed, pretty significantly, since his dominate 2019 and 2020 seasons, when he used his fastball an average of more than 60-percent of the time, with his curveball hovering just below 40-percent. As you can see below, Baseball Savant shows that Anderson has been effective outside the zone with his curveball.
Anderson has feasted on left-handed batters, where both his curveball and fastball have been effective as seen by a paltry .391 OPS with 13 strikeouts put-up by left-handed batters in 39 plate appearances.
Against same-side batters, he’s still been effective, allowing a .706 OPS while striking out 15 in 48 plate appearances.
Both his fastball and curveball have seen a slight decrease in velocity post-elbow injury, but his hard-hit percentages (which have historically been higher than average) are in line with his peak seasons with Soft/Med/Hard coming in so far in 2023 at 12.5%/26.4%/41.1%. His xFIP is also in-line with 2019 and 2020, sitting at 2.84 this season.
Although he’s missing less bats at than at his peak, he’s still well-above average, showing a similar profile in 2023 to his 2019 season - again thanks to Baseball Savant.
What’s interesting about his effectiveness while leading with his curveball is that his Whiff% on the pitch has decreased this season to 42.9-percent – 10 points lower than the two seasons mentioned above. The spin rate of the pitch has slowed as well, down to 1924 this season, which is one of the worst spin rates in the league.
Anderson’s curveball vertical movement and horizontal movement is not only well below average - but both are worst on the Braves’ pitching staff. Pitch movement isn’t the end-all be-all, as seen by the recently designated for assignment Lucas Luetge who had the second-best curveball vertical movement on the Braves staff behind only Max Fried and the third-best curveball horizontal movement behind Charlie Mortan and Jesse Chavez.
Pitch command and control are both big parts of what makes Anderson effective. For the season, he’s walked only three batters. Limiting walks, combined with his still-excellent ability to strikeout batters, has helped him post a wOBA of .243, and although that outpaces his xwOBA slightly, his .269 xwOBA is still third best on the Braves staff and best among all relievers, as shown below via Baseball Savant.
Good things happen when you post exceptional strikeout totals while limiting walks at an elite rate - even when the contact he does allow is less-than-ideal.
Although Anderson hasn’t been as good as he was prior to 2021, that says more about how extraordinarily dominate he was then versus how effective he is now.
Given that he is performing near his expected rates, he should be able to maintain his role as one of the high-leverage right-handed options out of the Braves’ bullpen. Anderson will be arbitration eligible next season, but with currently three=plus years of service time, he could be under team control through 2025.