Career Profile: Matt Anderson
The Philadelphia Phillies recently signed pitcher Matt Anderson to a minor league contract. Remember him? He's supposedly got his fastball back into the mid-90s again, and this could be a nice reclamation project for the Phillies. Let's look at what happened to his career.
Matt Anderson was a college closer at Rice University. In 1997, he posted a 2.05 ERA with a 105/29 K/BB in 79 innings for the Owls, allowing only 48 hits, picking up nine saves. Scouts loved his 95-98 MPH fastball, and his knuckle-curve was overpowering. The Tigers selected him with the first overall pick and signed him to a contract worth $2.505 million plus incentives. Although he had the best fastball in the draft, not everyone was wild about the choice. His mechanics weren't smooth, and there was some concern that he might have been worked too hard in college. Nevertheless, he was expected to be ready to close in the majors within two years. I didn't give letter grades to new draftees back then, but a similar pitcher now would probably get a Grade B+ from me.
Anderson never got a letter grade from me. He began 1998 with High-A Lakeland, posting a 0.69 ERA in 26 innings, with a 34/8 K/BB and just 18 hits allowed. Promoted to Double-A Jacksonville, he continued dominating minor league hitters with a 0.60 ERA and 10 saves in 13 games. The Tigers called him up to pitch in middle relief in the second half and he performed well, with a 3.27 ERA and a 44/31 K/BB in 44 innings with 38 hits. His walk rate was too high, but he was hitting 100 MPH and looking like a certain success with just a few command improvements. He exhausted rookie eligibility and so he never got a place on my old prospect lists.
Things went awry quickly: his command fell apart in 1999, resulting in an ugly 32/35 K/BB in 38 innings for the Tigers in '99 (5.68 ERA), and an even worse 6.39 ERA with a 35/31 K/BB in 38 innings in Triple-A. He improved a little in 2000 with a 4.72 ERA and a 71/45 K/BB in 74 innings with just 61 hits, but was still considered a disappointment. He got a chance to close in 2001 and picked up 22 saves, but his ERA was poor at 4.82. He did show improved control with a 52/18 K/BB in 56 innings, and there was hope he was on the verge of a breakout. He was still just 25.
But it didn't happen. Limited to just 11 innings of work all year, he was bothered early in 2002 by persistent shoulder pain which was eventually diagnosed as a torn muscle. He came back "healthy" in 2003 but wasn't the same pitcher, throwing just 90-94 MPH with his fastball and showing less life with his breaking stuff. His control improved a little but never enough to make up for the loss of velocity, and by 2006 he was reduced to pitching in the independent Atlantic League. He last took the mound for Triple-A Charlotte in 2008, posting a 5.60 ERA in 18 innings.
It looked like Anderson's career was finished until he signed with the Phillies last month. His numbers: 5.19 ERA, 26 saves, 224/157 K/BB in 257 innings, 249 hits, 4.83 FIP. Very disappointing from the first pick in the draft! Could the Tigers have handled him differently? Maybe, although I don't really think he was rushed. He was blowing away minor league hitters and wasn't bad in his first look at the majors. I suppose some additional minor league time might have helped some, but I doubt it would have kept him from getting hurt, and that ultimately was the biggest problem.
Before the injury, Anderson was dogged by command problems, and it's entirely possible that he wouldn't have ever put it fully together. But he had shown flashes of better control in '01, so this is one of the intriguing "what if's" of player development from the last decade. If he hadn't gotten hurt, maybe he would have been the closer the Tigers expected.
Let's see how he looks this spring. If rumors that he's gained some velocity back are true, maybe he can tack some positive innings onto his career line.