For those of you too young to remember, Allan Anderson was a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins in the late 80s and early 90s. He is a perfect illustration of the importance of strikeouts in projecting a pitcher's future.
Anderson was drafted by the Twins in the second round of the 1982 draft, out of high school in Lancaster, Ohio. He split the '83 season between Elizabethton in the Appy League and Wisconsin Rapids in the Midwest League, posting an ERA in excess of 7.00. But in '84 he had a great year, going 12-7, 2.86 for Visalia in the California League, with a 151/105 K/BB ratio in 189 innings, at age 20.
The Twins skipped him past Double-A in '85, moving him directly to Triple-A, where he went 7-11, 3.43 for Toledo in the International League. His K/BB was 94/79 in 176 innings, an unimpressive K/IP. Still, he was young for the level, and the Twins considered him one of their top prospects. He split '86 between Toledo and Minnesota, posting a 5.55 ERA for the Twins in 21 games, 10 starts. A weak '87 season for Triple-A Portland (4-8, 5.60) seemed to put the kibosh on his prospect status, at least if my memory serves correctly. He was regarded as a disappointment at that point.
But in '88, something clicked. He began the year at Portland again, going 1-1, 1.26 in 3 starts and earning his way into the Major League rotation when the Twins needed a starter. The key seemed to be an improved changeup, and for a time Anderson was being called "the next Frank Viola," who was the Twins ace at the time. Indeed, Anderson pitched brilliantly the rest of the year, going 16-9, 2.45 in 30 starts for the Twins, leading the American League in both raw ERA and ERA+. He also led in fewest walks per nine innings.
But there was a huge red flag: in 202 innings, his K/BB was 83/37. The walk rate was tremendous, but he didn't strike anyone out. Frank Viola, in contrast, racked up the strikeouts (193 in 256 innings that year) in decent quantities.
Anderson won 17 games in 1989. But his ERA rose more than a full run to 3.80, and his K/BB slipped further, to 69/53 in 197 innings. I remember thinking at the time that he was living on borrowed time, and that the Twins would do well to trade him. They didn't, and with Viola traded to the Mets, Anderson became the defacto "ace" for 1990. And then the collapse came, as Anderson went 7-18, 4.53 in 189 innings. Interestingly, his K/IP actually improved that year, with an 82/39 K/BB in 189 innings. But his H/IP slipped and his home run rate deteriorated. The league was definitely catching up with him.
The season after that, in '91 Anderson went 5-11 in 29 games, 22 starts, 4.96 ERA, with a dismal 51/42 K/BB in 134 innings. His control remained good, but "good" wasn't good-enough, it had to be perfect. Hitters had learned to lay off his changeup, and he didn't have enough other stuff in the arsenal to compensate. Overshadowed by Jack Morris, and youngsters Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson, Anderson lost his rotation spot late that summer, and did not see action in the post-season for the eventual World Champs. He never pitched in the Major Leagues again.
The problem with Allan Anderson was not that he didn't have a great fastball. The problem was that he didn't strike anyone out. For awhile his control was good enough to compensate, but in the long run it was not enough. There are pitchers who have mediocre fastballs but who strike people out on a consistent basis. Two southpaw contemporaries of Anderson, Jimmy Key and John Tudor, didn't bust the radar guns, but they did have decent strikeout rates during their years of effectiveness. And there are pitchers who burn radar guns but don't strike anyone out. How many of them are successful for long periods of time? Not many.
Anderson had a nice two-year run with the Twins. But his poor strikeout rate showed that he didn't have much slack to work with. Even slight slippage in his skill, or adjustments by the hitters, were lethal to his chances of having long-term success.