Cubs Add Good Tweets, Pitching Upside with Anderson

The Cubs’ offseason outlook was that of staid, minor change, and the club mostly accomplished their modest goals by the time the holiday season rolled around.  A little Jon Jay to thicken up center field, a tiny bit of Brian Deunsing for lefty reliever flavor, and a dash of back-end bullpen help for spiciness (Oops! The lid came off the shaker–we traded Jorge Soler for Wade Davis). But, like a diner not sated until they have had their dessert, the call for starting pitching depth echoed through the wintry doldrums of Cubs fandom. While they didn’t quite bring the heaping slice of triple chocolate cake, on Monday the front office served to Cubs’ fans a digestive in the form of the oft-injured, always-logged-on Brett Anderson.

Anderson signed a one-year pact with $3.5 million guaranteed, and up to $10 million with incentives (which we’ll analyze at the end of this piece). Tortured food metaphors aside, the Cubs acquired an interesting high-risk, high-reward lefty starter in Anderson. He fills a need on the team with the fewest holes in the majors, and so the marginal value in adding Anderson is relatively small, but the lefty can be a good starter when he’s healthy.

There’s no way around it, though: Anderson is rarely healthy. He’s thrown two full major-league seasons in his eight years at the top level, once in his debut year with Oakland and again in 2015 with the Dodgers. It was the latter season that earned Anderson a qualifying offer from L.A.—a fine sum of $15 million—but salary aside, Anderson was certainly frustrated with a 2016 in which he threw only 11 ⅓ innings. I personally like to rattle off Anderson’s injury history to the tune of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but you’ll get the sense of his ailments and misfortune by merely cherry picking his injury reports (e.g., “Anderson [finger, back, wrist] is not expected to start…”). A back injury sidelined him most of 2016, requiring surgery, but Anderson was able to come off the disabled list in September and make one start and one relief appearance before season’s end.

With the necessary injury caveats out of the way, we can take a look at Major-League Pitcher Brett Anderson. He sports a career 3.30 DRA in a sparse 685 ⅔ innings, accumulating 15.2 WARP and inducing an abnormally high rate of groundballs (59 percent). In his successful 2015, Anderson finished with a 3.85 DRA and astounding 67 percent groundball rate in 180 ⅓ innings. He strikes out fewer hitters now than he did when he came up with the Athletics, but his ability to get those grounders has served him well.

With an assist from Baseball Prospectus’s new pitch tunneling data, we can get a better picture of how Anderson actually produces these results, and therefore a better idea of who the Cubs signed. Anderson is a sinker-slider guy, with supplementary changeup and knuckle-curve. His slider mostly works off of his sinker and four-seamer. Despite his long, injury-riddled career, or perhaps because of it (in that he has had less opportunities for testing out different things), Anderson has been fairly consistent with his non-sequenced pitch usage throughout his career.

He has moved toward throwing his sinker more, eschewing his four-seamer, and he’s become the groundball pitcher as evinced above as a result. He does throw slightly fewer sliders as a percentage of his pitches as he did early in his career, now sitting closer to 25-30 percent instead of 35-40 percent, and his curveball usage has ticked up to 10-15 percent. Despite recent trends toward same-handed offspeed pitches, Anderson completely nixes his changeup from his arsenal versus lefties, whereas it’s on par with his curveball at 15 percent versus righties. In these ways, Anderson is not dissimilar to his fifth starter competition, Mike Montgomery. Both are heavy groundball pitchers, especially for lefties; Montgomery works his curveball off his four-seamer for those results, and Anderson works his slider off his sinker.

In that vein, Montgomery likely still has the inside track for the fifth starter spot, but Anderson’s presence adds the depth necessary for a major-league team with a relatively unknown entity in their final rotation slot. Barring the unlikely re-signing of Travis Wood, Anderson will be the primary support in the scenario of a Montgomery failure, or other starter injury. While it’s better to have an injury risk like Anderson as a supplementary piece instead of as a cog in your roster, he’s still less likely to provide the innings needed in an emergency than a steady swingman or Triple-A filler. It’s a move almost entirely predicated on Anderson’s upside, which is considerable, and less so on his ability to be the sixth starter.

Finally, about that contract. From the club’s perspective, it’s a victory, in that they owe Anderson peanuts if he doesn’t fulfill his qualifying conditions, and they benefit handsomely at a very modest price if he does succeed and throw lots of innings for the 2017 Cubs. For Anderson, there’s the possibility of being paid only 20 percent of what he received in 2016. There’s an increasing trend toward signing players (and pitchers especially) to these types of deals, with less money guaranteed and heaping amounts of incentive clauses. It resembles an NFL contract more than an MLB contract in that sense, and it would not surprise me if the MLBPA, in the next round of CBA negotiations, placed such contracts within their crosshairs. After all, it’s already going to be a contentious, possibly bitter, negotiation by all accounts, and they will do well to bring all their possible ammunition.

The Cubs got their man, and Anderson finds a home in which he can succeed. There’s still the possible outcome that Anderson gets hurt or Montgomery seals the fifth starter spot with an impressive performance, but—and I apologize for my overwhelming excitement—there’s always the possibility of Anderson throwing 150 innings of above-average baseball.

Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports

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