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Nick Anderson’s best pitch is an 85-mph curveball

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And he throws it like a changeup.

BOSTON, MA — At 4:00 EST, Nick Anderson stepped into the Rays clubhouse for the first time.

Anderson had been traded to the Rays the day before, and in the 24-hours in between he’d been hugged goodbye while sitting in the Marlins clubhouse . . . well, before anyone told him he’d been traded! Such was the chaos of the July 31 trade deadline, which saw several last minute deals finalized just before the buzzer. Twitter broke the news before the Marlins could do so themselves.

One late night of packing up the apartment with his girlfriend, and one 11:15 AM flight to Boston later, Nick Anderson was meeting the coaches and staff at his newly assigned locker. Getting sized for his uniform, he shook hands with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder for the first time. As he pondered which shirt he should wear for his first interview, Chaz Roe, the TB bullpen veteran and clubhouse leader, came across the row of lockers in the tiny Fenway visitor’s clubhouse to say hello; journeyman to journeyman.

After a coaching meeting and two press interviews, Anderson spent an extra twenty minutes on the field with the training staff, long after the Rays players had dispersed back to the clubhouse, to make sure he was ready for the game. He crossed the field, shook hands with Rays VP of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom, sat down for another interview, and made his way inside, escaping the 90 degree July heat.

Three hours later, he was on the mound, shutting down the desperately swinging Red Sox in the eighth inning, striking out two of four batters faced on 99-mph heat, per the Fenway scoreboard. The Rays would sweep the Red Sox on the back of his performance.

And that’s just the beginning.

When the Rays acquired 29-year old rookie reliever Nick Anderson, his 96 mph fastball with more than 10” of rise would have been enough of a reason to like the high-leverage arm, but he’s got something more: a breaking pitch that doesn’t fit any specific mold.

Here’s one that he used to strike out Mitch Moreland for his first K with Tampa Bay:

And here’s an example of what the pitch looks like when it’s located down, from his days with the Marlins, in a high leverage situation:

You might not be wondering what that pitch is right now (the title above gives it away), but on first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it were either a splitter or a slider.

When I spoke to Nick Anderson upon his arrival to the Rays clubhouse, it was that pitch I most wanted to understand, particularly after reading Baseball Prospectus’s description of Anderson’s stuff. Matthew Trueblood was glowing in his review of the Rays swap that sent a top-50 prospect and a popular reliever on the IL to the Marlins for Anderson and another right handed pitcher, and in that write up he called the breaking pitch a slider, in direct contrast with most pitch databases, which call it a curve:

Ah, yes, and the slider. It’s sometimes labeled a curveball, which is understandable, because it sits in the low 80s and has much more vertical than horizontal movement. It really creates a painful contrast with the fastball, as highlighted by opponents’ 53.4 percent whiff rate when they swing at it. The reason it feels more like a slider is the way he throws it, with great arm speed and out of an arm slot essentially identical to that of the fastball.

[Baseball Prospectus]

It may look like a slider and feel like a slider; it quacks just like a duck, but it’s not a duck.

“It’s a curveball,” Anderson explained definitively. “Sometimes it gets labelled as a slider, but it’s not. It’s a curveball.”

“My grip is a little unique,” Anderson told me, later showing the seam he uses (pictured below), but according to the pitcher it’s otherwise a normal curve out of the hand.

“I don’t do anything with the wrist, nothing like that.”

Nick Anderson’s curveball grip

Where a basic curveball would have the middle finger run lengthwise along the seam, Anderson’s runs perpendicular across the seam — but that’s not uncommon either. The grip is close to the bottom of the horse shoe, which perhaps adds to the slider tendency, but the grip is indeed a curveball overall.

What’s interesting about the pitch, however, is how Anderson finds success: by throwing the breaking ball like a change up.

I’ll let him explain.

“If I think ‘curveball’ and try to throw ‘curveball,’ it’s not good at all. I have to grip it and throw it like a fastball.” Anderson then paused and considered my first question about what made his breaking ball different and surmised, “I guess that’s a little unique.”

Once upon a time, Anderson was a starting pitcher. In the early days of his career, back in Indy ball, he once had a changeup that he relied upon. “When I used to throw a changeup it was kinda the same thing. Literally, I was like, ‘fastball,’ and it did what it did,” Anderson explained of his approach to throwing the pitch.

Bringing that changeup mentality to his curve is what unlocked the breaking ball for Anderson.

“It just makes the pitch better. If I think curveball it’s probably not going to be a strike; it’s a dumpy curveball, it goes in the dirt or something like that. That’s why I have to think ‘Fastball. Just throw it.’ And also, just to keep my arm speed up too, ‘cause it’s kinda easy to just throw a curve ball and be like, ‘you kinda wanna slow down on that, make it mooove,’ but you gotta throw it with the same arm speed.”

That same arm speed is perhaps what has made the breaking ball so elite.

Returning to BP’s analysis from the trade deadline, Trueblood noted the pitch would rank second among curveballs in terms of missing bats. And if you take Anderson at his word, that means his curveball is second only to the reigning American League Cy Young:

Of the 178 pitchers who have thrown at least 200 sliders this year, only five have gotten more whiffs per swing with the pitch. (Of curveballs, only Snell’s misses more bats.)

As for that changeup he has in his back pocket, will we see it eventually?

“I’ll throw it at some point this year,” Anderson promised. “I’ve been throwing in a lot of close games, so it’s kinda tough; it’s not the right situation to say, ‘Hey lemme throw my first change up of the year right here,’ ya know?’”