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Tim Anderson is back where he started

That’s a good thing, given the troubles he’s seen

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

When it came to questions about Tim Anderson, my standard response was, “Let’s see what he looks like in September.”

If nothing else, patience is one of the only benefits of the first rebuilding season. There’s no pressure to overreact to bad starts or bad weeks because nothing’s on the line. In fact, as we’ve been over-reminded, there’s a reward for waiting out poor play in the form of draft position.

Specific to Anderson, his hyper-aggressive approach is exploitable, and his defense was surprisingly strong, so maybe he performed a little over his head in both areas. When he struggled at the start of the season in both areas, well, why shouldn’t he? Baseball’s tough.

Complicating matters was a complicated matter: His best friend was murdered on May 7, and the White Sox gave him time to go to the service and process it.

The strikeouts, poor contact and avoidable errors took root afterward, accompanied by the occasional subtle reminder of his grief from Sox personnel. It became difficult to isolate his natural course of development, and even speculating felt kinda rude. “Let’s see what he looks like in September” still remained true, but it was also a safeguard against or dodge from being a shoddy human, rather than merely a bad analyst.

But September was still the time to take stock, and middle third of September is more September than anything.

Fortunately, there’s nothing to dodge. It’s September, and we can talk about Anderson strictly in baseball terms again. That’s good news, less because he’s helping the White Sox be more fun to watch, and more because we can avoid speaking from a position of ignorance about something that would have needed to be addressed in some way.

One reason is that Anderson and the White Sox addressed it themselves in the form of grief counseling. In early August, Dan Hayes wrote about Anderson potentially turning the corner after getting help.

But Anderson’s issues surpassed that and it wasn’t until recently he started to speak with a counselor. Anderson said it occurred to him after his second session on July 31 how much he was dealing with when the counselor read back a list of everything he was thinking about.

Several weeks in, Anderson has started sleeping again and feels more alert on the field, too.

“You don’t realize how numb you are until it starts going away,” Anderson said. “I definitely think I was numb and I feel a lot more like myself now that I’ve been talking to a counselor and getting it off my chest.”

He’s maintained that resurgence more than a month, both at the plate:

  • Before Aug. 1: .235/.257/.351 over 376 PA
  • Since Aug. 1: .297/.311/.559 over 148 PA

And in the field:

  • Before Aug. 1: 22 errors over 91 games
  • Since Aug. 1: Four errors over 34 games

After noting the substantial improvement, the next thing you notice is that there still is little separation between his average and on-base percentage. He’s still walking 2-3 percent of the time and striking out 25 percent of the time, and it’s hard to find concrete progress in his pitch recognition and plate discipline. He’s still swinging more frequently than usual, including pitches out of the zone. There was a period from June to July where he was reaching for everything, but even the toned-down version of Anderson is more aggressive than most everybody.

Really, the only thing that has substantially changed for Anderson over this period of rebirth is the direction of his batted balls. He’s pulling everything.

His ground ball rate follows his pull rate closely over this period, giving him the 11th-highest frequency of grounders in baseball (Avisail Garcia is 12th). That doesn’t seem like a great development in a league that’s getting increasingly fly-ball-centric, but Anderson’s entire hitting history has been one of succeeding impossibly, so this fits right in. For all I can tell, perhaps a rested Anderson is able to get the bat head in a position to do the things he’s used to doing.

Hits remain the foundation of his approach. It’ll be a triumph if he hikes his walk rate to over 5 percent next year. The good version of Anderson is an above-average defensive shortstop who hits enough to get his OBP over .300 and packs enough pop to give the hacking some heft. It’s a difficult way to make a living, but it’s a valuable package when it works, and the 3-for-3 performances on the basepaths in September is a welcome addition.

That leaves him courting the same question he faced at the start of the season: How long can this weirdness work for him? That’s the kind of thing that’s fun to argue over, and harmless to be wrong about (he’s already signed an extension, so he’ll be around regardless).

Given that we’re covering the same ground, it’s probably inaccurate to say he’s turned the corner. Let’s instead say he backed out of a lengthy dead end and is back in uncharted territory.