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The curious case of Tim Anderson

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Tim Anderson is walking more, playing better defense, and showing untapped power — but still has a lot of room to improve

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners
Reborn: Tim Anderson’s 2018 is way more in line with his promising rookie season of 2016 than last year’s step back.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

For all the good and bad that Tim Anderson brings, at least in South Side Sox comments, the bad usually drowns out the good.

Unfortunately, both the lovers and haters seem to be wrong, because this year Anderson is middle of the road in just about every way possible.

Defense

Let’s start with the most polarizing aspect of Anderson’s game, his defense. With Anderson, there can be a lot of cherrypicking to see what type of fielder he is, and hopefully this analysis can satisfy both the eye-test and that stat-nerd crowds.

Tim Anderson fielding spray chart.

Revised Zone Rating (RZR) looks at plays made inside and outside a fielder’s “zone” and in order to unearth the most efficient fielder. Anderson is the second-worst shortstop in terms of RZR, with a .693, which FanGraphs would categorize as worse than awful. Just to put this stat and errors in perspective, the leader in errors among shortstops is Marcus Semien — but Semien also leads all shortstops in RZR.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is similar to RZR, but it also takes into account double plays and gives a grading to range instead of out-of-zone plays made. Based on UZR/150 (meaning, a 150-game scale) Anderson’s UZR is -2.0, which is categorized as below average and ranks 21st overall among shortstops.

Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF) is used to compare fielding among different positions and not just a specific position. In other words, because shortstop is a difficult fielding position, it would be valued higher than a first baseman, because of the positional adjustment. Anderson’s DEF is at 4.0, which is right at the above-average number, making Anderson 15th among shortstops. Anderson is helped by the fact that he is strictly a shortstop, while other shortstop-eligible players move around to other positions that will almost definitely lower their DEF number.

Finally, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) tells you just that: How many runs a player prevents or lets in. Tim Anderson is at 0, which, unsurprisingly, is average, tying him for 17th among shortstops. (Aside: DRS is my preference for defensive stats).

Now, it is best to note, every defensive stat has human involvement, and as such is limited. This why there is a divide among stat-fans and eye-test fans. But the stats actually provide support for both sides on this issue, and defensively, Anderson grades out as average in all but RZR.

TA’s bad

Anderson is tied for the second-most errors among shortstops (six fielding, seven throwing) and has made 122-of-176 plays inside his “zone.” TA also has a -4.7 in error runs, which is far and away the worst in the league. Those stats provide your eye test, because the brain usually remembers the absolutely bad, and for Anderson the absolutely bad happens too often.

TA’s good

For the stat guys, Anderson has 105 outside-the-zone plays, which puts him first among all SSs, with 15 more than second-place Jean Segura. And Anderson is tied for seventh among shortstops in range runs, at 3.4. Timmy is fast, we all know that — and that is why he should stay at shortstop.

I am among the crowd that supports Anderson’s move to center field, where the wide-open area is a place his speed would translate much better in. However, there isn’t anybody in the system that can or should replace Anderson at shortstop, yet. The routine plays are what trouble him more than any other shortstop, but he also can get to more batted balls than a majority of shortstops. Those two characteristics seem to cancel each other out.

If Anderson can mature as a fielder, he can be a top defensive shortstop, but that takes time.

Hitting

Time is something the White Sox have plenty of, and patience is something that will benefit Anderson’s fielding, but his hitting.

Right now, TA has a 96 wRC+, which is just a few ticks below average (100) in all of baseball, and 16th among shortstops. Anderson also has a wRAA at -1.3, again a few ticks below average, putting him 18th among shortstops. What is truly above average is Anderson’s power compared to other shortstops (ranking 11th) and his baserunning (3rd, per baserunning runs).

Again, Anderson proves to be average overall. But what’s encouraging is that nearly every offensive stat is better than last season’s. And the real overall improvement comes from Anderson’s BB% (6.0%), which is double his previous high; K%, which is down almost 3% to 23.8%; and ISO, which is up about 20 points, to .168.

Unfortunately, improvements in things like BB% and K% don’t mean that Anderson has fixed his batter’s eye problem. Anderson is swinging only 0.8% less frequently on pitches outside of the zone, 4% better than when he was a rookie.

Similarly, Anderson has had a 4% rise in contact outside of the zone at an unproductive 57.9% rate which, presumably, plays into the fact that he:

  • Has the 13th lowest hard-hit percentage in all of baseball, at 27.6%
  • Is in the bottom third in baseball in barrels per plate appearance at 3.4%
  • Ranks 207th of 238 players in average exit velocity at 85.6 MPH (although to his credit, that marks a 0.6 mph improvement over last year)

But what is even more telling about Anderson’s hard-hit struggles is the location of the pitches Anderson is seeing:

Tim Anderson’s heat map of ISO per pitch.

The sweet spot for Anderson is mid-to-low and inside this season. He is absolutely crushing those pitches better than he ever has. Along with a more than three degree increase in launch angle, it makes sense that Anderson is taking advantage of those pitches.

However, that is not where Anderson is seeing the majority of his pitches:

Tim Anderson pitch percentage against him.

The trend from pitchers is to pitch him low and away, which is where he generates the least amount of power. On top of that, Anderson makes contact on too many pitches low and away, and below the strike zone:

Tim Anderson contact percentage of pitches in their respective zone.

Anderson is being more selective, but he is not being smart about his swings. Making contact on 83% and 75% of the pitches low and away in the zone is not a good practice for anybody, especially Anderson, whose ISO for those respective zones are .030 and .004. There should not be any hint of red in pitches so far from a player’s sweet spot, in particular pitches that lead to more ground outs.

What Anderson needs to do is work the strike zone and the count to his advantage, not take pitches to just take pitches. The only way to do that is with more at-bats and more seasoning.

And that is what is encouraging about Anderson’s struggles, not just as a hitter but on defense as well. He is already average, and with more games, he should be better from sheer experience. Anderson already has tools you cannot teach: speed, power, and more sporadically, great instincts on the basepaths and in the field.

Give Anderson time. Not only does he need it — he deserves it.

***

Defensive numbers are with minimum 400 innings played at shortstop. Offensive numbers are with minimum 200 plate appearances at shortstop. Swinging, contact, and exit velocity are from Pitch Info on FanGraphs. Spray chart and heat maps are from FanGraphs.