The Milwaukee Brewers took an unexpected step forward in 2017. After winning 68 and 73 games in the previous two seasons, most fans and pundits assumed that this would be another “rebuilding” year for the club and that they would win 70-something games or so. Instead, the Brewers won 86 games, held the divisional lead for more than two months from May through July, and weren’t eliminated from Wild Card consideration until the 2nd-to-last day of the season, ultimately finishing just one game out of the playoffs.
Several players on the roster stepped up as Milwaukee exceeded expectations in 2017, but perhaps none more surprisingly than Chase Anderson. The former 9th-round pick by the Diamondbacks had proven to be a capable back-of-the-rotation starter during his first three seasons in the big leagues, posting a 4.26 ERA across 79 games (78 starts) and 418.2 innings from 2014-2016 covering two years in the desert and his first year in Milwaukee. Even with that solid track record, Anderson was not guaranteed a spot in the rotation when spring training began and only made the Opening Day starting five after Matt Garza was placed on the DL a few days before the regular season began.
Chase wound up pitching like one of the best starters in the major leagues this season, authoring a sterling 2.74 ERA across 141.1 innings pitched with 8.47 K/9 and 2.61 BB/9. He missed about seven weeks during the summer with an oblique strain he suffered while batting, but among starters with at least 140 innings pitched, Anderson’s ERA ranked as the 6th-lowest in the entire league. In fact, going back to the middle of 2016, Anderson now owns a 2.83 ERA across his last 38 starts, covering an even 207.0 innings pitched.
Improved fastball velocity was a major driver in Anderson’s success - after averaging around 92 MPH his first few seasons in the big leagues, Chase’s typical heater in 2017 was 93.7 MPH, and he hit as high as 97 MPH during the year. That, along with a change in pitch mix (more cutters and curveballs, less fastballs and changeups) helped Anderson dramatically improve his strikeout rate as well as decrease his walks, home runs, and hard contact allowed.
Neither FIP- (81) nor DRA- (86) felt that Anderson pitched quite like the ace-level ERA he produced, but both those metrics still felt the 29 year old was a well-above average starter in 2017 - probably more along the lines of a good #2 starter. David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers were convinced enough by Anderson’s success that yesterday they awarded him a two-year, $11.75 mil contract extension with club options and incentives that could max the deal out at 4 years, $31.35 mil.
Anderson qualified for arbitration as a Super Two player last winter and earned $2.45 mil in 2017. He would’ve been arb-eligible for a second time again this offseason and was projected by MLB Trade Rumors to bring home a $5.4 mil salary, and then he would’ve had two more years of arbitration control after that before qualifying for free agency after the conclusion of the 2020 season.
Instead, Anderson received a $1 mil signing bonus and a $4.25 mil base salary for 2018, along with another $6 mil guaranteed in 2019. He then has two contract options, for 2020 at $8.5 mil and 2021 at $9.5 mil, each of which comes with a $500K buyout. He can earn a maximum of $400K per year in incentives based on certain innings pitched milestones each season.
From both sides, this deal makes plenty of sense. Anderson was a late bloomer at age 29 this past season and wouldn’t have been eligible for free agency until he was about to enter his age-33 season, at which point he may have had difficulty securing a sizable contract on the open market. Anderson expressed a desire to make sure that his family was taken care of on the heels of his breakout campaign, so he traded in the opportunity to go year-to-year in arbitration in exchange for the upfront payday and lifetime of financial security.
From Milwaukee’s perspective, there’s almost no risk in this deal the way that it is structured. The Brewers achieve cost certainty over the next two seasons at salaries that will be below what Anderson would’ve likely made in arbitration - if he had made $5.4 mil this coming season and pitched well once again, he’s probably looking at a raise to around $8-9 mil for the following year. Even if he regresses back to the pitcher he was before 2017, he’d still be looking at a greater salary than the $6 mil guarantee that he now has for 2019.
Turning Anderson’s final arbitration year into a team option covers the club in the scenario that he unexpectedly craters, in which case they could simply pay him the $500K buyout and part ways. If he does continue to pitch well, though, the $8.5 mil option will once again be below what he could make in his arbitration year, and then the ability to buy out one of his free agent seasons for $9.5 mil is the icing on the cake. In terms of open market wins above replacement, Anderson need only be worth between about 3-4 WAR over the life of his contract to “earn” all $31.35 mil, based on one win being worth between $8-10 mil. Anderson’s work was valued at 3.3 fWAR and 4.6 RA9-WAR in 2017 alone.
The Brewers have quite a bit of uncertainty in their rotation going forward, so identifying Anderson as a player that they were willing to commit to as a key cog in the rotation going forward can help shape the rest of the offseason. With Jimmy Nelson “months away” from even establishing a timeline for his return from injury, the Brewers will probably need to add two starting pitchers this winter. The team looks like they’ll be able to save quite a bit of money in the future in exchange for guaranteeing Chase Anderson some security up front, and can now focus on building their 2018 rotation around him and Zach Davies.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus