The hot stove season is a time of discovery. In responding to the news of trades and signings, and in doing research to prepare our annual preseason rankings, we learn things that we missed during the regular season.
After the Rays traded Tommy Pham to the Padres earlier this month, I wrote about how Pham mysteriously started hitting grounders with less authority one-third of the way into the season. (Also, thank you to commenters randplaty and zwibi, who pointed out that Pham was playing through hand and elbow injuries over several weeks late in the season.) Of 130 hitters who saw at least 1,500 pitches and hit at least 100 ground balls in both 2018 and 2019, Pham experienced the sixth-largest year-to-year decline in average exit velocity on grounders (EV GB), and that was even with his decline not beginning until two months into the season.
In studying up on Pham, I also took at look at who was at the opposite end of the spectrum in changes in EV GB, and I found Tim Anderson there. His EV GB shot up from 81.7 mph in 2018 to 86.7 mph in 2019, and his batting average on grounders rose accordingly, from .246 to .303. The only other hitter who had a larger increase in EV GB was Marwin Gonzalez, but because of Anderson’s superior sprint speed, the increase in his batting average was more amplified.
The increased power behind his grounders was only one of the changes that propelled Anderson to a major league-leading .335 batting average, which came on the heels of him batting a combined .249 in 2017 and 2018. He pulled his grounders at a career-low 47.9 percent rate, which put him just below the 90th percentile among hitters with at least 150 ground balls. He also cut more than three points off his strikeout rate, lowering it from 24.6 to 21.0 percent. Anderson hit line drives at a career-high 23.8 percent line drive rate, though that is a measure that is notoriously volatile from year to year. If you were to plot out a plan to dramatically improve a player’s batting average, this is what it would look like.
It’s not as if Anderson had never displayed any of these tendencies before. In his 2016 rookie season, he was averse to pulling grounders, and averaged 84.2 mph in ground ball exit velocity. Still, his profile was notably different in 2019, as he held these tendencies even more strongly, and he popped out far less frequently than he did as a rookie. It had all the look of a breakout season, especially given it was the third straight season he reduced his strikeout rate and the second in a row in which he increased his ISO. If not for missing more than a month with a sprained right ankle, Anderson almost certainly would have had his second straight 20-20 season, though he had to settle for 18 home runs and 17 stolen bases. As it was, he ranked 10th among shortstops in 5×5 Roto value.
He finished ahead of Manny Machado, Adalberto Mondesi and Fernando Tatis Jr., and I expect all them to leap ahead of Anderson in 2020. I also don’t see any of the nine shortstops who finished ahead him falling behind him in the coming season. Even though it seems unlikely that Anderson will repeat as a top 10 shortstop in Roto leagues, I thought there might still be an opportunity to take advantage of a perception that Anderson is not actually better than several shortstops he outearned in 2019. If the results of the Twitter poll posted below are any indication of the larger perception, then Anderson may not be that much of a steal on draft day after all.
Poll: Which of the following shortstops do you expect to have the most 5×5 Roto value in 2020?
— Al Melchior (@almelchiorBB) December 18, 2019
Among these four shortstops who ranked 10th through 13th in 5×5 Roto value for 2019, Anderson was the modal choice to have the most value in 2020. It was close between him and Jorge Polanco, and I would argue that the 37 percent who prefer the Twins’ shortstop will probably miss out on the best player from this group. They were nearly identical in value in 2019, with Anderson earning $15.7 and Polanco earning $15.4. Keep in mind that Anderson accomplished this with 186 fewer plate appearances. He also stole only two bases over the 53 games he played after returning from time missed due to his sprained ankle. Unless there are lingering effects from the injury, Anderson should be a 20-steal player once again in 2020. Polanco will likely be at a distinct disadvantage in this category, though Will Garofalo of Pitcher List made an intriguing point in response to the poll on Twitter.
Really curious to see how much the ankle affected Polanco. Might have additional sneaky SB potential. Same with TA after he returned from his ankle injury. Full year of those guys running could be fun.
— Will Garofalo (@WGarofalo2) December 18, 2019
Polanco has never stolen more than 13 bases in a season since coming up with the Twins, but he did have a 20-steal season in 2015 across three levels. If he emerges from last month’s arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle (which was done to repair damage from a chronic injury) with more speed, perhaps he could approach Anderson’s contributions to the stolen base category.
For now, let’s assume Polanco won’t surge in stolen bases and see how he stacks up otherwise. He was far superior to Anderson as a run producer, but then again, he had a huge advantage in plate appearances and was used more regularly in the second spot of the Twins’ batting order. Anderson was only used regularly in that spot in the White Sox’s order from June forward, after having batted sixth or seventh frequently in the early part of the season. As their rosters currently stand, Polanco will probably have better hitters surrounding him in the batting order, but Anderson could still close the bulk of the run production gap if he bats second regularly and does not regress too much in batting average and on-base percentage. While Polanco may have a small edge in run production, Anderson had a slightly better AB/HR ratio than Polanco in 2019 (27.7 to 28.7) and a much better ratio over the course of their respective careers (32.2 to 37.4).
Unless you are counting on an out-of-nowhere jump in stolen bases for Polanco, your choice between him and Anderson likely comes down to how much you trust Anderson’s batting average breakout and how concerned you are about his post-injury drop in stolen bases. I do expect some batting average regression from Anderson, as I probably wouldn’t trust a repeat of a .399 BABIP from anyone. Even with Polanco’s steadily high line drive rates, I like Anderson’s chances for batting at least 20 points higher than him. Consider that Anderson’s xBA was 15 points higher than Polanco’s in 2019, and that did not take the former’s lower pull rate into account. Anderson hits far fewer flyballs, and when Polanco has hit grounders, he has historically hit them weakly. If Anderson profiles to have an advantage over Polanco in steals and batting average and to make it close everywhere else, the only argument I can see for favoring Polanco is safety.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.