Ian Anderson’s success as a major-leaguer in his debut season, and for the first half of his first full season, was stunning: 3.0 fWAR in his first career 130 innings or so. His collapse was about as disconcerting — after a shoulder injury in mid-2021, Anderson never really recovered, and his fall from grace sent him hurtling from the rotation back to the minors in 2022.
Anderson was the Braves’ first-round pick, taken third overall, in the 2016 draft. He made it to Triple-A for five poor starts in 2019, and was called up to the majors during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, in which he provided some stability to an otherwise mostly-nonexistent rotation.
What were the expectations?
In total, Anderson had produced 2.9 fWAR in 160 2⁄3 career major league innings heading into 2022, a well-above-average rate. His projected floor was probably something like a 1.5-win guy over a half-season or so, factoring in the likelihood of some kind of pitching injury, and the fact that he never really racked up innings by working deep into games. That said, his pitching line pre-2022 was a 75 ERA-, 90 FIP-, and 90 xFIP-, so there was not much reason to assume he’d be bad, or maybe even average — just inefficient, with some concerns emanating from his shoulder injury and his poor performance after returning from said injury.
Correspondingly, the Braves had Anderson penciled in as a mid-rotation starter for them. He drew the season’s fourth start for the team, behind Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Kyle Wright.
Contrary to expectations, Anderson didn’t bounce back from the shoulder woes and/or whatever else was plaguing him after returning from the Injured List in the latter portion of 2021. Instead, his 2022 season foundered on the rocks of some pretty substantial adversity.
Prior to hurting his shoulder in 2021, Anderson put up a 76/81/85 line. After coming back, it was 85/136/111. Don’t be fooled by his World Series-run performance in the 2021 postseason, either — those four starts had him at 37/87/117, just very fortunate on the balls-in-play and HR/FB front. From the start of 2022, he seemed way less like his pre-injury self, and way more the post-injury version.
His first start was abominable, a 1/5 K/BB effort against the Reds that was one of the worst outings of his career. He was much better against the Padres next time out (7/1 K/BB ratio), and start-to-start inconsistency became the watchword of his season. Through April, his line was 113/129/105; through May it was 105/119/114. His best stretch was probably July (97/80/87), but in telling fashion, that month also featured him getting absolutely blasted by Angels, which he followed up by dominating the Diamondbacks six days later.
Anderson only made two starts in August. He pitched poorly in the lone Braves win in that pivotal five-game Mets series in New York, and then was oddly optioned-but-then-recalled-to-make-a-doubleheader-start, before being dumped back to Gwinnett for the rest of the season.
His final line for 2022, in the majors? 121/108/106, an xFIP pretty close to post-injury 2021, good for 0.9 fWAR in 111 2⁄3 innings. At Gwinnett, Anderson made four starts before another injury ended his season. Those four minor-league outings had a 3.97 FIP and 4.14 xFIP, which is probably not what anyone wanted to see from a guy who was not doing much worse than that against major-league opposition.
What went right? What went wrong?
Nothing really went particularly right for Anderson, though he still showed flashes of the sort of effectiveness that made him such a useful rotation piece over the past two seasons — just not often enough, and too frequently interrupted by shellings, to make his 2022 season worthwhile. Fundamentally, though, the Braves didn’t give him much help, either.
I summarized a lot of the issues with Anderson’s 2022 season here, which was done well before he had that relatively nice July. Anderson’s issues have, at times, boiled down to two things:
- The first inning. When Anderson was good, he was mediocre in the first inning and good otherwise. When Anderson’s effectiveness dropped off, he was awful in the first inning, and mediocre otherwise.
- The third time through the order. When Anderson was good, he didn’t have much of a penalty in this regard, though it was definitely there. When Anderson’s effectiveness dropped off, he was so horrendous as to be completely unplayable past batter number 18, on average.
In that article, I suggested a bunch of things the Braves could do, in an attempt to try to help him out. These included figuring out some kind of pitch mix, mechanics, or other fix (unlikely), using an opener for Anderson (easy enough), and/or implementing some kind of heuristic about having him avoid the third time through the order. There was also another choice, do nothing, and that’s what the Braves ultimately selected, along with sending him to the minors.
One other thing is perhaps worth noting. When Anderson first came up, I was baffled by his strategy of throwing a good-rising four-seamer low in the zone. Since 2020, he has, with some frequency, tried to throw it high, giving it a lot more vertical separation from his changeup. It appears that for whatever reason, that hasn’t worked. Comparatively, his four-seamer was absolutely obliterated in 2022 (his curve and changeup were still fine-to-great), which could be an artifact of this location trend, or the fact that it lost a tick and some “rise.”
In any case, it’s unclear whether the Braves or Anderson have any answers that can shore up his performance at this point. If they did, why didn’t they already implement them in 2022? Furthermore, Anderson’s four minor league starts were really underwhelming, which dampens hopes that there’s a quick fix out there that can be refined in a lower-intensity environment and then re-deployed to defeat major league batters.
All that said, Anderson did have some real cool moments in 2022. His start against the Diamondbacks was about as good as we’ve seen him: a 9/1 K/BB ratio with just one hit allowed in six scoreless frames, getting ahead of batters before finishing them off with a changeup, and being able to blow 94-96 past hitters in the upper part of the zone.
He was still capable of stuff like this, just not consistently enough, and there were too many clunkers. A month before his Diamondback domination, he was destroyed by the Phillies for pretty much his worst start of the year (and arguably ever): seven runs in two-plus innings, including a homer and just a 1/1 K/BB ratio.
(No, I don’t know why the first 30 seconds are the Braves botching a scoring opportunity.)
And there were also just plenty of plain-idiotic happenings with him on the mound, like this homer by Jesus Aguilar.
Did Anderson make a good pitch there? No, he really didn’t. But, to be very clear, in this sixth inning, Anderson was not only facing the lineup a third time through, but had already allowed a two-run homer earlier in the inning. For whatever reason, the Braves pulled him only after giving up the lead on a second two-run homer, instead of just… pulling him earlier.
If Anderson was limited to two times through the order in 2022, he would’ve had an FIP and xFIP both under 4.00. Instead, both ended up at around 4.25, because he had an insane, nearly-9.00 FIP, and 5+ xFIP, the third time through. That’s probably the thing that went most wrong for Anderson, and it could’ve easily been ameliorated by his dugout.
Anderson will head into Spring Training in 2023 as one in a stable of competitors for the final slot in Atlanta’s rotation. It’s hard to say he has the inside track at this point, and given his performance, my guess is that projections generally won’t even have him as anywhere close to the best guy among Kyle Muller, Bryce Elder, Mike Soroka, and some others, to win the spot.
At this point, Anderson will likely be projected as a #4 starter, 1.5-WAR-over-a-full-season type, which is a big fall from where he entered the season. But, it’s hard to say it’s undeserved — he really has been pretty mediocre since the shoulder injury, and an easy fix doesn’t seem forthcoming. Even a change as easy as “hey don’t let him face more than 18 batters” doesn’t appear to realistically be on the table, so Anderson’s role for the immediate future may be rotation depth, or perhaps a trade piece if a team thinks they can take his unorthodox pitching style and do something else with it.
On the flip side, Anderson will turn 25 in May next year. Only 16 other pitchers threw 100-plus major league frames at 24 or younger in 2022, and only 14 of them were above replacement. Time is (relatively) on his side, even if not much else appears to be at this point.