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The secret is out: Rays reliever Nick Anderson is elite

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Or, On Becoming a God in Central Florida

Miami Marlins v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Nick Anderson was one of baseball’s best kept secrets in the first half of the season. A 29 year old rookie who had been an undrafted signee hardly seems like a promising addition. Anderson had come up through the Twins system, and was traded in the off-season as a roster crunch casualty before debuting this year with the Marlins.

He caught some attention with gaudy strikeout numbers, but like most things Marlins, was ignored by the baseball world at large. What he’s doing now is making it impossible to ignore him any longer.

In this article I’ll look under the hood to see what he’s throwing and why it’s working.

For an overview, let’s take a look at one of the more interesting Statcast profiles of any pitcher in the game this year.

99th percentile in strikeouts, 90th percentile in fastball velocity, with equally strong results in expected batting average, wOBA, and slugging. Clearly a guy who is incredibly hard to hit.

But when folks did make contact: 5th percentile in exit velocity and 3rd percentile in Hard Hit% (which is very, very bad). When you fling it as hard as Anderson does, you are bound to give up some loud contact but as the numbers suggest, this is extremely loud.

However, there have been some good signs of improvement here; you can see a pretty steady decline in the Hard Hit%, a very encouraging sign.

Also, those hard contact rates do not differentiate between the type of batted ball. Hard flyballs can end up as HRs, but hard grounders can end up outs. For Anderson, the type of batted ball contact he’s given up has shifted as the season has gone on:

Nick Anderson has decreased both ground balls and line drives, while his fly ball rates have gone up.

A guy who can miss bats (5th best 17.7% swinging strike among relievers), and strikes out 40.5% of batters faced (3rd best among relievers), while giving up weak fly balls (especially when your platinum glove center fielder is standing behind you) isn’t just a good reliever: he’s an elite one.

What Anderson had been doing was really good. What he’s done since coming to the Rays has been out of this world.

Stats don’t mean much over such a tiny sample, but they’re so incredibly fun that I thought I’d tell you them anyway. Over those six games, his ERA is, of course, 0. His WHIP, if you’re into that kind of thing, is 0.17. He has a 73.7% strikeout rate to go along with a tidy 0.0% walk rate, leading to a -1.44 FIP (!) and a -0.78 xFIP (!!).

- Ben Clemens, Fan Graphs

Anderson has an extreme low spin 83 MPH Curve-ball (8th percentile in spin rate) and a blistering 96 MPH Fastball. This devastating combo has become even more unfair to opposing batters when you notice that his fastball is one of the best in baseball when it comes to “rise”. Rise is of course a misleading term, because it’s impossible to throw a ball and make it go up. What a good pitcher can do is to get it to fall less. Nick Anderson has an elite level 3.5 inches smaller drop than league average. This perception of rise has made fools of some very good hitters, especially when combined with the hyper low spin curveball that comes in 13 MPH slower.

Anderson says he doesn’t “try to do anything special with it”, but what he’s doing is working.

With medium spin on his fastball and very low spin on the curve, distinguishing these pitches from each-other is extremely difficult off the hand, and tunneling these two pitches has made Anderson straight unfair. (Thanks to Dominick Vega for making these overlay gifs showcasing Anderson’s Fastball-Curveball combo.)

Vlad Jr off balance attempting to time up Anderson

When a team as analytically minded as the Rays trades for a player, especially a pitcher, the rest of the baseball world takes notice. The Rays consistently get praise right up there with the Houston Astros organization when it comes to pitching theory and using analytics to help their pitchers achieve the best of what they are capable of. From Rian Watt’s excellent profile of Charlie Morton for Fan Graphs, Morton had this to say:

I’d say that the Astros and the Rays have a philosophy, but their philosophy is more centered around the individual and their strengths. The Pirates are more centered around a pitching philosophy that they want their pitchers to adhere to, more of ‘We have a method here that we think you fit well; the method works for you.’ - Charlie Morton

And indeed, although Anderson has flourished in his few games with the Rays, it’s not because they’ve asked him to change his approach.

Interviewed in Seattle, Anderson told DRaysBay that he hasn’t been asked to change much of anything since arriving to the team, “I’ve been having a good season, and that’s one reason why the Rays traded for me. They didn’t trade for me and then were like, ‘we want you to do something different than what you’ve been doing’”. While Anderson mentioned that Snyder and the rest of the coaching staff have had discussions on sequencing and other topics, mostly they have trusted him to turn it loose and keep doing what’s been giving him success so far.

Asked about how he integrates analytics into his play: “Baseball’s gotten pretty analytical, and they have data that picks guys out and breaks down everybody individually”. He went on, “It helps guys understand their strengths better than what they think are their strengths. They data will show you ‘hey, this is what you should be doing’. That definitely plays into my gameplan”.

However, Anderson is not resting on his success, and he knows full well that to stay on top you have to keep improving:

“Things change during the season. It’s kinda tough to have one plan and stick with it the whole year, because hitters make adjustments too.”

While the amazing run of almost flawless dominance Nick Anderson has been on since donning the Navy and Columbia blue is probably not going to last forever, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful that those changes during the season and adjustments can be made with Kyle Synder and the rest of the Rays staff helping him.

As for what it’s like to be in a big postseason chase and be called upon for the big outs in the highest of stakes times? Nick’s ready for the moment and eager to be in it. “My Low-A year we made it to the championship. My Double-A year we won it, won the co-championship. Other than that, as far as winning teams in professional ball, I haven’t been on a bunch”. Anderson continued, “Anytime you throw a good group of guys, a good team, and you’re winning, it adds a lot more fun to it”.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Anderson wasn’t a household name at the start of the year, perhaps because the Marlins have been so far from the spotlight. While writers like Mike Petriello of Statcast, or Ben Clemens of Fan Graphs, were eager to talk up the best pitcher nobody was talking about, Anderson still remained one of baseball’s best kept secrets.

The Gulf Coast is home to one of the best relievers in baseball. Rays fans are now in on the secret, and the rest of the baseball world is quickly catching on.