Tim Anderson’s BABIP breakout wasn’t all luck, so hop off your high horse and jump on the TA train

Regress this, buddy: Analysts anticipating a fall from grace from Anderson may be waiting a long time. (@TimAnderson7)


For a reigning MLB and American League batting champ, Tim Anderson has had too much slander slung his way.

All offseason, people have derided Anderson’s breakout year, considering it as more of a footnote because of what are still some obvious flaws in his game, and also because of BABIP. He even took exception with his MLB Top 100 player rankings which had him at 95 (yes, the batting champ at 95 makes total sense, MLB).

Now, the BABIP aspect aiding Anderson’s success is real. A .399 BABIP, second only to Yoán Moncada last season, certainly gave a boost to Anderson’s batting average. However, why do some fans assume Moncada made more actual improvements, even though he had a higher BABIP than Anderson? No idea, but the franchise shortstop did not run into a batting title by accident — not by a long shot.

To start, let’s knock out the elephant in the room when it comes to Anderson at the plate, he has never and probably will never walk at a frequency fans are comfortable with. His highest walk rate came in 2018, and that was only at 5%, while two of his MLB seasons saw walk rates in the bottom 1% of the league. At this point, with 7,678 pitches seen in 521 MLB games, it is time to come to the realization that walking is just not a part of Anderson’s game.

Now, what has improved with TA’s approach at the plate is the strikeouts: For three straight seasons, Anderson’s K-rate has fallen, reaching a career low of 21% last season. That’s actually a little bit better than the average MLB player.

Anderson’s whiff rate was down a little more than 3% from his 2018 season, primarily because of his success against the fastball and breaking pitches, though his whiff rate on off-speed pitches also fell. Like his overall K-rate, Anderson’s whiffs against the fastball and breaking balls have fallen for three years straight, but the big boost came in 2019 with the fastball. His whiff rate fell about 5% just against fastballs, which he saw 55.7% of the time last season — so that 5% drop is a significant number. The majority of that decrease in swing and misses for fastballs was actually outside the zone, as that decreased 11%. For the breaking ball, Anderson improved his swing and misses by a little more than 3%. The majority of those swing and misses came from inside the zone (11% drop), but the outside the zone whiff rate fell as well. All in all, it was a year of career bests for Anderson’s bat-to-ball skills … but this is also where things start to get a little murky.

Anderson’s overall contact rate rose to a career high 77% per FanGraphs; that is good for 77th out of 135 qualified batters. So, TA was not making an abnormal amount of contact compared to the league, but it was far and away a career high. Most, if not all fans, know that Anderson was late bloomer to baseball, so it makes perfect sense that it would take him longer to adapt to MLB pitching. It also makes sense that when everything came together for a former first round selection and Top 50 prospect, that player would be on top and doing this, a lot:

But again, contact isn’t everything. Some people just look at BABIP and stop, but if you do a bit more digging you’ll see that Anderson didn’t make more contact and strike out less because he was patient, but because he was reaching outside the zone and putting it in play more than ever. Anderson’s chase rate has always been more than average, but in 2019 it was an absurd number: 45.2% per FanGraphs, which was fifth-most among qualified batters. Anderson swung a lot out of the zone, but unlike previous seasons his contact rate on those pitches was not severely underwater. His outside-the-zone contact rate was at a personal high of 61.5%, but this is nowhere near an abnormal amount of contact compared to the rest of MLB. In fact, his rate was 91st out of 135 hitters, still less than average.

Where it gets murky is the way fans want to read that. One way to look at it is to say, wow, after starting to play baseball late into high school, Anderson the former first round pick is now able to track pitches better and make contact even when outside the zone, and he still has room to grow. The other, more dour way to view this is to concentrate on the increased chase rate and chase contact rate as a bad habit for a professional hitter — that 2019 was an aberration because the jump was high. The frustrating part about those conflicting views is that they are both right.

But Anderson still improved mightily in other areas.

Though his BABIP was high, Anderson still had very good expected stats. His expected batting average was in the top 8% of the league and expected slugging was well better than average. Anderson made more good contact than ever before, and the power coming off that contact was at a personal high. His ISO was at a career-high .173 and if he had played a full season’s worth of games, he would have reached a career-best in homers. Anderson’s hard-hit rate reached a new career high and his xWOBA on contact was well better than average. So while a .335 batting average was probably an outperformance of the underlying stats, overall Anderson was hitting the ball more often, harder, and better than ever before. He showed real improvement, and where the major improvement came in terms of contact is even more inspiring.

Anderson, for his first three seasons, was awful against breaking pitches. He just couldn’t hit them and when he made contact, they were outs way too often. When going up against off-speed offerings, Anderson had a .308 average going into the 2019 season, but he couldn’t put any power into those pitches, with just one home run hit off that pitch group. Meanwhile, Anderson was doing very well against the fastball, even compared to league average, but his success at the plate hinged too much on that group of pitches. Most of his ISO came from fastballs leading up to 2019, but the batting average did dip during 2018 against fastballs. All of these slights improved at the same time for Anderson in 2019, as they did for Moncada.

 

 

chart (18)

Anderson hit .350, a career high, and slugged .514 against fastballs in 2019; he hit .310 and slugged .449 against breaking pitches, both career highs; and he hit .352 and slugged .685 against off-speed pitches, again, both career highs. Though Anderson’s expected stats are worse (though not as much disparity as I guessed, especially on the fastball), all three pitch groups amounted to career highs in xWOBA, as you can see in the graph above.

Maybe people find it harder to accept Anderson’s success compared to Moncada’s because TA is a White Sox draft selection and those players rarely do well. Maybe his many errors overshadow how good a hitter he was. Maybe how fantastic Avisaíl García was in his fourth season with the White Sox in 2017 is a coincidence that is freaking fans out.

But all of this is true about Tim Anderson:

  • Anderson did not start playing high school baseball until his Junior season. His “only offer” to play baseball was to East Central Community College.
  • He worked himself, in just two full seasons of high school baseball and two years at junior college, into the 17th selection in the 2013 draft.
  • During his time in the minors, from the months after he was drafted in 2013 to before was promoted to the Chicago in 2016, Anderson excelled at every level. By the time he was called up, Anderson was a Top 50 prospect and was even rated 19th by Baseball Prospectus.
  • After three seasons in the majors, two of which were not good by any stretch, something clicked. While swinging more often than ever before, Anderson made more contact. While his swings outside the zone hit a new personal high, his chase miss rate hit a new low. While his walks were almost cut in half, his strikeout rate fell below an average hitter’s rate for the first time. While his fly ball rate went up and ground ball rate went down, his average exit velocity and hard-hit rates both hit career highs in 2019.
  • Meanwhile, Anderson was also spraying the ball all over the diamond. He went with pitches where they were thrown, pulled when he needed to and went away when it was called for, and if he could, he went right back up the middle (41.4% of the time, a true sign of a good hitter). All of this shows a hitter who has a much better eye than he did just four years ago, even if the walks are not there.

A .399 BABIP is hard to repeat and Anderson most likely won’t, and he also most likely will not win another batting title. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t show real, legit improvement in 2019.

Then again, nobody thought Anderson would win a batting title in the first place. But what fans can agree on is that Tim Anderson is making baseball better.

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Darren Black (or Darren Jackson), newly 23 and graduated from Illinois State University, yes, the team that beat Northwestern football in 2016 to a blistering 9-7 score. He majored in history over there and still pretends he is proficient in Chicago Manual Style. He is a Dylan Covey stan for life(if he was on the Astros you all know he would be fantastic). Professionally, not a writer, and unprofessionally, still not a writer, but happy to do so when it's about the White Sox. "Be the second plumber" - Mr. Schwerman

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katiesphil
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katiesphil
4 months ago

I don’t expect another batting title, but I do think he’s going to “settle” into a career .300ish hitter with a lot of pop. If the D can just become consistently steady, I see no reason he’s not a league top third or better SS for the next 8 years. And beyond that, I think Tim Anderson is simply a breath of fresh air who’s good for the Sox and good for baseball.

Joe Resis
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Joe Resis
4 months ago

I love this, Darren. Anderson really does look better these days, lucky or not.