“In the future,” Andy Warhol said, “everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Warhol wasn’t really a baseball fan (Pete Rose baseball-card prints aside), but it seems likely that major league baseball consulted with him, or at least took some inspiration. How else can you explain the phenomenon of the pop-up relief pitching ace? Nick Anderson has the lowest FIP (and xFIP) and the highest strikeout rate in baseball this year, and if you aren’t related to him, I bet you had to go look up what team he pitches for.
Anderson’s route to the spotlight (such as it is) has been incredibly circuitous. Early legal troubles, including an assault he contends was him coming to the defense of a friend, led to his starting in the independent leagues instead of affiliated ball. Anderson spent a year remodeling homes and playing amateur ball. When he returned, he pitched excellently for the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Frontier Greys in 2015 (sub-1 ERAs and 9-plus K/9s in both stops). The hometown Twins scooped him up, and you have to think other teams weren’t far behind given the numbers, but still — he was out of baseball, fully out, just five years ago.
How crazy is it that we never saw Nick Anderson coming? Well, if you go by his minor league stats, it’s pretty crazy. In three-plus years of pitching (admittedly often at levels he was old for), he compiled a 2.25 ERA (2.35 FIP, 2.37 xFIP) with sterling peripherals — a 32.5% strikeout rate and a measly 6.2% walk rate. Still though, he enjoyed very little prospect shine — he was a reliever at best, and one without much pedigree. Aside from brief mentions as “Others of Note,” he pretty much flew under the radar.
When the Twins had a 40-man roster crunch after the 2018 season, they sent Anderson to the Marlins. I can forgive you if you don’t remember the transaction — Nick Anderson for Brian Schales was hardly the biggest transaction of November. Heck, it wasn’t even the Twins move with the most fanfare — that would be grabbing C.J. Cron off of waivers, a move that likely had something to do with trading Anderson. With little fanfare, Anderson made the Marlins bullpen out of Spring Training (eight innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, no walks), and just like that, baseball’s best current reliever (by the numbers) had arrived in the majors.
That origin story would have been notable if Anderson merely provided some quality pitching depth for the Marlins. That’s not what’s happening, though. Anderson has faced 19 batters and struck 10 out. Is that a small sample size? Absolutely. It’s plenty large enough to note a few interesting trends, though, and looking through Anderson’s arsenal makes me think the success might be sustainable. -0.85 FIP sustainable? Well, no, but promising nonetheless.
Anderson throws what I think of as a generic good-reliever fastball. He sits between 95 and 96 mph (a bit faster than average for a righty reliever) with above-average spin, and he locates that four-seamer high and away from righties. That’s all well and good, and plenty of relievers have turned that pitch alone into a successful career (looking at you, Chad Green and John Brebbia). The true difference-maker for Anderson, however, is his slider. It’s the kind of pitch classification systems hate — is it a slider? A power curve? Something in between? One thing’s for sure: it’s working. Here’s a list of the top 10 whiff rates for sliders this year (minimum 20 sliders thrown):
Slider Whiff Rates, 2019
Even on this list of phenomenal sliders, Anderson stacks up well. Only Burnes combines more swings with a higher whiff rate (the gold standard for a slider), and if you look closely, you’ll realize that Anderson’s Whiffs/Swing and Fouls/Swing add up to 100%. That’s right — no one has put his slider into play on a swing yet this year (Ender Inciarte bunt popped out against it, but that doesn’t count as a swing on the leaderboard I was using). That obviously won’t continue, but batters simply aren’t seeing the ball when Anderson throws it.
Want further confirmation that hitters can’t pick up Anderson’s slider? We’re veering hard into small sample territory here, so take this with a shaker full of salt, but Anderson has thrown nine sliders in the strike zone this year. Batters have taken six of them, giving Anderson a ludicrous Z-Swing% of 33.3%. On pitches out of the zone, he’s generated a swing 63.6% of the time. Put it all together, and Anderson is generating a swing at a ball or a take of a strike 64.5% of the time. It’s not fair to say that that’s elite territory, because it’s off-the-map territory. There’s simply never been anyone in baseball who has run a swing differential like that for an extended period of time.
What does that level of dominance look like? Well, I told you it’s hard to classify the pitch. What would you call this, aside from beautiful?
Is a 12-6 slider a thing? That’s the closest I can come to describing the movement. Maybe it’s a super-hard slow curve? It’s certainly a different look from the frisbee sliders I’m used to from bullpens these days. Either way, though, batters haven’t figured out what to do with it yet. It’s not just the Ian Desmonds of the world, either — his two most recent strikeout victims are Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña.
A lot of the novelty of the Nick Anderson experience comes from the extreme rate stats — the negative FIP and the strikeout rate above 50% — and those surely won’t hold up for the year. Consider the best strikeout rates of last April: Josh Hader, Adam Ottavino, and Edwin Diaz are on the list, which looks great. So too, though, are Luke Farrell and Silvino Bracho. Now admittedly, Farrell did that over three innings and Bracho was a serviceable reliever when called upon, but that’s the peril of early-season stats. Sometimes you’re Hader, and sometimes you’re Farrell.
Despite the danger of false positives, I’m a believer in Anderson. You don’t need context to appreciate that slider he threw to Desmond. A 96-mph fastball isn’t a mirage. Whether he strikes out 50% of the batters he faces or not, whether his whiffs-per-swing dips or not, the pitches he’s throwing are good major league pitches. He’s not doing it with smoke and mirrors — he’s doing it with a high-octane four-seamer and a wipeout slider. The minor league stats help too. Farrell has a career 4.35 ERA in the minors. Bracho pitched three years at Triple-A and compiled a 4.44 ERA. Anderson is an altogether different animal.
In a proverbial 15 minutes, the Nick Anderson story will have changed. Maybe he’ll keep it going and become a stalwart reliever. Maybe he’ll fade into obscurity and low-three’s ERAs (Steamer’s preseason projection was for a 3.35 ERA). Maybe hitters will adjust, and he’ll have to prove he can adjust back. No matter what happens, though, he’s one of the most interesting players in the major leagues right now. For a 28-year-old two-pitch reliever who was out of baseball remodeling homes only five years ago, that’s nothing short of unbelievable. Andy Warhol would be proud.