Nick Anderson gets his chance

Photo credit: USA Today

Photo credit: USA Today

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Baseball Prospectus

Nick Anderson had a feeling he would be traded. Last season the 6-foot-5 right-hander carved through the Triple-A International League with 88 strikeouts in 60 innings, but the Twins did not promote him to the major-league club in September. His season ended one step from the majors.

Leading up to the November day on which teams must add Rule 5-eligible players to the 40-man roster or expose them to the draft, Anderson’s agent relayed to him buzz that multiple teams were interested in the 28-year-old. One of those teams, the Marlins, acquired the Minnesota native in exchange for Brian Schales, a 23-year-old Double-A third baseman with .660 career OPS.

Anderson debuted on March 28 and has produced the third-highest pitcher WARP on the Marlins this season. His peripherals are gaudy even if his ERA isn’t yet — 33 strikeouts in 18 innings and a 2.61 DRA (second-lowest on the Marlins) supported by a wipe-out curveball and propensity to elevate his 95 mph fastball. He focuses on working up and down to hitters. He isn’t concerned about his bottom-of-the-barrel curveball spin rate. And the best reliever on the Marlins has another pitch in his back pocket.

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The oddity about Anderson’s primary off-speed breaker is how pitch-tracking systems classify it. Some tag it as a slider, others as a curveball. So, who’s right?

“It’s a curveball,” Anderson told me. “Sometimes it pops up as a slider, I don’t know why.”

Anderson learned the pitch years ago, when a minor-league pitching coach in the Twins organization tried to teach him a cutter. He couldn’t obtain feel for the cutter, but liked the grip. “I kind of moved my thumb a little bit, adjusted, started throwing it and it turned into a curveball,” Anderson says.

The grip he currently uses is the grip from his past days tinkering. He puts equal pressure on both his fingers, using his thumb as a final pressure point on the seam underneath the baseball. The key for Anderson is to throw it like a fastball — something commonly heard about breaking balls in hopes of disguising the offering.

Photo credit: Lance Brozdowski

Photo credit: Lance Brozdowski

Due to how BP classifies the pitch, some percentile ranks will be relative to other sliders in baseball, but they’re still relevant. The pitch sits inside the 88th percentile of vertical movement among relievers with 50-plus sliders thrown. Its whiff-per-swing rate is even better, hovering in the 96th percentile at 61 percent among pitchers with the same parameters. The pitch also possesses almost no side-to-side movement, giving it depth with minimal tilt.

Anderson’s preferred method of attack is fastball elevation combined withcurveballs breaking to or below the bottom of the strike zone. Yet in the era of spin rates, Anderson has found success with one of the lowest-spin curveballs in baseball. His 2076 average rpm places him in the bottom six percent of the league among pitchers with at least 25 curveballs thrown.

“I got told that last year too,” Anderson says in response to hearing he had a low-spin curve. “But it’s something about the spin rate and curveballs, actually I heard that there’s no direct correlation to the efficiency of the pitch or how good it is.”

In short, Anderson is correct. Adding 10-20 rpm isn’t going to boost your whiff rate by 1-2 percent. That’s because other factors come into play. Mike Petriello wrote a beginner’s guide to curveball spin back in 2016. A key takeaway is that spin on a curveball is comprised of useful spin, which increases the movement of the ball, and gyrospin, or parallel spin, which does very little.

To infer more about a curveball, we need to know the useful spin separate from the total spin rate. This informs our understanding of each spin rate’s true meaning. (And something we could soon know with MLB’s switch to optical tracking technology.) This is how Robbie Ray and Tyler Glasnow can both have good curveballs, even though the former’s breaker has 800 less rpm.

Anderson has a low-spin curveball and an above-average amount of vertical movement for a slider, but very little vertical movement for a curveball. In a way, it blurs the line between the two pitches. The real question is: at what point does a purely vertical slider become a curveball? This is likely why the pitch is classified differently by different sources. But it’s effective for reasons other than spin rate and break. “I think it’s all just arm slot, how the person throws,” Anderson says.

Video credit: MLB

Video credit: MLB

A reason for Anderson’s success could come from a combination of two factors: the high three-quarters arm slot from which he throws and the lack of side-to-side movement on his curveball. “I really just try to work up and down,” Anderson told me, which is backed up in his pitch location this season.

Anderson also achieves a good majority of his movement after the point upon which a hitter makes a decision to swing. He sits inside the 84th percentile (min. 100 pitches) on a metric BP calls “plate pre max ratio,” or more simply, how much of a pitcher’s difference in plate location comes from movement after the batter’s decision-making point. Even if his curveball doesn’t move a lot vertically relative to other curveballs, that movement comes late, supporting his whiff rate on the pitch.

There’s more to Anderson, as well. He threw a changeup in Triple-A last season, a pitch he has not thrown this season in the majors. “Why try to fix something that’s not broken?” Anderson explains.

He came into this season throwing solely fastballs and curveballs because of his immediate success with the combination. On March 6 at Wrigley Field, he mentioned his lack of curveball feel that led him to surrender two baserunners without striking out a batter — just the second time he’d failed to record a strikeout all season. Even that didn’t make him more inclined to breakout his changeup.

“Maybe I’ll bust it out and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, crap, he throws a changeup too?’” Anderson says. Despite his withholding of the pitch through nearly two months, he virtually guarantees usage of the pitch down the road. “100 percent,” Anderson promises. “I’ll throw it at some point.”

Anderson failed to record an out for the first time this season Friday against the Mets. His tendency to give up long balls crept back into the picture, one of the only black marks on his 2019 resume. His ability to miss bats is still elite, however, and if he does not repeat his early season stretch of 29 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings, it might be time to break out his changeup.