After a self-restrained post in which I came clean about my hometown bias towards the Cincinnati Reds and gleefully looked forward to the base-stealing exploits of Billy Hamilton, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series continues in earnest today with a look at the newest member of the Colorado Rockies’ rotation – Brett Anderson. Can he stay on the mound long enough to crack the Coors problem?
When the Colorado Rockies acquired Brett Anderson from the Oakland A’s, sending Drew Pomeranz the other way to primarily make it a swap of 25 year-old left handed starters (the A’s also sent $2 million; the Rockies included Class-A RHP prospect Chris Jensen), I’d be willing to bet that Colorado management had the following graph in mind;
In their ongoing crusade against the mile-high air and spacious outfield gaps of their home, Coors Field, Colorado has quietly built it’s defense upon inducing the groundball and then fielding it proficiently – taking the elements out of the equation. Backed up by plus infielders Nolan Arenado, Troy Tulowitzki, and DJ LeMahieu, Colorado converted the sixth-highest percentage of ground balls put in play among MLB clubs in 2013. Furthermore, their only minus regular infielder, 1B Todd Helton, retired this past offseason. Meanwhile the club’s starters checked in at 3rd in ground ball percentage, their rate of 48% trailing only the Pirates and Cardinals. Leading the Rockies in the category was Tyler Chatwood, who in 111.1 innings of work posted a GB rate of 58.5%, good for 6th in the majors (with the qualification of a minimum of 20 IP).
Top of that list? Brett Anderson. As demonstrated by the above graph, Anderson has seen his GB% climb successively for the past 5 seasons, a trend which culminated in the ridiculous 64.4% mark that led the majors last year. How does he do it? Along with a low 90s fastball, Anderson leans heavily on a wipeout slider (fifth-ranked in usage at 33.2% from 2009-2013) to generate weak contact, and more importantly, keep the baseball out of the air. As a result, over his five years in the majors, Anderson has ranked 18th in GB/FB ratio (1.90), while leading the league in line-drive rate (16.7%). Perfectly suited for Colorado’s assault of the infield grass then, why does his acquisition suit the term ‘a roll of the dice’?
As so eloquently put by Mike Petriello, “the giant, gimpy elephant on crutches in the room is Anderson’s near-total inability to stay healthy.” After breaking into the majors in 2009 aged 21, and throwing 175.1 innings on his way to generating an ERA+ mark of 108, Anderson looked like Oakland’s ace-in-waiting heading into his sophomore season. A sore elbow limited him to just 112.1 innings. The next year, 2011, saw Anderson undergo the dreaded Tommy John surgery, as he threw just 83.1. He made it back in time for the latter half of the 2012 season, appearing in 6 games before straining his oblique. A badly sprained right ankle then cost the lefty a further 4 months of his 2013 season. In total, Anderson has pitched 450.2 innings in total since he broke into the majors, and hasn’t cracked he 100-inning mark since 2010. While some would call his injury history incredibly bad luck, pointing to the non-recurrence of any specific ailment, others view it as simply indicative of a body that can’t withstand the physical demands of pitching. The Rockies are betting on the former.
Colorado has effectively traded for a lottery ticket. Anderson is owed $8 million in salary this year – minus the $2 million the A’s kicked in as part of the trade – but with a single win now judged to be worth $6 million on the open market, any semblance of a return to form will therefore be a good investment by the club (There is also a team-friendly option for 2015 worth $12.5 million should Anderson’s 2014 showing prove worthy of keeping him around). And though the injury risk with Anderson is more than significant, this kind of high-upside deal is exactly one the Rockies should be making; with their lack of free agent pull and current pitching needs, a bet on a potentially above-average starter is one worth making. As noted by Billy Beane, Oakland’s GM, at the time of the trade “this is the time to get him, because the cost of acquisition a couple of years ago on Brett, well there really wasn’t one. He was an untouchable.”
That the pre-injury version of Brett Anderson still exists is the uncomplicated roll of the dice Colorado is taking. If so, they’ve found themselves a gem of a pitcher perfectly suited to their ballpark at incredible value over the next two years. If not? Well, it only cost them Drew Pomeranz…