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Cody Anderson’s best self

It’s getting to be time for the Indians to unlock the excellence within the big right-hander.

MLB: Cleveland Indians-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Cody Anderson threw a bullpen session on Saturday. It’s great news for him, but in so many ways this should barely move the needle in the grander scheme of things. Even if no team has enough pitching, the last thing the Indians need right now is yet another starting pitcher cluttering up the mix. And they have a championship to get. It seems odd to devote mental energy to just another pitcher. He’s there though, and the Indains are going to want to maximize his impact on the 2018 season and beyond. How might that look?

Anderson has long intrigued me. From his debut in 2015 to his elbow blowing up last spring, he showed marked improvement in vleocity. Any time a pitcher does that, you ahve to start paying attention:

In the span of an offseason, the big righty went from soft-tossing contact inducer to knocking bats out of hands. And as that chart shows, the velo sustained throughout the season even if his numbers were much more hideous. In 60.2 innings in 2016 he put up a 6.68 ERA, his home run per fly ball leapt ten points to 19.1 percent, and his line drive rate shot up to 26.4 percent, a six point jump from his rookie year. This is a bit offset by an eight point bump in K rate to 20.6 percent while his walk rate fell almost two points to 4.8 percent. That lat bit, combined with the unsustainably high home run rate and an insane .387 BABIP, gives hope. But he still needs to grow as a pitcher. After completing rehab, that’s the next goal.

In the Baseball Prospectus Annual essay on the Indians, The Athletic’s Travis Sawchik wrote about how the Indians pithiness staff go so good. Not to distill his words too far, or the work of the Indians development staff for that matter, but the crux was, the Indians pitchers leaned on what they did best. That’s why Trevor Bauer threw so many curves in the second half, same with Corey Kluber all year or Carlos Carrasco and his slider. So the Indians threw more breaking pitches than any other team in baseball because their pitchers were really good at it. But that might not be what the Indians look to highlight with Anderson.

He does throw a curveball of course. In 2016 it had a 6.41 inch average drop and three inches of horizontal movement, which profiles somewhat closely to Rick Porcello’s in terms of downward movement. Anderson’s is more the 12-6 variety though, and those need more snappy vertical drop than he offers. It needs to fall off the table. Think Trevor Bauer or Clayton Kershaw. They’re in the 8-10 inch average drop, and it’s a killer pitch. Halfway through 2016 Anderson was throwing it a decent amount, giving it a try:

But it doesn’t seem like that is going to be the pitch that the Indians use to unlock him. Batters made contact 86.4 percent of the time on the curve, second only to a too-straight fastball at 87.4, and batters turned it around for a line drive 46.7 percent of the time. It’s supposed to get guys off balance and be a weak pop-out or grounder, if not a strikeout. Instead his was just batting practice a lot of times.

That’s where his second-most used pitch comes into play. The change-up is an all too underused pitch these days. In a world of velocity and biting sliders, the old change of pace can make so many hitters look like fools. And at least in relation to his offerings in 2016, Anderson’s was savage. He had a 23.8 percent swinging strike rate on the change along with a 51.1 percent swing rate on them outside of the zone. That swinging strike rate is as high as Johan Santana ever had on his change-up, if that helps, and both that chase rate and whiff rate are higher than anything Zack Grienke ever posted with the pitch. And both these guys are noted for their excellent off-speed work.

Not that it’s a sure thing. The quality of the change is predicated on the fastball, both good and bad. A well-located fastball with movement can make the change-up that much more lethal. Anderson had neither of these things going for him. As good as he was at getting soft contact and whiffs on the change, Anderson got hammered on the fastball. Opposing hitters had a 210 wRC+ against his four-seam, a 16.4 percent home run to fly ball rate, and a 32.2 percent liner rate. It could be that hitters were just sitting fastball all the time, and got fooled by the change sometimes. Whatever it is, he’s got to locate it a bit better than this:

That’s simply too much up in the zone for a merely above average velo fastball. That said, he releases it with an over the topish delivery giving it good vertical depth, which can at the least help add some natural break. If he can firm up his release point, control will follow.

The other thing is, it’s hard to lean that hard on a change-up. By the end of 2016 Anderson was throwing it nearly as much as his fastball and for what it’s worth did have his lowest ERA month of the season. It was 4.35 over 10.1 innings, but it’s something, sort of. Jason Vargas threw the most among starters in 2017 at 32.7 percent of total pitches, with Marco Estrada behind him at 31.9 percent. Both are good pitchers, Estrada more so than Vargas. But they’re outliers in its usage and have excellent change-ups. By the time you get to the starter that threw it the fifth most you’re looking at Kyle Fulmer at 18.9 percent. That said, Bauer threw his curve 29.9 percent of the time, Kluber 27.4, so maybe that’s a number to shoot for with Anderson.

He’s still going to have to throw a bunch of fastballs, but one would hope that some improvements can and have been made. Either that or he’s going to have to make a leap mentally, and really become a pitcher of the type Estrada is, using guile along with his good off-speed pitches to keep hitters off-balance. Not that he can’t, but that’s the type of leap you expect in a pitcher’s early 30’s, and Estrada is simply there because he rarely breaks 90. Plus, it has to be a really good change-up to lean on it the way you’d like. But in the high 20’s, something like that is doable out of the gate, especially if he can develop a nice alternate fastball, a sinker or that cutter he’s dallied with in the past.

It’s been a year without pitching for Anderson. Who knows what’s changed. We’ve come to expect that pitchers come back from UCL surgery as good as new, even if it’s not always the case. It’s going to take a bit for him to round back into form, and there’s not much space on the big league rotation. Some time in May or June though, he’s likely to debut in Columbus and it will be appointment viewing. The bones are there for him to be a very good pitcher. He and the Indians just has to find the key to unlock it.