Nick Anderson is not exactly a household name – and he may never be. For most of last season, Anderson was a 28-year-old rookie non-closer pitching for the Marlins (he turned 29 in July). That’s not a recipe for superstardom.
After a deadline deal brought him to Tampa Bay, Anderson did get a moment in the spotlight, striking out four of the five batters he faced in the Rays’ Wild Card Game win over the A’s. That was nothing new for Anderson, who spent most of the season racking up strikeouts at an alarming rate.
Between Tampa and Miami, Anderson appeared in 68 games in 2019, totaling 65 innings with a good-but-not-great 3.32 ERA. The peripherals speak to a much more dominant campaign for the former independent leaguer. His 2.35 FIP suggests a potential high-leverage bullpen arm, while the 2.1 fWAR he racked up confirms it: he tied for 5th overall in the majors among relievers. That puts him on the same plane with firemen/closers like Taylor Rogers, Brandon Workman, Felipe Vazquez and Aroldis Chapman. Make no mistake: Nick Anderson is an elite bullpen piece.
Credit the Marlins for picking up Anderson and turning him into a top-100 prospect in Jesus Sanchez. Sanchez may have lost some luster as a prospect, but he still landed at #96 on Fangraphs’ top-100 list. Yes, he was #47 on their updated list after starting the year at #54 in 2019, but he’s still just 22-years-old and posted a promising line of .246/.338/.446 in the homer-happy PCL after the trade. As a 21-year-old, he was more than 5 years younger than the average player in the PCL.
For their part, the Marlins acquired Anderson for Brian Schales after the Twins signed Anderson from the independent league. The 6’5″ Anderson put up good numbers in the Twins’ system from 2015 to 2017, but he started to pop in 2018, striking out 13.2 hitters per nine innings in Triple-A. At the time, the deal was most notable for bumping Derek Dietrich from the Marlins’ roster.
But Anderson became a different animal entirely during his breakout in 2019. His 15.23 K/9 ranked fourth among relievers in the majors, behind only strikeout artists Edwin Diaz, Matt Barnes and Josh Hader. After joining the Rays, Anderson went into overdrive, striking out a ridiculous 17.3 batters per nine innings. Including his Marlins work, the Minnesota native finished in the bottom 9th percentile in hard hit percentage and bottom 12th percentile in exit velocity.
In adding Anderson from the Marlins, the Rays got a guy who has a legitimate chance to be one of the most dominant relievers in all of baseball, and they have him at the league minimum for another two seasons. This is a guy the Rays can afford, which makes the deal all the more important from their perspective. There’s a reason they could include Ryne Stanek in the deal, a guy who throws 100+ mph and had a 3.40 ERA at the time. There’s a reason they could deal Emilio Pagan to the Padres after he broke out with a 2.3 bWAR season of his own in 2019. That reason is Nick Anderson.
So how does he do it? For Anderson, the recipe is fairly simple. He throws a fastball that averages 96 mph with good spin that he locates up in the zone. His “other” pitch is a curveball – but it’s one of the best in the game. By Fangraphs’ pitch values, his curveball was the second most valuable such offering from a reliever in 2019, behind only Workman’s bender. Batters managed an expected batting average of just .134 off Anderson’s curveball while registering a whiff rate of 54.2%. As of right now, Anderson’s hook is one of the deadliest weapons in the sport.
Anderson could also be in line for some positive regression this season, as opponents had a higher-than-average .349 BABIP against him in 2019. A 14.5 % HR/FB rate was also higher than Anderson had yielded at any point in the minors, and if that number comes down, Anderson could be an even more potent asset for the Rays moving forward.
His ceiling is no lower than Liam Hendriks’ amazing 2019, though Hendriks has a bit more versatility in his offspeed stuff. Hendriks, of course, was the most productive reliever in all of baseball last season, so there aren’t a ton of comps out there that make sense for him. Anderson, however, is one that does.