In life, using these adjectives to describe someone’s quality of work might be considered damning them with faint praise. But in the game of baseball, an “average” starting pitcher can still be an integral member of the team. Take soon-to-be 32 year old Chase Anderson, the now former Milwaukee Brewers starter.
In 2019, Anderson was worth 2.2 wins above replacement based on his runs allowed per nine innings (RA9-WAR). When you say “there were 68 starting pitchers who bested that total last season,” it sounds like a lot. But when you think about that in the context of Major League Baseball, that means there is only an average of about two pitchers per team that averaged 2.2+ RA9-WAR this year. Let’s face it — hurlers who can pile up innings while simultaneously preventing runs at an acceptable rate are becoming more and more scarce.
Since the start of the 2016 season, there are 164 pitchers who have thrown enough innings to qualify. Among that group, Anderson’s 590.0 frames ranks 44th in baseball. His 112 starts ranks 30th. He’s 53rd with a 3.83 earned run average, and his ERA- of 90 comes in at 57th. By RA9-WAR, Anderson has been the 41st-most valuable qualified pitcher in baseball over the last four seasons while accumulating 10.6 wins above replacement.
Outside of one superlative season in 2017, Anderson has been remarkably consistent and just about everything that one could hope for out of a back-end starter. He made 21 starts during his rookie season in 2014 and has made at least 25 starts and thrown between 139 and 158 innings every year since. His ERA- totals by season:
Veteran pitchers like this used to be able to find multiyear deals on the open market with relative ease. But that is no longer the case in today’s MLB, where only the superstar players get paid their commensurate value in free agency while those who are merely good or useful continually find themselves being forced to settle for one-year deals well below what the market bore even five years ago.
Anderson signed his extension on the heels of what the organization was surely hoping was a legitimate breakout campaign. If he had been able to sustain that level of production, his $8.5 mil option would have looked like a bargain. But the front office guarded themselves against regression by making years three and four of the deal — when Anderson would have started to make some real money in arbitration — into team option years. So now that 2017 looks more like an aberration after another couple seasons of #4 starter-type production, that $8.5 mil figure was no longer very appealing to Milwaukee, who likely need to add multiple pitchers to their stable of initial out-getters this winter. Here are some available free agents who produced a similar amount of value to Chase in 2019, and their most recent salaries:
Gio Gonzalez || 87.1 IP || 3.50 ERA || $2 mil
Brett Anderson || 176.0 IP || 3.89 ERA || $1.5 mil
Wade Miley || 167.1 IP || 3.98 ERA || $4.5 mil
Jordan Lyles || 141.0 IP || 4.15 ERA || $2.05 mil
Adam Wainwright || 171.2 IP || 4.19 ERA || $2 mil
So the Brewers, like most teams these days, decided that they would rather roll the dice and bet on their ability to use that money to land multiple pitchers off the free agent market who project to perform at a similar or better level than Chase, instead of choosing to pencil him in at $8.5 mil and about 145 innings of 4.00 ERA ball in 2020. David Stearns later admitted that the club was planning on simply declining his contract option, that is until he found out that Toronto was willing to send a prospect in exchange for the right to exercise Anderson’s 2020 option and retain control of his 2021 team option ($9.5 mil).
Feels weird to say this, but Chase Anderson was one of the best Brewers starting pitchers of all-time.— Kyle Lesniewski (@KyleL_Brewers) November 4, 2019
His franchise rankings:
112 starts (20)
590 IP (27)
38 wins (23)
3.83 ERA (13)
112 ERA+ (5)
1.231 WHIP (3)
505 Strikeouts (16)
7.703 K/9 (5)
10.6 RA9-WAR (15) pic.twitter.com/2gP3KAnkWn
For Anderson, who ends his time in Milwaukee ranked among the best pitchers in franchise history in almost every category, Slingin’ Stearns was able to net first base/corner outfield prospect Chad Spanberger. The recently-turned 24 year old helps fill an organizational need as depth at the cold corner, but his approach at the plate will need some polish if he is going to eventually fill a role at the big league level.
The left-handed hitter has been scouted as possessing 70 grade raw power, but he struggled to fully tap into that power during his most recent season at the Double-A level. A pull-hitter who has yanked the ball between 44-45% of the time at every professional stop he’s made, Spanberger hit the ball on the ground at a 45.2% clip last season while lifting only 13 home runs in 480 plate appearances. Overall he hit .237/.308/.399, which at least translated to an above-average 108 wRC+ in the Eastern League. Still, a 24.4% strikeout rate suggests that he’ll pile up whiffs with greater frequency as he meets more experienced pitchers at higher levels, and scouts tend to agree that his hit tool projects as below-average. A plodder who doesn’t project to add much value on defense or the basepaths, Spanberger will need to figure out how to make an adjustment to get the ball over the fence more regularly if he’s ever going to be of much use to the Cream City Nine.
Every starting rotation in baseball needs a Chase Anderson — the guy who you can count on to take the ball every fifth day and be consistently average. The Milwaukee Brewers, however, believe that they’ll be able to find that production from someone else at a lower cost, allowing them to allocate resources elsewhere around the roster. But before declining Anderson’s option and letting him walk for nothing, Stearns surveyed the market and was able to find a trade partner willing to exchange an interesting, yet flawed prospect. Now the Blue Jays will add some short-term cost certainty and raise the floor of their rotation as they continue their rebuild, and the Brewers will get to work on adding some depth to their pitching staff and teaching Chad Spanberger to hit more fly balls.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs