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Tim Anderson won’t stop improving

An outside look at the star’s leap into the company of the game’s elite shortstops

MLB: Game Two-Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees
Even as the White Sox waver, Tim Anderson continues to ascend.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

When Tim Anderson joined Billy Ripken and Mark DeRosa on MLB Network in August 2018, the pair noted that they usually talked about hitting when a position player was a guest. With Anderson, however, the focus would be base-running and fielding.

“I’m not where I need to be at.” Anderson said, with regards to his offense.

I distinctly remember watching this segment and being taken aback by Anderson’s self-deprecation. He was well on his way to the sixth 20-20 season in White Sox history — the first-ever for a shortstop — and leading the team in both forms of WAR. His lack of plate discipline had kept him to a 91 wRC+, but that felt unconcerning. Plate discipline can improve. That Anderson declined to even talk about hitting until he felt he was successful enough to speak on it made a genuine impression.

The rest is history. Contrary to expectations, Anderson’s sky-high 2019 BABIP simply became a fixture of his game, rather than a single-season fluke. It also provided the source material for one of my favorite baseball tweets ever:

Since this tweet was posted, Anderson has batted a cool .322/.352/.480 (133 wRC+) with a sparkling .377 BABIP and 6.7 WAR (both kinds!) in 160 games. Dating back to his 2019 breakout, only Trea Turner has accumulated more fWAR than Anderson’s 13.8. Anderson’s 13.2 rWAR slots in just behind Turner, Trevor Story, Xander Bogaerts, Fernando Tatís Jr., and Carlos Correa.

Elite company, to say the least.

There’s simply no faking those kinds of results over a sample of 350+ games across four seasons. If that wasn’t enough, Anderson has taken it to an entirely new level this year: His three hits in yesterday’s drubbing brought his batting average to .363, second in MLB to J.D. Martinez. Anderson’s .917 OPS isn’t just excellent for a shortstop, it sits barely outside the Top 10 in the entire game. It’s appeared in flashes before, but so far in 2022, Anderson has been almost the complete package as a hitter.

If they weren’t already, any doubts of his status as a bona fide superstar are being put to rest amid this explosion. He’s comfortably outperformed his expected stats in every season since his breakout, but this clearly isn’t just a string of fortunate results on balls in play. Quite the opposite: Anderson’s leap to the production of an MVP candidate has been under-girded by batted-ball data that shows he’s hitting the ball like an MVP candidate.

Shenanigans with the baseball have made expected statistics a bit screwy this year — although there’s a very strong argument that a deadened ball is beneficial for gap-to-gap, line-drive hitters like Anderson — but a full set of career-highs and league-leading numbers doesn’t lie. Looking at Anderson’s barrel rates and expected wOBA on contact (you might think of that as Statcast BABIP), he’s once again punishing the ball the same way he did in the abbreviated 2020 season, when he slugged .549 with a 141 wRC+. Except this time, Anderson is doing it with an 11% strikeout rate that’s the eighth-lowest in the majors out of 169 qualified hitters. It’s not just a product of typical streakiness — Anderson has never sustained this level of contact ability for as long as he has to this point in the season.

As you might guess, the amount that he swings-and-misses has declined at the same time. In 2020, Anderson achieved incredible results despite a 30% whiff rate that was well higher than the MLB average. He still swings and chases out of the zone more than just about everyone, but Anderson’s overall whiff rate has dropped all the way to 19%, well below league average. That does a lot to explain strikeout rate. If you don’t swing and miss, and also swing early and often enough to put the ball in play before you get to two strikes — Anderson’s 3.13 pitches seen per plate appearance this year is the lowest in baseball, and the gap between he and second-place Luis Robert (no comment) is bigger than the one between Robert and 10th-place Jean Segura — strikeouts are going to be fewer and farther between.

Considering Anderson’s strikeout and whiff rates remained relatively consistent from his initial call-up in 2016 through 2021, this is a pretty remarkable trend. Statistically speaking, players are almost always set quite firmly in their ways by the time they reach 3,000 plate appearances. Yet here’s Tim Anderson, moving from roughly the 40th percentile all the way into the Top 10 in the entire league. It’s a lot more remarkable than it’s getting credit for.

It’s hard to say exactly why it’s happening. Looking at information about pitch types and pitch location tells us how, though. First, by pitch type — Anderson has seen improvements across the board, but it’s a precipitous drop in whiff rate against four-seam fastballs that jumps out:

Roughly one out of every seven pitches he sees is a four-seamer, so this is a bit of a big deal! What’s important is not just the fact that Anderson is not missing fastballs anymore, it’s where and when he’s not missing fastballs. This is going to get a little granular, but squint and you’ll find some cool trends. Here’s a visualization of Anderson’s swings on four-seam heaters last season:

That’s a lot of pitches, so naturally it’s pretty clustered. But you can see a couple of spots around the strike zone’s upper border and outside edge where the racked up a fair number of whiffs.

Now? Poof, gone.

Here’s the same chart so far this year:

They haven’t necessarily turned into productive balls in play, but a lot of those swings-and-misses from 2021 have turned into foul balls in 2022. On the surface, that might seem unexciting. But it gives away the why part of TA’s sudden aversion to punch outs: Pitchers can’t use fastballs to put him away with two strikes. Four-seamers approaching triple-digits at the top of the zone are the zeitgeist of modern baseball, and Anderson has taken away the central pillar of a vast number of arsenals around the league.

So far in 2022, strikeouts have made up four of his 16 plate appearances ending in a fastball. In 2021, that number was 49 of 94, a whopping 48%. It was 11 of 21 (52%) in 2020, and even the year prior, when he wasn’t whiffing on four-seamers as much (more on that in a second), it was 27 strikeouts in 60 plate appearances (45%).

Though this level of strikeout-avoidance is unprecedented for Anderson, his contact ability against four-seamers is not: He ran a 17% whiff rate against them in his breakout 2019, but whiff rates of 29% and 19% against breaking balls and off-speed pitches kept his Ks in relative stasis. His whiff rates spiked across the board in 2020’s limited sample size before dipping again in 2021, and now, he’s essentially managed to combine his 2019 contact ability with the power he displayed in 2020. Quite the combination.

That MVP-level offensive production would follow such an adjustment is unsurprising, nor is Anderson’s ability to make such an adjustment. I haven’t watched much video, so only he can tell me exactly what he did to activate these skills. It’s hard to pick out much difference in his swing between this year and last, i.e, the difference between being disastrously late on a Michael Fulmer fastball and just on top enough to fight one off from Gerrit Cole, whose pitch was in a more hittable location but is also an order of magnitude more effective overall than Fulmer’s:

One simple solution — and one that would indicate this isn’t simply a flash in the pan — is that after five full seasons in the big leagues, Anderson’s pitch recognition has improved to the point where he no longer gets beat on one of the key pitches that opponents have used to get him out in recent years. I don’t have space to get into it here, but it’s not just fastballs that he seems to be seeing better. This is a player who’s done little but simply get better almost from the moment he became a professional, and what we know about his character and work ethic makes this kind of escalation to Super Saiyan-mode less surprising than some might imagine.

That being the case and that being said, I want to finish up by returning to Anderson’s game-breaking home run last Sunday night, because it’s a discussion that’s not going away any time soon. Similar to the Field of Dreams hand gesture iconic enough to be captured in a bobblehead, one image from his dramatics sticks continuously in my brain: The look of barely-suppressed joy and excitement as he rounded the bases with his signature celebration.

It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate and satisfying “tell them to shut the fuck up” than the one he was able to deliver to a crowd of belligerent Yankees fans. In a word, it’s just nice to see that he enjoyed it as much as we did. He’s earned the right, to say the least.

The last week of discourse is sure to have been exhausting for Anderson, as must be the broad experience of being Black in Major League Baseball. His dramatics shouldn’t be framed as some heroic victory over racism, nor should it distract from pushing back on the vitriol and microaggressions that he and other Black players certainly deal with on a regular basis. Still, we can recognize that this was a deeply, undeniably poetic moment, the joy of which we should still appreciate as much as we lament the presence of the world’s Josh Donaldsons in our game. Tim Anderson is winning, and writers — especially those of us who are white — would do well to make sure we still define him by his growth and successes and the way he plays the game, even as we contextualize it in part with the racism that would tear down his dignity.

Anderson has built his own burning star in a hostile league, and if he maintains something like the pace he’s on now, it’s hard to think of a player who appears to deserve it more. BABIP be damned.

Editor’s Note: The initial title of this article, “Tim Anderson just keeps getting better,” was changed due an article with the same title recently published at SoxOn35th.