Tim Anderson’s Second, Quieter BreakoutTony Wolfeon September 3, 2020 at 5:19 pm

Winning a batting title on its own doesn’t quite win you the household name status that it once did. Ask the casual fan the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the name Tim Anderson, and there’s a good chance it’s the time he pimped the living daylights out of a homer off Brad Keller in 2019 and was subsequently plunked for it. Only after a repeat visit to his highlight reel and another exhausting discussion about baseball’s unwritten rules would they get around to saying he was last season’s American League batting champion, with his .335 average leading all major league hitters.

For a guy who previously held a career batting average of .258, that was a surprising development, but it wasn’t as though he’d suddenly turned into an MVP candidate. Anderson virtually never walked, and hit for only average power, meaning a near-.400 BABIP could still only get him to a 3.5 WAR season. That’s nothing to sneeze at — it put him in the 78th percentile of all batters who made at least 300 plate appearances last season. But there was good reason to believe that was probably his ceiling.

That brings us to another surprising development — Anderson has gotten even better. He’s once again in the batting title discussion, with a .333 average that trails only that of Cleveland’s Franmil Reyes (.336) in the American League. But he’s also running an on-base percentage of .372 and a whopping .579 slugging percentage, helping him to 1.5 WAR that ranks 19th in baseball. Of the 18 players ahead of Anderson, Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rendon are the only ones not to have logged at least seven more games than him.

As you might expect, the most apparent change here is in Anderson’s power. In 2019, he produced a career-high ISO of .173. This year, that number is up to .246. That’s thrilling, but it’s also a bit misleading. In just 27 games, an outlying cluster of positive results could throw off the entire data sample. Anderson has hit six homers this season, which would put him on pace for more than 30 if he played close to the ordinary 162-game schedule, far above his previous career-high of 20. Five of those homers, however, came in a span of just nine days, and all were hit against the Tigers. In fact, he hit three of them off of Matthew Boyd. Fortunately, he still knows how to get his money’s worth watching a cool dinger:

Kick rocks, Keller. Unfortunately for Anderson, though, he doesn’t get to spend the whole season facing Detroit southpaws. Against non-Tigers opponents, Anderson’s ISO falls to just .116. That’s not to discredit Anderson — those six games counted, and they account for 22% of his season so far — but it does illustrate the impact that just two series can have on someone’s numbers in a season like this.

Another bad sign for Anderson’s ability to sustain this power surge is his groundball rate. When he first made the majors, Anderson had a lot of trouble lifting the ball, but he was able to work his groundball rate down under 50% in each of the last two seasons. This year, however, that number has leapt all the way back up to 59.1%, the fifth-highest mark in baseball. That’s decidedly not great news, but it also isn’t a sure sign of trouble — throughout his career, Anderson’s groundball rates have fluctuated wildly, meaning there’s a good chance a reversal is on the horizon at any time:

Getting back to elevating the ball could be a huge step in keeping his slugging percentage up, because even with all the reasons I’ve given for why we shouldn’t buy into his power numbers just yet, there is no doubt Anderson is hitting the ball harder this year than he ever has. During his first two full seasons in the big leagues, he was always near the bottom of the league in exit velocity. Even last season, when he blossomed into a good contact hitter, his exit velocity remained below average, finishing in just the 31st percentile of all hitters. This season, he has added another tick to how hard he hits the ball, bringing his exit velocity all the way up to the 69th percentile:

This isn’t the sort of thing that’s been elevated by him crushing a few balls over the span of a couple weeks, either. By our batted-ball data, Anderson owns a Hard-Hit% of 55.7% — the 10th highest in baseball, placing him squarely between Mike Trout and Juan Soto. That quality of contact has made Statcast a believer in his improvement, even with a sky-high groundball rate. Virtually across the board, its expected statistics have Anderson as a better hitter than he was last year, with the two-year improvement from 2018 truly jaw-dropping:

Tim Anderson Statcast Metrics, 2018-20
Year Barrel% Percentile xBA Percentile xSLG Percentile xwOBA Percentile
2018 4.7 24th .228 13th .367 18th .279 4th
2019 5.1 23rd .295 92nd .471 59th .337 51st
2020 9.1 69th .290 74th .505 76th .357 65th

Anderson didn’t spend this offseason turning into Aaron Judge, just like he didn’t spend the previous offseason suddenly turning into Tony Gwynn. But he has improved, rather convincingly and consistently, after spending the earlier stages of his big league career swinging one of the weaker bats around.

Even Anderson’s plate discipline numbers show evidence of growth. His walk rate has improved somewhat, from 2.9% to 5.0%, but at this stage of the year, that only amounts to one or two additional walks than we’d have expected. The more encouraging stuff is under the hood — Anderson’s swing rate, still an aggressive 54.1%, is 4.4 points lower than last year, with a large portion of that drop occurring on pitches outside the zone. His zone swing rate has dropped just two points this season, while his chase rate has fallen by 6.5 points. In particular, Anderson seems to have become quite adept at recognizing change-ups, and backing off of them:

The same warning signs against buying into Anderson’s emergence as a star hitter exist today as they did last year. His batted ball luck is still ridiculously good, as he’s followed a .399 BABIP last year with a .390 mark this season. His power looks a bit flukey, and he swings too much. For a second-straight season, this doesn’t look like it should be working. And yet, Anderson is thriving, now more than ever. You’re free to wonder how long he can keep this up, but I’d hate for you to miss out on what he’s doing now.
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