Coming into the 2018 season, Chase Anderson was the opening day starter and was poised to be the number one pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. Based on 2017 performance, he seemed like a good bet to anchor the rotation, a pitcher coming into his own after an early career of being a serviceable back-end starter. 2018 proved to be less than stellar for the big Texan, regressing back to career norms. There is some evidence to suggest that he could return to 2017 form. With a few adjustments, Chase Anderson could turn into potential bounce back candidate.
In 2017, an increase in fastball velocity was the most cited reason for his breakout. However, Chase Anderson credited pitching coach, Derek Johnson, with introducing him to the cut-fastball (threw it 13.1% in 2017) and changing his curveball grip (throwing it 18.3% in 2017). He also started pitching up in the zone more, and decreased the use of his 2-seam fastball/sinker. Decreasing the 2-seamer may not be the best thing once you see his QOPA numbers on that pitch, which is for later. As a result of these changes, MLB hitters were swinging and missing more than at any time in his career (K/9% - 8.47). He also gave up half as many home runs than any of the three previous seasons (14 and a HR/FB% of 8.6). All of those changes led to an ERA of 2.74 and 3.2 fWAR.
Unfortunately in 2018, he returned to previous norms. The most obvious and glaring problem was an increase in home runs given up (30 total and a HR/9 of 1.71 in 2018 vs. 0.89 in 2017). Other 2018 numbers were just as glaring and important to understand how different 2018 was from 2017 for the right-hander. His strike out rate decreased (7.29 K/9 vs. 8.47), FIP increased (5.22 vs. 3.58), and DRA increased (5.52 vs. 4.13). Many have attributed the dip in velocity as the culprit for the performance difference, but the difference between 2017 and 2018 is multifaceted.
Anderson started 2018 poorly giving up 13 dingers from opening day to the end of May; a month where opposing hitters had a .901 OPS against him. He pitched well in June and July, but he was crushed in August, and was on his way out of the starting rotation after a few more starts in September.
Anderson did lose a tick from the increased velocity that he was able to acquire the previous season, and it could very well be the primary culprit. The image below shows the Anderson’s pitch type velocity for 2017 and 2018. There was a slight decrease in velocity across the board for the Milwaukee pitcher. Where velocity is most important is with his 4-seamer. In 2017, he averaged 93.7 mph as opposed to 92.9 mph in 2018. That isn’t that much, but it was probably part of the reason for more hard contact (Hard contact rate of 36.3%) especially if location was off or he fell behind in the count?
Anderson relied on his 4-seamer more than he had in 2017. The image below illustrates Anderson’s pitch usage per month in 2017 and 2018. The anomaly in 2018 is that 4-seam usage trended up throughout the year. We see extreme use of the 4-seam fastball in March of 2018, but that illustrates only one start. Removing March, we see a trend line that begins with usage comparable to the high end of 2017, but gets more pronounced as the season progresses. It seems that Anderson fell in love with the 4-seamer, possibly trying to blow the pitch by hitters up in the zone. That certainly seems to fall in line with Milwaukee’s overall pitching strategy. The slight tick down in velocity may have proved problematic with that strategy. If he was not locating as well, and hitters were better prepared for the strategy then he may have been falling right into the hands of the hitter.
Anderson found a new release point in 2017. His horizontal release point shifted from 2016 to 2017 by more than six inches. 2018 saw Anderson’s release point shifted back to pre-2017. As Kenny Kelly from Beyond the Box Score points out, the extra extension he achieved in 2017 likely contributed to added velocity, and it may have even influenced command. The good news about this is that Anderson could find that release point again. If he can make that adjustment, he might find similar performance to 2017.
Anderson walked more hitters than ever in his career (BB/9 2017 - 2.61 vs. BB/9 2018 - 3.25). Anderson was probably behind in the count more than normal, and he was forced to challenge hitters more in the zone with a lesser fastball. Another cited reason for 2017 success was his ability to run his fastball in on the hands of right handed hitters. If Anderson was pitching in hitters’ counts, pitching in on the hands might more be difficult to accomplish. So a strategy of pitching up in the zone and running pitches in on the hands of right handed hitters is great if the pitcher hits his spot. Anderson was missing his spots more in 2018. The results were the 6th most home runs allowed in baseball.
Major league hitters make adjustments. Opposing teams went into Chase Anderson starts with dated scouting reports for much of the 2017 season at least. The league likely adjusted to the new Chase Anderson from one year to the next. MLB hitters, coaches, and analytics departments now had one year of data that indicated new pitching patterns. It is very possible that hitters were just more prepared for Anderson, and 2017 was the result of hitters not yet honing into the new Chase Anderson. Once hitters had an idea of his approach, they also had a better idea of what pitches to lay off of and what pitches to attack as well as how to set Anderson up, especially if those pitches weren’t quite as sharp or hard.
Can Chase Anderson bounce back? Yes! Chase Anderson could very well be a prime candidate for a bounce back campaign in 2019. While easier said than done, a few potential changes might make the difference:
Find that 0.8 mph on the fastball. How does one throw harder than they used to? Anderson has already done it, and he can do it again. With fresh eyes, new Brewers’ pitching coach may have some new ideas. Hook also has past data to help him. He knows what Anderson did before, because Hook was part of Milwaukee’s pitching coordinator in 2017. Maybe Hook can help him realize those adjustments made in 2017, and possibly other adjustments that might help in 2019.
Rediscover the 2017 release point. While not conclusive, it seems logical that the change in release point was, at least partially, the reason for the increase in velocity. Since the 2017 release point created more extension, it makes sense more velocity would come with it and possibly more command. Finding that release point again may result in similar performance levels, but rediscovering it may be difficult to do. It could very well be that Anderson just lost the slot, and went back to what he was comfortable with. Injury and/or pain to the arm, back, or lower extremities could hamper Anderson’s ability to match that release point and achieve the extension that comes with it. We just do not know why such a change would take place. But finding it again might result in much better results.
Stop giving up so many free passes. Getting the walk rate back to 2017 levels will help the Brewers’ pitcher a great deal. Why he issued more walks in 2018 is unclear. It is logical to assume that a pitcher that gets hit hard may begin to lose confidence and conviction in his pitches. As a result, he might nibble more than he otherwise would. Falling behind in the count might force that pitcher to come into the zone more than he otherwise would. He might get hit even harder as a result. In 2017, he started pitching up in the zone more. Missing up in the zone is generally bad for major league pitchers.
Throw fewer 4-seam fastballs. Chase Anderson increased 4-seam fastball usage even more in 2018. What was successful for him previously may have become less so. He may have lost command of the pitch. He may have lost conviction in throwing the pitch. The 4-seamer up is a Brewers’ pitching philosophy, so Anderson may have been throwing the pitch that Manny Pina, Eric Kratz, and Jett Bandy signaled. Whatever occurred, for this particular pitcher, Brewers’ catchers may want to call less 4-seamers or change sequencing to keep opposing teams from finding his pitching patterns.
Utilize the cutter and the 2-seamer more. Anderson threw his cutter more in 2017 than 2018 (13.1% in 2017 vs. 9.9% in 2018). Take a page from Wade Miley and Anibal Sanchez and throw more cutters. Quite possibly his increase cutter usage helped Anderson in 2017, but he threw it less. He may have thrown it less because his Quality of Pitch Average (QOPA) for the cutter was below average for 2018 (3.86). And that was something that changed from 2017 as the QOPA for the cutter for that season was average (4.51) and likely kept hitters off balance. The caveat of increased cutter usage would be to improve quality of the pitch.
He should also do something that reminds us of the old Chase Anderson. He should throw that 2-seam sinking fastball more. In fact, he has always thrown the 2-seamer somewhere between 20-23%, except for one season. In 2018 he threw it 12.6%. What is even more compelling is what we find when we look at QOPA of Anderson’s 2-seamer. It is the one pitch that he throws that rates above the “Good Quality” rating. In 2017 and 2018 QOPA on the 2-seamer was 5.14 and 5.26 respectively. For whatever reason, he or Milwaukee’s leadership decided to throw his best pitch in terms of QOPA less. Maybe Chris Hook picks up on this and advises otherwise.
Try to get that confidence back. With such an inauspicious start to 2018, he likely took a hit to his confidence, and it took him awhile to get himself right. Getting off to a good start in 2019 might be paramount for Chase Anderson. A good start might also lead to sustained performance for the entire year.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, Baseball Reference, and QOPBaseball