On November 9th, the news broke that reliever Nick Anderson had been placed on outright waivers by the Rays and was expected to hit free agency in the coming days. For a fan who watched the 2020 World Series, that headline might’ve raised some eyebrows. Only a couple of years back, Anderson had established himself as a top reliever in the game, but in that same amount of time, he had also found himself cut from the team that traded a piece of their future for him. In the days following, it was only a matter of time before some team took a chance on rekindling that magic in him, and in this case, it was the Braves.
So, how did we get here with Anderson?
The trade initially came as a bit of a surprise to most. The Rays trading for unknowns was something that had become a regularity over time, but it was different with Anderson. This wasn’t some unknown the Rays were looking to develop from nothing into something big, but instead, a reliever who had shown enough in 43 innings with Miami to merit the price of top prospect Jesus Sanchez. Anderson instantly proved his worth to the Rays and their 2019 playoff push. In only 21 innings of the work following the trade, he put up a 1.62 FIP and was dominant with a simple fastball/curveball combination that was elite due to his pitches’ spin efficiency and break. And in 2020 he became the Rays’ go-to guy in a playoff run that proved to be Anderson’s both defining and most heartbreaking moment. Much like Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman were used by their respective teams in that wild 2016 World Series, Kevin Cash similarly relied heavily on Anderson in the biggest moments for the Rays in their 2020 run.
But for Anderson, this was probably the part of his story he would like to forget.
He was the Rays man in the highest leverage spots all year long and was one of the driving forces that led the team on this magical run to go toe-to-toe with the mighty Dodgers. He was also the same pitcher who ran out of gas at the finish line and imploded after the ever-controversial decision by Cash to take Blake Snell out during the 2 hit gem. Anderson subsequently blew the one-run lead and the Rays would remain ringless to this current day.
The notion that the blame for what came after Snell’s hook was on Anderson is ridiculous in my opinion. Anderson had been heavily overused by that point and the decision to go with any other righty would have been much more welcome than going to the guy who visibly hadn’t had his stuff the past couple of games. Yet, arguing what-ifs is futile. Anderson blew it and he blew it in a big way that day. That’s what his legacy might be remembered for to all who watched that postseason, but to Rays fans everywhere, Anderson was more special than just that. He burst onto the scene as quickly as he ended up fading out of it. For a 60-game season and a few more after in the postseason, he held the title of one of the top relievers in all of baseball. In that same season, however, he would go down to be remembered for his fateful couple of at-bats following Snell’s early hook.
What followed after 2020 was just bad luck. Tearing off his elbow ligament and an elbow surgery that was then needed would hinder the torrid development pace that was making him a top arm in the game. He would come back to throw only 6 innings in 2021 before having to go back to the IL and remain there. The reports coming from Tampa Bay’s Triple-A team showed that Anderson was struggling to throw his fastball as hard as he had before, and from there the team’s faith in him wavered. He would not pitch for the Rays again after.
And that’s what makes Anderson such a fascinating part of the Rays and their franchise story. He was in no way a team legend or a fan favorite. Yet this reliever who threw only 43 innings for the team in his career will be talked about for decades to come on account of his place in history. And as much as fans will recount everything that came after the pitching change heard around the world, I instead implore them to think about every shutdown inning Anderson threw to get them to that moment in the first place.
Much like the brightest and hottest white dwarves in the universe, Anderson blazed and shined brighter than any reliever during his dominant peak. And just like those stars, he faded and fizzled out of the spotlight almost as quickly as he took the league by storm.
I wish all the best to him on his next chapter in Atlanta and truly hope he can create a legacy beyond that fateful Game 6.
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Featured Image: MLB Trade Rumors / Twitter