Tim Anderson is for real

Tim Anderson
Tim Anderson is one of the best power/speed combinations in the majors.

I have decreed that the launching of RotoRanks will coincide with some Tim Anderson propaganda. After all, Anderson is the type of player I enjoy drafting most in fantasy baseball. He is a 20/20 threat, a player who offers both power and speed. Anderson gave us 20 homers and 26 steals in 2018, and nearly reached that storied mark again in 2019. Missing more than a month with a sprained ankle derailed the 20/20 chances, but Anderson still finished with 18 homers and 17 steals en route to the American League batting title. And for what it’s worth, he only stole two bases after returning from his ankle injury–a time frame of 53 games. In a healthy season, Anderson is a lock for 20 steals.

For reference, only nine men accomplished the 20/20 feat in 2019. These guys don’t grow on trees, folks.

Anyway, despite last year’s new approach (which we will discuss today) and missing over a month’s time, Anderson was still plenty useful. He’s a heck of a player. Plus, count me as one of the fans who enjoys watching baseball players with Anderson’s swagger.

That’s right, get those “unwritten rules” outta here.

Anyway, it’s a fun exercise to examine year-to-year changes with the Fangraphs season stat grid tool. If you compare 2018 to 2019, a name that pops up more than once is Tim Anderson. Anderson notably won the batting title last year, slashing .335/.357/.508. He did so one year after batting a mere .240, and he did so while posting an unsustainable .399 BABIP. So why am I buying in?

Anderson was one of the biggest gainers in Cent% and biggest “losers” in pull rate in 2019. So while the batted ball luck won’t hold, the shift in approach still points to new growth. At the very least, it’s a tangible change that we fantasy baseballers can point to to help explain the surge in production. So let’s check out Tim Anderson’s 2019 in a bit more depth.

Anderson’s batting title coincided with a significant change in approach

Anderson’s pull rate plummeted in 2019, dropping from 44.4% in 2018 to 32.7% last year. He also went opposite field more, bumping from 27.2% to 30.2%. For reference, that 30.2% rate ranked 8th highest in the majors. His 27.6% fly ball rate was the 9th lowest mark in the league, and is further evidence that Anderson has made a significant departure from the pull and power-happy tendencies of the current times. He appears to be trading out the home run for the single up the middle–in fact, he increased his Cent% from 28.4% in 2018 to a whopping 37.1% rate last year (20th in MLB).

I did some research, and one of the best articles I could find on the topic came from Michael Beller of Sports Illustrated in April of last season. The article details Anderson’s stance change, including more of an upright stance and a change in hand placement. In short, Anderson looked far more comfortable at the plate in 2019. Added comfort is a huge deal, as it could have been a factor in making Anderson’s quality results more repeatable.

Anderson crushed sliders in 2019

Beller also mentioned Anderson’s early growth against sliders last year. Beller made that observation in April, though. So what happened over the course of the full season? The slider was certainly a pitch that had plagued Anderson over his first three seasons. So consider these slash lines against the pitch by year:

YEAR K% AVG OBP SLG ISO
2016 31.3% 0.185 0.183 0.259 0.074
2017 32.5% 0.184 0.195 0.263 0.079
2018 36.2% 0.164 0.191 0.254 0.090
2019 27.1% 0.341 0.350 0.514 0.174

One of those is not like the other. And I couldn’t squeeze it all into the table, but Anderson also recognized the pitch more in the zone last year, bumping his zone rate of 64.1% in 2018 to 74.8% against the pitch in 2019. He also made far more contact against sliders, bumping from 59.9% to 69.3%. And when he swung at sliders in the zone, that contact rate ballooned from 76.8% to 88.5%. In general, there’s an assumption here that the alterations in his stance and hand placement allowed him to have more repeatable success against sliders. If we do get a season in 2020, Anderson’s performance against sliders is an area I’ll be monitoring from the start. If he can maintain any semblance of growth in this area, I think even the naysayers will have to trust Anderson’s batting average a little more.

That line drive rate is nasty and on the rise

When discussing batting average, I’ll often first take a peek at line drives. Here’s Anderson’s performance on sliders by year. He pasted them last year.

YEAR LD%
2016 14.5%
2017 18.6%
2018 27.7%
2019 35.0%

And here’s Anderson’s overall line drive rate by year (against everything, not just sliders). I also included his xBA and exit velocity marks:

YEAR LD% xBA Exit Velo (mph)
2016 20.8% 0.262 86.8
2017 19.2% 0.249 85.0
2018 20.0% 0.227 85.6
2019 23.8% 0.294 88.3

That 23.8% line drive rate ranked 28th in the MLB last year. Obviously solid, if not totally upper echelon. But if Anderson continues to show growth in this area, we could be talking about one of the premier line drive hitters in the league. Line drive rate isn’t the stickiest of measures. But in general I see a guy making an effort to keep the ball out of the air and to hit it with authority.

It’s notable to me that last year’s average 88.3 mph exit velocity was the first time Anderson has been above average compared to the rest of the league. The MLB average last year was 86.3 mph, for reference. Anderson may not be setting the world on fire with regard to hard hit rate, but hitting the ball harder is a start–especially for a guy with 88th percentile sprint speed.

Finally, last year’s .294 xBA ranked inside the top 8% of the league. In summation, you could say that Tim Anderson RAKED in 2019.

2020 Outlook

You know what I thought of when researching? Willie Mays Hayes returning as an alleged power hitter for the Cleveland Indians in the movie Major League II. There’s this tension throughout the flick about how Hayes needs to stop selling out for power and put the ball on the ground–to utilize his speed, which is his best asset. This is the opposite of that. Tim Anderson has more self-awareness than Willie Mays Hayes, apparently.

However, this isn’t a direct analogy, as Tim Anderson isn’t totally devoid of power. The guy does have a career .158 ISO, and that mark has generally risen over his time in the big leagues: .149, .145, .166, and .173 are his marks by year. But 2019 reads like a guy morphing into a more complete hitter. Employing more of an all fields approach instead of trying to pull everything for a homer…the approach certainly paid off for Anderson.

You can see the growth in his swinging strike rate, as his 13.5% rate was the lowest (read: best) mark of his MLB career. That’s a good thing for such a free swinger. Anderson’s 58.5% swing rate obliterated his career high marks, which were already well above the MLB average of about 47 percent. That swing rate ranked fourth in the MLB, with only Jeff McNeil, Eddie Rosario, and Kevin Pillar swinging more among qualified hitters. For reference, notable free-swinger Javier Baez posted a 55.2% swing rate in 2019. But Baez did so with a whopping 18.4% swinging strike rate, and Baez made far less contact than Anderson (66.7% to 77.0%). I’m not hating on Baez, who is also a legitimate stud. I’m just saying…Tim Anderson is a stud, too.

Anderson’s overall production will always be tied to his batted ball luck due to his low walk rate, but as a hitter he is one of the more exciting in the game to watch. I love the swagger and the competitive mentality. And it’s great to see some growth underneath last year’s breakout. Lastly, his ADP of 90 or so isn’t prohibitive. Anderson is one of the best power/speed combos in the league that isn’t old or injury-prone. Sure, you won’t catch a .399 BABIP in 2020. But I appreciate the shift in approach, and I think Anderson’s tools are worth chasing at his ADP. I’d be comfortable projecting a .270 batting average given last year’s growth and Anderson’s career .276 mark. To me, that plays well given his ADP, his ability to offer power and speed, and the fact that he’ll likely bat atop the order for a loaded White Sox lineup.

Ding him in OBP leagues if you fear the career 3.3% walk rate. But in formats that count batting average, sign me up for this annual 20/20 threat who won’t hurt me in batting average.

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