Tonight in Cleveland, the Indians will send rookie right-hander Cody Anderson to the mound to take on the Houston Astros. Anderson has been excellent in his first three major league starts: he's given up just two runs in 23.2 innings for a 0.76 ERA, walking just one guy and giving up only 14 hits in that span while fanning 10. Anderson did not receive a great deal of hype pre-season, so let's take a look at his profile and potential future.
Anderson pitched college baseball at Feather River Junior College in California. He was originally an outfielder but converted to pitching full-time in 2011 and performed well enough (2.15 ERA in 46 innings, 42/18 K/BB) to be drafted in the 14th round. He pitched just five innings in the New York-Penn League after signing, but I had some intriguingly good reports on him from college and filed this summary for the 2012 Baseball Prospect Book:
Cody Anderson was drafted in the 14th round last June from Feather River Junior College in California. The Indians spent $250,000 to sign him away from a junior season at Texas Christian. He’s big, throws 90-94 MPH, and has one of the livelier arms to come out of the junior college ranks last season. His control needs work and his slider and change-up are unrefined, but there is raw material here for the Indians to work with. He could become a mid-rotation starter with proper development. Grade C with upside.
Anderson's 2012 season for Lake County in the Midwest League was decent enough, with a 3.20 ERA, 72/29 K/BB in 98 innings, 92 hits allowed. The scouting reports didn't change much from college: he was still at 90-94 with the fastball and his secondary pitches still needed work, but his fastball command had shown some improvement. He still rated as a Grade C entering 2013.
That season went quite well: 2.34 ERA, 112/31 K/BB in 123 innings for High-A Carolina with 105 hits allowed. He had some issues in three Double-A starts (5.68 ERA) but overall reports were positive with noted improvement in his breaking pitches. The report entering 2014:
He emerged as one of the best pitching prospects in the Indians system last year with a strong run in High-A. He had some problems in his last few starts after moving up to Double-A but no one is holding that against him. Anderson has a classic number four starter profile: low-90s fastball, good slider, decent curveball, weak-but-developing change-up. Nothing is plus but if the change-up comes around he’ll have four pitches to work with. Combine that with decent command and a workhorse body and you have, well, a number four starter. Grade C+.
Alas, 2014 remained a struggle in Double-A: 5.44 ERA, 81/45 K/BB in 126 innings, 141 hits, 17 homers allowed for Akron. This wasn't a problem with his velocity, which actually increased a tiny hair (he was clocked at 90-95 rather than 90-94) but his curveball and slider both deteriorated and he didn't improve the change-up. The report for this spring:
No way around it: Cody Anderson had a bad year in 2014. He entered the season as a trendy sleeper prospect but obviously didn’t live up to that. Although he still showed an intriguing 90-95 MPH fastball, his slider, curveball, and change-up all went backwards. The problems got worse as the season progressed, with a 7.67 ERA in his last six starts. There didn’t seem to be an injury involved, but he doesn’t have the kind of blistering fastball or sharp command to thrive if his secondary pitches aren’t reliable. He could end up in the bullpen and show more dominance in shorter stretches. Grade C.
2015 has been much, much different.
He started off with 10 strong starts for Akron (1.73 ERA, 36/9 K/BB in 52 innings, 44 hits). Promoted to Triple-A Columbus, he went 1-1 with a 2.33 in three starts with an 18/5 K/BB in 19 innings. And now he's here in the majors, looking good in his first three outings.
Okay, so why is this happening?
Looking at the arsenal, we see his four-seam fastball has ticked up again, his heater maxing out just under 97 MPH (96.9) and averaging 92.4, about one MPH faster than most of his minor league career. Although the average velocity hasn't changed much, having a higher available peak helps a bit. Brooksbaseball.net describes the fastball as "a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers". He has relied very heavily on that fastball this year, throwing it 65 percent of the time.
His main secondary pitch in the majors thus far has been his change-up, thrown about 30% of the time and varying between 79 and 85 MPH. That's interesting because reports last year said the change-up was unreliable, seldom-used, and "too firm" at 86-88 MPH according to Baseball America. His 2015 change-up is quite different than the reported 2014 version.
His hard breaking ball has always been described as a slider but PITCHf/x rates it as more of a cutter in 2015 and one he hasn't used that much, a little over 10 percent of the time. He still has the slow curve but has thrown it just six times over his three starts as a show-me pitch.
Putting all that together, Anderson has seen his mainline fastball increase a bit velocity-wise and his command of the pitch has been very strong thus far. His change-up has shown huge improvement compared to last year. He hasn't relied much on his breaking stuff and it will be interesting to see if that changes as he moves forward.
Sabermetrically, the extremely low walk rate in his first three starts is obviously helpful, but his strikeout rate is also quite low, his batting-average-against is unnaturally low at .171 and both indicators are caution flags for the future. The 0.76 ERA can't be sustained of course; his FIP (2.91) and xFIP (3.66) are more realistic barometers. But hey, those are both good enough for him to hold a rotation spot.
Bottom line: Anderson has come a long way in a short time and is much better than last year, but my guess is that he'll give some of that progress back once hitters get a better look at him. Ultimately, however, the projection assessments of Anderson coming out of college (future inning-eating starter) still look like the most likely outcome.