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What to expect from Brett Anderson

The oft-injured southpaw is bringing his ground-balling ways to the Cream City.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers jettisoned two of their most stable sources of innings following the conclusion of the 2019 campaign. Zach Davies, who led the staff with 159.2 frames, was dealt to San Diego. Chase Anderson tallied at least 139.0 innings in each of his four seasons with the Brewers, and he was traded to Toronto. When coupled with the free agent departures of Jordan Lyles (Texas) and Gio Gonzalez (White Sox), it became increasingly obvious that David Stearns would need to add multiple arms to his cache of initial out-getters.

KBO import Josh Lindblom ought to fill part of that void. So too should Eric Lauer, who came back as part of the package in the Davies swap. Additionally, the Brewers will also be counting on recent free agent signee Brett Anderson, although his checkered health history makes it difficult to project just how often he’ll be able to toe the slab during the 2020 season.

Once upon a time, Anderson was seen as one of the most promising young arms in the majors. A second-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2006, the southpaw was dealt to Oakland prior to the 2008 season as part of the package for Dan Haren. He arrived in the big leagues in 2009, making 30 starts with a 4.06 ERA and 85 FIP- across 175.1 innings pitched. Anderson finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting, and that early production prompted the A’s to lock him up to a four-year extension in April 2010 that included a pair of club options. Once Brett secured his first career fortune, however, health troubles began to dog him.

A left elbow strain and subsequent soreness limited Anderson to 19 starts and 112.1 innings in 2010, though he did manage to turn in a 2.80 earned run average and 78 FIP-. That would be the last time he worked more than 100 frames until the 2015 season. He made 13 starts and tossed 83.1 innings with a 4.00 ERA in 2011 before his elbow started barking again, and this time it required Tommy John surgery. Anderson didn’t return to a big league mound until the following August, then made six starts (with a 2.57 ERA) before finishing the year on the shelf with an oblique strain.

Anderson’s 2013 season got off to a terrible start as yielded 20 earned runs through his first 29.0 innings (five starts and one very long relief outing) before once again getting sidelined, this time with an ankle injury that wound up being a stress fracture. He didn’t return until the end of August and concluded the year with 10 ineffective relief outings, which brought his ERA to an ugly 6.04 across 44.2 innings.

Oakland sent Anderson with cash to the Rockies (in exchange for future Brewer Drew Pomeranz and a minor leaguer) prior to the 2014 season. He had little trouble pitching at altitude in Colorado, that is, when he did actually take the mound. He made only eight starts, logging a 2.91 ERA in 43.1 innings, but his work was interrupted first by a broken finger that required surgery, then by a lower back strain that eventually led him to go under the knife for a bulging disc. The Rockies declined his final contract option after the season and allowed him to hit the open market for the first time.

Despite his injury-proneness, Anderson and his agent convinced the Dodgers to roll the dice on a one-year, $10 mil contract, and Brett rewarded their gamble by delivering a career-high 180.1 innings across 31 starts. He finished with a 3.69 ERA and 3.94 FIP, though when taking into consideration the deadened offensive environs of 2015, that translated into only a 99 ERA- and 104 FIP-. Still, it was enough to persuade Los Angeles to issue Anderson a Qualifying Offer after the season, which he chose to accept. That decision turned out to be prescient for the left-hander, who required a second back surgery for a bulging disc in the same area that afflicted him two years prior. He didn’t pitch in a big league game until August, then went back on the shelf with blister issues. He wound up throwing only 11.1 innings in four MLB appearances that season, and was torched to the tune of 25 hits and 15 runs allowed.

The Dodgers let him walk after that, and he signed a one-year deal with the Cubs. But after coughing up 20 earned runs in 22.0 innings covering six starts (a stint that was again interrupted by a back strain), he was released in July. He hooked on with Toronto on a minor league deal, was eventually called up at the end of August, and finished the season by making seven starts for the Blue Jays with a 5.13 ERA. He had a difficult time finding work that offseason, and didn’t land a job until late in Spring Training, when he inked a minors deal back where his big league career got started — with the Oakland A’s.

Anderson got up to speed after the season’s first month and his contract was selected on May 2nd. Again, though, arm troubles plagued him throughout the year. He had two stints on the shelf — one for a left shoulder strain in late May, and one for left forearm strain in late August. But he did make 17 roughly league-average starts, posting a 4.48 ERA (109 ERA-) and a 4.17 FIP (101 FIP-) while accumulating 80.1 innings. The A’s re-signed him during the 2018-19 offseason to a one-year, $1.5 mil deal, and he would go on to deliver only the third fully-healthy season of his 11-year MLB career in 2019.

Anderson made 31 starts and tossed 176.0 innings this past season with Oakland, with the only time he missed being for a paternity list stint in August. His 3.89 ERA in the juiced-ball environment translated to an 87 ERA-, his second-best total ever among the four seasons where he has accumulated at least 100 frames (and tops since 2010). But the way that Brett arrived at those numbers makes one question just how sustainable that level of run prevention will be in 2020.

Anderson has never been one to issue many free passes during his career, and that was the case once again in 2019 as he yielded only 2.51 BB/9 and a 6.6% walk rate, right in line with his career averages. But he also registered the lowest strikeout rate among all pitchers with at least 50 innings, punching out a mere 4.60 batters per nine. He rated well below the league averages in terms of average exit velocity (29th percentile) and hard contact rate (20th percentile), suggesting that he wasn’t very adept at missing barrels, either (and his 7.3% barrel rate was worse than the MLB average).

One thing that the sinker-heavy Anderson does thrive at is keeping the ball on the ground. He induced worm-burners at a 54.5% clip in 2019, which will certainly help prevent runs when you’re doing it in front of perhaps the best infield defense in baseball. Oakland regularly trotted out Matt Chapman (+18 Defensive Runs Saved at 3B), Matt Olson (+13 DRS at 1B), and Marcus Semien (+5 DRS at SS) this past season, much to Anderson’s delight. According to Statcast, his expected batting average allowed of .287 was 22 points higher than his actual BAA of .265, and his expected slugging of .480 was 72 points higher than his actual .408 slugging percentage. Based on the quality of the batted balls that Anderson allowed in 2019, one would have expected him to yield a brutal .344 weighted on base average. Instead, he allowed only a .308 wOBA. That 36 point difference was the second-highest in baseball among the 108 pitchers who faced at least 500 batters in 2019.

Anderson used to be one of MLB's harder throwing left-handers, but now at heading into his age-32 season, he relies most heavily on his low-90s sinker (42.9% usage in 2019), a changeup (13.5%) and slider (18.7%) that both averaged between 82-83 MPH in 2019, and an upper-80s cutter (12.5%) that he really only began to mix in this past season. He’s been about even against both right-handed batters (.316 wOBA) and lefties (.321 wOBA) throughout his career, but his platoon splits were significantly worse in 2019 (.325 wOBA vs. RHH, .258 wOBA vs. LHH). All together, Anderson has worked 997.1 innings for his career with a 4.05 ERA, 95 FIP-, and 101 DRA-.

Both FIP- (102) and DRA- (116) saw Anderson’s actual work on the mound as signficantly worse than his real run prevention totals in 2019, and without a top-flight defense behind him in Milwaukee, the projection systems see a good amount of regression taking place. Marcel predicts a 4.38 ERA in 2020, while Steamer forecasts a 4.55 earned run average. Still, either of those marks would represent roughly a league-average output (at least in terms of the offensive environment that we saw in 2019). At one-year and $5 mil guaranteed (plus incentives), “average” production out of Anderson across a full-season’s slate of starts would certainly be worthwhile. But therein lies the risk for Milwaukee — as a hurler who has only thrice made more than 20 starts and reached the 100+ innings threshold just four times in 11 seasons, Anderson’s health will be the key.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant