Braves: Ian Anderson has found his groove 

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For the second night in a row, the Braves defeated the Cubs, winning 5-0 on Tuesday to inch just one game under a much more bearable .500 record — 11-12 — for the 2021 season. Last night’s victory had it all, featuring a 481-foot homer from leadoff hitter Ronald Acuna Jr., a pair of multi-hit games for each of Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson, and best of all, another strong outing from Braves rookie starting pitcher, 22-year-old righty Ian Anderson. 

Sure, when the lineup’s nos. 1-4 hitters combine to go 5 for 16 (.312 AVG) with a homer, two doubles, and three RBI, as Atlanta’s did last night; the result is usually positive. But despite an exciting showing from the Braves offense on Tuesday, the real takeaway from the team’s win versus the Cubs was the excellent outing by Anderson, who appears to be warming up on the mound. 

Picking up his second win of the season last night, Anderson needed just 90 pitches to fly through seven innings — a Braves season-high for its starters — of one-hit ball against Chicago, including a season-high eight strikeouts and just one walk.

According to The Athletic‘s David O’Brien following the game, Anderson became the first pitcher since 1920 to have three starts of at least six innings with one or fewer hits allowed during his first 11 career big league games. His career 2.20 ERA is the second-lowest of any starter in that span since the Braves relocated to Atlanta, bested by only Mike Soroka, who in his first 11 starts posted a 2.02 ERA. 

So if it feels like Anderson has been excellent this season… that’s because he really has been. And though his 2021 campaign may not yet seem as great as his freakishly great performance from last year, when he finished with a 1.95 ERA during his first six major league starts, Anderson certainly seems primed towards producing at an even higher level in his second taste of the majors.


If Ian ain’t broke… don’t fix it

What’s interesting about Anderson so far in 2021 is that, while obviously he’s improved of late, he really hasn’t changed much at all in terms of pitch usage. Obviously, Anderson has been more effective on the mound during his last two starts, going back to April 21st against the Yankees. However, despite a difference in ERA of 4.20 and zero when comparing his first three outings and his last two, respectively, Anderson has gone about his business in essentially the same way this year, though while getting very different results…

Anderson’s first three starts: 15 ⅓ IP, 15 H, 8 ER, 7 BB, 19 K, 3 HR

Anderson’s last two starts: 13 ⅔ IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 5 BB, 12 K, 0 HR

Along with the aforementioned drop in ERA of over four runs since his outing at Yankee Stadium, Anderson has also slashed his walk rate from 4.17 walks per nine to a more ideal 3.4. The drop in free passes has also featured roughly three fewer strikeouts per nine (11.32 K/9 down to 8.18 K/9), but I believe the Braves will gladly take fewer punchouts in exchange for that kind of improvement with his walks and run prevention. And as alluded to above, Anderson’s pitch mix has basically remained the same throughout the 2021 campaign.

Anderson’s pitch usage in last two outings vs. first three outings (2021)

  • Four-seam fastball:  -2.1%
  • Changeup:  +0.9%
  • Curveball:  +2.2%
  • Sinker:  -2.0%

A difference of roughly 3% in usage really isn’t that significant. And that drop of 2% with the sinker is a bit misleading given Anderson threw the pitch just 3% of the time in his first three starts compared to 1% in his two most recent outings. All-in-all, he’s still approaching opposing batters the same way: throw the four-seam up in the zone and locate the offspeed pitch at the knees or below. That’s been Anderson’s MO on the mound seemingly his entire pro career, and this season both his fastball and changeup make up roughly 75% of his pitch usage, while he occasionally mixes in a breaking ball against primarily right-handed batters; the sinker is practically non-existent at this point — just four have been thrown in 2021. 

And though his choices haven’t differed, in terms of his pitch mix, Anderson’s results obviously have, hence the zero runs allowed in his last two starts. But the difference perhaps hasn’t gone in the direction you think it has. 

Now, this is simply referring to Anderson’s swing and miss rate, which is just one factor that contributes to a pitcher’s success… but it’s still somewhat surprising. While Anderson’s four-seamer and changeup have each generated a 3.7% and 3% increase in Whiff%, respectively, these last couple of outings, his curveball’s Whiff%, on the other hand, has fallen by a whopping 13.3% in that same span — perhaps that’s where his three strikeouts per nine went. That’s a decent fall in swing and miss and not one you’d assume would equal better results overall, especially considering the other two offerings’ whiff rates have remained essentially the same. But it certainly hasn’t slowed Anderson down any… not yet, at least.

It’s still early in the season, and this is simply an arbitrary moment in time that Anderson appears to be at the top of his game; things could go downhill as quickly as his next start, of course. 

But even after the gem provided by the Braves talented righty on Tuesday, Atlanta’s starting rotation enters Wednesday still ranked at or near the bottom in basically every significant pitching statistic — 29th in the majors in fWAR (0.5) and 27th in ERA (4.97). However, just because the group as a whole hasn’t gotten going yet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be excited about Anderson’s upwards trend. He certainly can’t carry the staff all by himself (2020’s Max Fried says hello…), but if his last two outings are any indication of what we’ll see from him moving forward, it appears he’s set on giving it his best shot. Either way, Anderson seems to have found his groove, and that’s excellent news for the Braves. 


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