AnalysisNL East

Ian Anderson: Master of Disguise

On the surface, Ian Anderson is a fairly typical version of the modern pitcher. That is, he has good velocity and a high strikeout rate, accompanied by command that escapes him from time to time. Like most pitchers, Anderson relies on his non-fastball pitches for the majority of his punchouts, and he has two good ones in a double-plus changeup and a high-velocity curveball. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the 22-year-old righty is what he doesn’t do, and it makes his sparkling results a bit perplexing. Anderson misses a lot of bats, and while many pitchers do so with high-spin and/or high-movement secondary offerings, he doesn’t get much movement or spin on his pitches at all. This warranted a deeper look in an attempt to answer a seemingly simple question: why is Ian Anderson good? If a pitcher doesn’t get a lot of movement on their pitches but is racking up whiffs and strikeouts, they must be doing something different than most, right? Velocity is and will remain king for the foreseeable future, and Anderson’s is good enough that he’s able to work North and South rather than trying to paint corners, which may help him overcome some of his struggles with command. But throwing harder than average isn’t the only reason he’s been so effective thus far. Other than velocity, his biggest weapon appears to be deception – or to put it another way (while including a terrible movie reference), Anderson is a master of (pitch) disguise. We’re going to try to parse some of the reasons for his success, and we’ll ultimately end up with a few answers and several more questions, but that’s the fun of research, right? Let’s get to it.

I Like The Way You Move

Pitch movement metrics can be confusing and, at times, misleading. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, but it does mean that we can’t simply look at 2020 curveball movement leaderboards and say that because Alex Reyes had the most vertical break on his curveball (per Baseball Savant), it was the best curveball in the game. In fact, despite its massive break, Reyes’s curveball produced a run value that was exactly average. The thing about pitch movement as we’re seeing it here is, it’s only two-thirds of the whole pie. We’re measuring movement in two dimensions (horizontal and vertical), so we’re only seeing the difference between the start- and end-points of the ball on an X-Y coordinate plane, without knowing anything about what the ball is doing along its flight path. Keep this in mind as we navigate this discussion on Anderson’s pitch mix. We’ll start by taking a look at his pitch movement profile, pictured below.

We can see some overlap occurring between Anderson’s changeup and his fastball(s), and we know that the changeup has been his best pitch. Of course, to get a better idea of how Anderson’s changeup might be different than most, we’ll need to compare his changeup movement to that of similar pitches. When comparing movement, it’s important to control for velocity; Anderson’s changeup averaged 87.4 mph in 2020, so let’s take all pitchers that threw at least 50 changeups in 2020 with an average velocity of at least 87 mph and compare their changeup movement to that of Anderson’s. Because pitches thrown by left-handers typically move in the opposite horizontal direction of those thrown by right-handers, we’ll use the absolute value of horizontal break for clarity.

Of the 49 pitchers who met our qualifiers in 2020, only Carlos Carrasco saw less horizontal movement than our lanky right-hander from Atlanta, and only Trevor May and Jonathan Hernández saw more rise* (read: less drop). Even after controlling for velocity, it’s clear that Anderson’s changeup is doing something different than that of his peers. So why would a changeup with less movement than virtually everyone else’s be so effective? It appears that Anderson is, at least in part, throwing his changeup with the intent of mimicking his fastball movement, and it’s working quite well. The clip below shows his fastball and changeup with an overlay of both, courtesy of Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja). Notice how consistent Anderson’s mechanics are between the two pitch types and how long the changeup follows the flight path of the fastball before separating sharply as the ball nears the plate.

*Gravity is not included in vertical movement here. Pitches with backspin create what we refer to as “rise” but it is effectively how resistant the pitch is to gravity, causing the pitch to drop less, rather than actually rising – which would require more acceleration than what humans appear to be capable of.

Spin You Around

What about the curveball, you ask? It’s a similar story to Anderson’s changeup in that it’s a bit unconventional yet still gets great results, as evidenced by his 40.5% whiff rate on curveballs in 2020. The pitch is thrown harder than most, and with very little movement compared to the big, sweeping breaking balls that we often see. Still, it plays extremely well off his fastball and changeup. The concept of “spin mirroring” has been well-documented, and is basically the idea that pitches which spin in exactly opposite directions (have a gap of ~180 degrees in spin direction) are harder for hitters to distinguish from one another because it appears to the naked eye that they are spinning in the exact same way. Anderson is using his curveball to do just that, whether he’s doing it intentionally or not. Thanks to Baseball Savant making measured, pitch-level spin direction data publicly available, we can visualize this concept fairly easily using polar coordinates. For those unfamiliar, the grid below is oriented like a clock from the hitter’s perspective, where a pitch with a 12 o’clock spin direction would have pure backspin, and a 6 o’clock spin direction would be pure topspin. This should help us get a good idea of how Anderson’s curveball is “mirroring” the spin of his fastball and changeup.

Anderson’s fastball and changeup are spinning in virtually the exact same direction, and by the time hitters see the late break on the changeup, they’re often already fooled and end up with a goofy-looking swing. There’s a much longer conversation to be had here about the quickly-emerging studies of “seam-shifted wake” effects on changeups, but the relationship between spin, seams, and actual on-field pitching outcomes is still a bit murky, so we’ll leave that to the physicists and fluid dynamics experts (for now). Anderson’s curveball, though, is mirroring the spin of his fastball and changeup almost perfectly! Add in great velocity and extension with a very consistent release point, and these three pitches are very difficult to distinguish from one-another in the fraction of a second during which hitters must identify a pitch and decide whether or not to swing. Like his changeup, this tends to generate some very ugly-looking swings, and even some ugly-looking takes like this one from Eugenio Suarez, who looks absolutely helpless against a curveball up in the zone from Anderson.

Another thing that jumps out about Anderson’s curveball is that, like his fastball, it’s thrown with a relatively low spin rate, which is somewhat unusual in today’s game. On fastballs and curveballs in particular, pitchers are often looking to maximize their spin rate with the goal of getting more rise and drop, respectively. Mr. Anderson, however, is not impressed by your high spin rate; among pitchers that threw at least 50 curveballs last year, Anderson ranked 386th out of 419 pitchers in average spin rate. In fact, his curveball’s average spin rate of 2,098 RPM in 2020 was almost exactly the same as his fastball (2,068 RPM)! As far as I’m aware, there’s not necessarily a benefit to having similar spin rates on different pitches since it would seem impossible for hitters to see how fast a pitch is rotating – but it appears that, at least for Anderson, how he spins his pitches is more important than how fast he spins them.

Endless Consistency

Long before analytics found their way into the mainstream of baseball and player development, being able to repeat a delivery and having a consistent release point were somewhat sought-after skills. Ironically, I’m still not sure we fully understand the importance of these skills even today, but this is another area where Anderson is something of an outlier. He’s quite good at repeating his vertical release point despite having a long, over-the-top delivery that’s become a bit unusual in an era where pitchers are increasingly shortening their arm action in the name of increased velocity (and some other stuff, too). If you watch him throw just a single pitch, you’ll also notice that he gets a lot of release extension. Extension doesn’t correlate directly to success, but it does decrease the distance that the ball has to travel to get from the pitcher’s hand to the plate, slightly reducing the time which the batter has to react and effectively making the pitch seem to have a little more velocity (a.k.a. “effective velocity”). This sent me way down a rabbit hole in which I wanted to find out how unusual it was for a pitcher to have a consistent vertical release point across different pitch types, combined with extreme release extension. To do this, I took every pitch from the 2020 season and found each pitcher’s average vertical release point for each pitch type in their respective arsenals. Then, I found the difference in each pitcher’s average vertical release point between their various pitch types and plotted this against their average release extension to see if Anderson was actually unique, or if this was a common combination of skills. As it turns out, Anderson is such an outlier that I initially thought I was looking at the same plot twice! The results speak for themselves, but I’m going to keep talking about them anyway.

Full disclosure here: I have no idea what this means in terms of on-field outcomes, but it’s weird, and weird release points can be very good if you’re a pitcher (just ask the Rays about their thoughts on weird release points). In this case, we’re only looking at Anderson’s release point in the one dimension (vertically) in which he really stands out. This is where additional questions start pouring in: Is it more beneficial for a pitcher to be consistent in their release point vertically, or horizontally? We’re only measuring release point position in two dimensions here; should we be examining release point in three dimensions? I don’t have the answers to these questions right now, and maybe they’re really important! What I do know is that deception is a major weapon for Anderson, but since we can’t truly measure deception, we can at least get a good idea of how he uses velocity, spin, and a very unique release point to create it. There are certainly other factors that can play into deception (ahem, seam-shifted wake) and this is simply a first look at what we’ve seen in a small sample, but Anderson has pitched his way to a firm grasp on a rotation spot in Atlanta and it looks like we’ll be able to continue analyzing his strangeness for a long time.

All data used in this article is courtesy of Baseball Savant unless otherwise noted.

Holden Phillips

Holden is an Exposure Scientist currently working in the private sector. He enjoys analyzing baseball data, especially focusing on statistical oddities. You can find him on twitter @Holden_BSBL.

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