Tim Anderson Has Found a New Home

Tim Anderson Has Found a New Home

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Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

With spring training games in full swing, the pressure is mounting for baseball’s remaining free agents to find homes. After all, nobody wants to miss out on the weather in Florida or Arizona this time of year, and Opening Day is just a few weeks away. Now Tim Anderson won’t have to fret. Anderson is heading to the Miami Marlins on a one-year, $5 million deal. With a clear path to the starting shortstop role, the 30-year-old will no doubt hope to re-enter free agency this winter having bounced back from his disappointing final season in Chicago.

Anderson’s fit in Miami is an interesting one. If he can stay healthy and return to his prior form, he could help to stabilize the shortstop position in Miami. But he also constitutes a risky addition to an already uncertain Marlins lineup. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where neither Anderson nor Jazz Chisholm Jr. has an offensive bounce-back, Luis Arraez regresses, and Jake Burger’s contact overhaul proves to be just a flash in the pan; it could all go sideways pretty quickly. But if it goes right, this could be an exciting lineup. If nothing else, the top three of Arraez, Anderson, and Chisholm make for a very fun group. Still, in order for things to go right for Anderson, he needs to recover some of the BABIP skills that were a key reason for his success. Let’s focus on how exactly that might happen.

From 2019-2022, Anderson led the majors in batting average with a .318 mark. On a hit per plate appearance basis, nobody was more productive. Then in 2023, he cratered. Knee, shoulder, forearm, and neck injuries all contributed to the contact hitter dropping to a 60 wRC+ and -0.5 WAR in 123 games. Add to that concerns about his ability to stick at shortstop, and you have yourself a player who fell $3 million short of his median crowdsourced contract prediction. The shape of Anderson’s production through his successful four-year run was inherently volatile. He definitely possessed skills that propelled him to run above-average BABIPs, but the margin for error for that hitting style is razor thin; a handful of injuries and some loss of strength can make an otherwise productive profile almost unplayable.

Last week, I wrote about Anderson as part of my analysis of the variance among hitters with steep swings. The piece compared how hitters with steep Vertical Bat Angles (VBA), the angle of the barrel at contact relative to the ground, can have extremely different offensive profiles because of the other factors at play when it comes to measuring bat path. Despite an extremely steep VBA that is on par with some fly ball heavy hitters, Anderson had a league-leading groundball rate due to other limiting aspects of his swing. From 2021-2023, Anderson’s VBA was between the 96th and 97th percentile. It’s a trait he has had for a while, including in his successful offensive seasons. But as his VBA remained consistent, other factors changed.

Last season, Anderson made contact very deep in the zone, much more so than in the previous three years. With his inside-out swing, he has typically been able to consistently hit line drives even with deep contact points. That is a common skill among contact hitters because they tend to create a ton of depth in their bat path, which gets them on plane with the ball deep in the hitting zone. But like I said before, this style of hitting has razor thin margins. If a hitter starts making even deeper contact than usual, they can find themselves running a 60% groundball rate when they had typically hovered in the mid-50s.

In addition to contact point, you can look at other bat tracking components such as Attack Angle (AA) to understand what may have changed for Anderson. But before doing that, I want to note how AA and VBA differ from one another so that we might better understand their relationship. VBA is the angle of the barrel relative to the ground at the point of contact. AA is the angle of the path the barrel is on at contact. AA is an expression of the vertical direction the bat is moving in, while VBA is merely a snapshot at contact. Ideally, a player wants their barrel to be on an upward trajectory through contact because it directly affects launch angle. A player’s range of AA will depend on how much strength they have; the stronger they are, the higher their range of AA can be. However, it should always be positive.

In the past, AA data hasn’t been publicly accessible, but luckily SwingGraphs just made some data available last week, so we don’t have to do as much guess work. It’s not raw AA data, but they did give percentile rankings from 2019-2023, which is just as useful. Here is a quick snapshot of how Anderson’s VBA and AA have trended:

Tim Anderson Attack Angle Percentile Rankings

Year
VBA Rank
AA Rank

2019
83.15
43.59

2021
96.35
16.11

2022
96.10
7.81

2023
97.39
1.16

SOURCE: SwingGraphs

Even as Anderson’s VBA has remained consistent in the last few seasons, his AA has continued to fall. As his AA has fallen, so has his xwOBACON. Last season, he posted his lowest xwOBACON since before his offensive breakout. Getting back to his best swing will require him reversing some concerning trends in his AA. Perhaps improved health might aid in him in that, but it’s not a given. To provide an example of another contact hitter with a similar swing style that has been consistent for multiple seasons in a row, look no further than Arraez, Anderson’s new middle infield mate. Last season, he ran a 95th percentile VBA with a 23rd percentile AA. In 2022, he ran an 82nd percentile VBA with a 41st percentile AA. The gap between Arraez’s AA and VBA in 2023 was significant, but not nearly as big as Anderson’s. In fact, no hitter with at least 225 batted balls in 2023 had a larger gap between their AA and VBA than Anderson. If he wants to make the most of his skills, he’ll have to get his swing working in a more positive direction through contact by increasing his AA back to his 2019-2021 levels. On top of seeing how Arraez has balanced these two measures, he already has his own blueprint for success.

I know this can be hard to conceptualize without actually seeing a highlight of Anderson’s swing path, but I like to simplify it like this: No matter how steep or flat your VBA is, it is ideal for any hitter to have their bat working up through contact. Flatter can be good depending on the height of the pitch or the hitter, but the level Anderson was at in 2023 is a launch angle distribution killer. Maybe Arraez’s approach can help Anderson. It’s always good to have a like-minded hitter in the same clubhouse. However, it’s been a multi-year trend of moving in the wrong direction for Anderson. It’ll take a significant physical adjustment for him to reverse it.

It’ll be exciting to see if Anderson can bounce back. If all goes well, he’ll play closer to his offensive ceiling and enter free agency with an opportunity to secure a multi-year deals, perhaps having contributed to unexpected playoff pushes in Miami.

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