Finding Comparisons for Who Cody Anderson Might Be
By: August Fagerstrom / @AugustF_MLB
There was a time when Cody Anderson was the best pitcher in Major League history, at least through his first four starts. Since then, he’s been a disaster. For the time being, he’ll be no kind of pitcher, as he’s found himself on the disabled list with an oblique injury.
The Indians and their fans alike thought they might have found something with Anderson, at first. Now, nobody has much of a clue, and that won’t change for at least a couple more weeks until Anderson resumes pitching. What that time off gives us, though, is a chance to reflect, and to look towards the future.
Certainly, Anderson is not as good as his first four outings, nor is he as bad as his latest four. Results can be fluky. We know this. There are so many external factors in play, especially over the span of a mere eight starts and especially with statistics like ERA, that’s it’s nearly impossible to draw a significant conclusion from results in such a limited sample.
Less fluky than results, though, are the characteristics of a pitcher’s arsenal. While ERA is marred by nine fielders, the quality of the opposition, the park in which the game is being played and the discretion of both the umpire and the official scorer, the characteristics of a pitch have but one variable: the pitcher. The pitcher, and the pitcher alone, has complete control over the velocity, spin, and movement of his offerings. This allows us to have a clear understanding of the true nature of a pitch, even in relatively limited samples.
Rather than attempt to analyze Anderson by his inconsistent results, then, let’s attempt to analyze him based on the qualities of his pitches. Our question: Like whom has Cody Anderson pitched?
You could probably skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t care about the math and just want to see pitch comps and .gifs. I wouldn’t blame you.
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The inspiration for the exercise that follows comes largely from the work of FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan. Back in January, Sullivan introduced the idea of using pitch characteristics to create comparisons in the way that will be utilized in this post. The math is boring, but Sullivan essentially isolated velocity and movement to find pitches that behave in a similar manner. I’ve done the same for Anderson, but done so with the added benefit of access to the Statcast database that includes spin rate – something the Indians use to evaluate their own pitchers.
The comparisons were found using z-scores of velocity, horizontal movement, vertical movement, and spin rate, looking only at other right-handed starters. The “comp” score is a sum of the absolute value of those four z-scores. The closer the number is to 0, the stronger the comp. Pitches with a comp score stronger than 2 are displayed. I’ve also included whiff/swing and ground ball/ball in play in the tables to give an idea of the effectiveness of each pitch. Let’s now gain a better understanding of Cody Anderson’s arsenal.
Top comp: Johnny Cueto
Hey! Cody Anderson has Johnny Cueto’s fastball! That’s great news for Cody Anderson, and people who wish to see Anderson succeed, because Cueto’s had more success as a pitcher than virtually every living person on Earth, and the fastball is his primary pitch.
Then again, there’s also those other three names in the table. Without Cueto, that would be an entirely underwhelming list of comps, but Cueto showing up as the top comp is actually kind of perfect because it highlights the main limitation of using pitch comparisons to find pitcher comparisons.
Let’s see these pitches in action. First, Cueto’s fastball:
Now, Anderson’s entirely comparable fastball:
There’s a reason I chose the pitches I did. Anderson’s average fastball is nearly identical to Cueto’s average fastball, in terms of velocity and shape. That’s what these pitch comps can reveal. What these pitch comps can’t reveal is perhaps the bigger part of the equation, relative to a pitcher’s success: command.
Cueto had two strikes on Justin Upton with two outs and the tying run on second base. He needed to make a good pitch. Upton is a great hitter, but an aggressive one with a reputation for chasing and struggling with fastballs. Cueto’s catcher set up for a heater off the plate and Cueto nailed his spot, blowing Upton away to end the inning.
Anderson had Grady Sizemore in a 1-2 count with a perfect game on the line in the seventh inning. Anderson had no incentive to give Sizemore a hittable pitch. Anderson’s catcher set up for a fastball off the plate, just like Cueto’s. Anderson yanked the pitch, leaving it elevated and over the middle, and Sizemore broke up the perfect game in the loudest way possible.
To use two cherry-picked examples as a representation of a pitcher’s entire body of work is nitpicking, sure, but I wrote about Anderson’s struggles to expand the zone with two strikes for MLB.com last month, back when he still had a 1.91 ERA. The Sizemore pitch wasn’t a one-time occurrence. The most interesting thing about Anderson, to me, comes down to the difference between control and command. And there is a difference.
Control could be thought of as the ability to put the ball over the plate. Command, then, would be the ability to put the ball where the glove is. It’s possible to have control without command. Anderson’s eight walks in 48 innings demonstrates great control, which is more than some pitchers can say! What Anderson hasn’t yet demonstrated is any semblance of consistent command, being able to spot a pitch on the corner or in the dirt when he needs to. Therein lies the difference between the Cueto fastball and the Anderson fastball. On to the next pitch.
Top comp: Joe Kelly
The names here aren’t particularly promising, so why don’t we jump right into the visuals. Lest I run the risk of picking on Anderson, let’s observe a very good changeup:
Anderson’s changeup, when spotted like this one, has the potential to be a very effective secondary offering. It’s got some nice fade, and a reasonable 9mph separation from his fastball. Now for the Kelly changeup:
These pitches were chosen, again, for a specific reason. Anderson’s pictured changeup was a fantastic changeup. Kelly’s pictured changeup was a terrible changeup. Adrian Beltre should have taken that pitch deep for a three-run homer. He just missed.
One of the next-closest comps for Anderson’s change, but one that didn’t quite make the cut, was Anibal Sanchez’s split-change. Anibal’s splitter is a great pitch, so it’s nice for Anderson that it could be considered a loose comp. But this, again, brings us back to the control vs. command idea.
Above, I said Anderson’s change can be great when spotted like shown. What follows is an image that shows the location of all of Anderson’s changeups vs. all of Sanchez’s split-changes:
With Sanchez, you see a clear plan of attack: a healthy number of pitches in the dirt with a heavy cluster on the lower edge of the strike zone. Almost nothing is above the waist. With Anderson, you see a scattered representation. There’s red in the middle of the plate, plenty of pitches above the waist and very little in the dirt.
When Anderson throws a changeup like the one he threw to Pedro Alvarez, it’s a great pitch. Problem is, he’s thrown more like the one Kelly served up to Beltre.
Top comp: David Buchanan
Wacha and Miller: inspiring. Buchanan and Williams: not so much.
By now, I’ve largely made my point, so I’ll leave it up to you to parse out the difference between Buchanan and Williams’ offerings with regards to Wacha’s and Miller’s, and why Anderson has only generated a ground ball on one of every three balls in play against his cutter. I’ll give you a hint: the keyword(s) begin with a “C”.
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Search for pitch comps for Cody Anderson and names like Johnny Cueto, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller pop up, which is encouraging. Anderson’s stuff might not be electric, but he’s not up there throwing junk, either. Outweighing the Cueto’s, Wacha’s and Miller’s, though, are the Nick Martinez’s, Joe Kelly’s and Tom Koehler’s of the world. Martinez’s name appears twice in this study, and he feels like a reasonable comp for who Anderson might be, as much as that may be disappointing for Indians fans after Anderson’s debut.
Combine the season-to-date numbers of the nine pitchers unearthed in this exercise and you wind up with the following line: 4.00 ERA, 17.6 K%, 7.8 BB%, 0.98 HR/9.
The one constant among the group is that none of these pitchers, including the three upper-echelon names, are big strikeout guys. Anderson simply does not have a strikeout arsenal, regardless of whether he develops the ability to expand the zone with two strikes. Working in his favor is that he does appear to exhibit far better control than the lower-tier names of the group, as evidenced by his probably-unsustainable-but-still-very-impressive 4.2 BB% through eight starts.
As we’ve discussed, however, control is far different than command. With better command, perhaps Cody Anderson could be Shelby Miller. They do throw the same cutter, after all. But for now, he’s probably closer to being a Nick Martinez or Joe Kelly.