Pitchers like Cody Anderson are at once exciting and irritating. When you see a 240 pound, 6-foot-4, bearded California boy walk to the mound, your mind is at once filled with images of flamethrowing monsters who stomp and stare and rule the mound with an electric flair. Somehow he got the nickname Big Country, which makes little sense since his hometown Quincy is more a mountain town than your prototypical country village, but that’s neither here nor there. Despite his size and stature, Anderson doesn’t do that one thing that you’d expect -- strikeout hitters.
Our sample size is small, only 91+ innings in the majors. But at this point, as 2016 approaches, we know so little about what he is, what he could become. We have essentially been handed a blank slate when it comes to Anderson. His path diverges, it remains to be seen what he becomes.
The crux of it all is he has the goods to be great, to grow into what his image suggests of him. He is a four-pitch pitcher though it’s a good thing he lays off the slider and the curveball, and he does throw with some heat. Last season he averaged 92.1 mph on his fastball, peaking at 96.9. This spring he’s flashed 97, but the problem remains, at least in this early going, that the ball is still easy to hit.
For a major league hitter, 95 arrow straight is all but batting practice unless it’s located perfectly. Anderson has evolved into a very good control pitcher, dropping his walk rate from 15 percent of batters in 2013 in Double-A to only six percent last year in the majors. That’s important for success, but if you just pound the zone with hittable pitches, you’re going to get hit. Before getting called up in 2015 he spent time in Double-A and Triple-A, striking out 17.8 percent and 23.1 percent of batters, respectively. The Triple-A stint was only 19.1 innings so that could be nothing. But with Cleveland, he only struck out 14.1 percent of hitters. He needs to get better.
He benefitted from that improved infield defense we’ve heard so much about, forcing 46 percent of batted balls into the ground. However, he only converted eight of 48 double play opportunities, which if you aren’t going to strike out at least 20 percent of hitters, needs to be in the double digits at least. Outs are paramount, and he’ll have the amazing Lindor and his friends behind him for a whole year.
Perhaps that fastball could be improved in a similar way to what Corey Kluber did to jump from purely middle-of-the-road to elite in the space of a season. In the 2014 offseason, before he won the Cy Young, Kluber changed his grip to get more downward movement, and also improved his cutter. By having even a bit of lateral or diagonal movement on his fastball, Anderson could use the "get it off the sweet spot" type of method that got Greg Maddux so many wins. It also helped that Kluber has the second-best curveball in all of baseball according to Fangraphs.
If Anderson can’t command his pitches like Kluber, it could be his changeup that sets the pace. Along with his fastball it was a slightly above average pitch according to Fangraphs, and if his fastball gets better so does his change, by association. He’s still only 25 and he’s surrounded by some of the best hurlers in the game along with Mickey Calloway coaching him up. If they identify his offspeed as something to grow on, and it’s what he got the most swinging strikes from it at 15.7% of pitches thrown, he could go from back of the rotation to part of its backbone. Not to say he’s the butt, but he could be more than just a throw-in.
Improvement in baseball is just so hard to track. Mariano Rivera found the grip for his famous cutter one day by accident while playing catch. Jose Bautista added a leg kick to his swing and became JOSE BAUTISTA. Anderson might just need some tinkering and tweaking and the help of the excellence that surrounds him to give him that extra little boost.
Of course, he could just settle. The other pathway for Anderson is to become that fifth starter and have alternately good and bad days depending on where the ball goes when the batter inevitably makes contact. For a guy who wasn’t supposed to be much of anything until he suddenly got good in 2014 in the minors, that’s more than fine. Shoot, it could turn him into a millionaire in a few years, considering Ian Kennedy got lucky one year, won 21 games and got $70 million this offseason. It’d just be sad is all. He looks like he could be, should be the leader of a staff, if only he could harness and improve his repertoire. But to accept life as a guy with a 4.30 FIP, whose ERA will fluctuate from the 3.05 we saw last year to somewhere north of 5 on a team with no gloves, it’s understandable if disappointing. He has shown us a glimpse.
Spring Training is interesting and plants the seed for the season, but it sits upon a throne of lies. I don’t know what to trust from Anderson and we don’t have the data. He’s struck out four in four innings. That is the rate that would work for me. The raw material is there for Anderson to be something great, or at least Ian Kennedy at his best. That guy was the ace on a playoff team once. I’ll take that at the back of the Tribe rotation.