Braves' top prospect Anderson bolsters beleaguered rotation
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
With the Atlanta Braves' rotation in desperate need of a boost, Ian Anderson provided more than a glimmer of hope in his major league debut. And he did so while out-dueling New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.
It was all part of a memorable day at Truist Park for Anderson and the Braves.
Atlanta decisively swept New York in a doubleheader and arrived at the season's halfway point on top of the National League East with an 18-12 record. The Braves did all of that while having to overcome injury after injury and setback after setback, particularly to the starting five.
Anderson arrived with all of the hype that accompanied several top pitching prospects before him, but delivered in a way few could in recent years.
"The moment didn't seem real big to him," said Braves manager Brian Snitker.
"It was pretty impressive, just the demeanor. It looked like he kept the game, he slowed it down well, he had confidence in his pitches. He wasn't afraid of anything, I know that. He trusted his stuff, got right in the strike zone with those guys and that was really, really fun to watch."
Flashing both stuff and poise, Anderson kept the Yankees offense in check across six innings. In fact, New York seemed hapless over the first five frames, before Luke Voit's solo-homer spoiled Anderson's hitless performance with one out in the sixth.
Anderson covered six innings on 90 pitches and provided his club with just what it needed in the first of two games on the day. He walked two and struck out six, making big pitches to work out of the couple of jams he found himself in.
Meanwhile, the Braves' bats touched up Cole for five earned runs in his five innings of work. Ronald Acuña Jr., Dansby Swanson and Marcell Ozuna all homered in support of Anderson, as Atlanta handed Cole his first regular season loss since May 22, 2019.
With the Braves needing their young pitchers to step up and potentially claim spots in the rotation, Anderson showed the ability to get the ball over the plate consistently. That alone has been a major hurdle for other prospects hoping to stick and stay in Atlanta this year.
"That's something that I've been working on quite a bit, filling up the strike zone and making hitters make that judgment call last second of what pitch it is and try to hit it," said Anderson.
"My last couple of outings down in Gwinnett at the alternate site were similar to this. I was on the attack and I saw the results. It's definitely something that, going forward, I'll just try to be on the attack more and fill up the zone."
Anderson boasts a fastball, curveball and changeup, and mixed all three effectively against the Yankees. While he touched the mid-90s early on, Anderson threw almost as many changeups (35) as fastballs (40) according to Statcast. That mix speaks to the game plan and design of Anderson and batterymate Tyler Flowers, who guided the young righty through his debut outing.
"For me, it's not how hard I'm throwing at the beginning, it's trying to keep that up for five, six, seven innings, which I was able to do today," said Anderson. "That's more of the way I look at velocity."
It's not surprising to hear Anderson's philosophy after watching the way he approached a big league lineup for the first time. He's spent the past four years adding to and refining his pitch mix. While some Atlanta prospects may have equal or better pure stuff, it's the ability to command the strike zone consistently that could give Anderson the advantage.
That's part of his pedigree.
When I spoke to Anderson during Chop Fest earlier this year, he was primed and ready to report to big league spring training. He was expected to be knocking on the door at some point this season. Anderson just posted another strong minor league campaign and reached Triple-A in 2019, but those minor league innings were about more than just numbers.
"Part of the fun of being a pitcher and grinding through the season is just everything you learn and how much you mature from the beginning of the season to the end," Anderson said in January.
"You wouldn’t think you’d be able to learn and grow that much in six months. Just things like mound presence, confidence, learning how to pitch a little bit more, learning how to read scouting reports a little bit more. It’s all stuff that goes into the end product of being a full pitcher. So, I think that’s where I took the biggest steps."
Anderson generated 12 swings and misses during his debut outing. Eight of those were on his changeup. It's a pitch that he's developed since turning pro and an offering he trusts to get the job done.
"I wasn’t throwing a changeup much when I first started," Anderson told me before spring training.
"Didn’t really throw it much in high school at all. The last few years, it’s kind of become, I would say, my best secondary pitch. So, I have confidence in that. Just working with our coaches and staff here, just working on trying to mix all three pitches and things like that. I’d say I’ve changed quite a bit as a pitcher."
Seven months after our discussion at Chop Fest, Anderson was reliant on the changeup to beat the Yankees in his first major league start.
"It's my best off-speed pitch, probably my best pitch," said Anderson afterwards. "The fastball's good. I was able to use that and move it around the zone today. The changeup is just a pitch that I can get in there and get some contact... [it's] come a long way for me."
Atlanta tried virtually every option before turning to its top pitching prospect to potentially solve at least one spot in the starting rotation. With Anderson's strong showing, the Braves have reason to feel encouraged about his ability to contribute in the second half of this shortened season.
That sterling audition may just give general manager Alex Anthopoulos one less thing to worry about, with the trade deadline looming at the end of August.
(Photo of Ian Anderson by Daniel Venn, courtesy of the Mississippi Braves)