Dodgers free agents, Part IV: Tyler Anderson faces a big decision

Editor’s note: This is the Friday, Nov. 11 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter from reporter J.P. Hoornstra. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

This series, like many a Dodger opponent in 2022, seems to have run into a logjam of left-handed starting pitchers.

The case studies of Andrew Heaney and Clayton Kershaw don’t beg for much overlap. They represent two different calibers of pitchers at different stages of their careers. With Heaney and Anderson, though, there are a great many comparisons to be drawn. Some became moot when Anderson received a qualifying offer Thursday. If he accepts it, he’ll get a one-year, $19.65 million contract to return to Los Angeles. If he declines it, history suggests he’ll have a harder time navigating the market, as teams are loathe to sacrifice draft picks to sign most free agents.

Anderson is a fascinating case study of a pitcher who reinvigorated his career with the Dodgers, albeit in a very different fashion than Heaney. For both pitchers, a season’s worth of games with the Dodgers might be representative of who they are now, which would be quite different from who they were previously. But does 2022 represent who they can be going forward? That’s the biggest question hanging over Anderson.

On to the analysis.

Why Anderson returns

Anderson’s floor was high even before he signed with the Dodgers. He had only been healthy for all of two non-pandemic seasons at the major league level, in 2018 and 2021, but he threw 182 and 167 innings in those seasons, respectively. In a league tilting toward shorter outings and higher strikeout totals by starting pitchers, Anderson looked like a throwback. His contact-oriented approach allowed him to eat innings while conserving his pitch count relative to his peers. The market hasn’t always been kind to such pitchers lately, and Anderson probably didn’t leave much money on the table by signing a one-year, $8 million contract with the Dodgers in March. (He made another half million in bonuses by pitching 100 innings.)

The bet, on Anderson’s part, was that the Dodgers would help him make the most of his repertoire. It was a smart bet, one that set him up for a much bigger payday this winter. Anderson was exactly league average by ERA-plus coming into the 2022 season, then went 15-5 with a 2.57 earned-run average in 2022. Those are elite numbers in most years, perhaps enough to collect some down-ballot Cy Young Award votes this season. If you could pencil in Anderson for 30 starts and 160 or more innings before this year, now you could conceivably put him at the top of a major-league rotation in 2023 if you believe his performance is replicable.

That’s easier to imagine Anderson doing in Los Angeles than elsewhere. The Dodgers were a strong defensive team in 2022 by just about any publicly available metric. Pitching to contact wasn’t the worst strategy among Dodger pitchers; it also happens to be Anderson’s bread and butter. Anderson more than did his part, finishing in the 98th percentile in hard-hit percentage and average exit velocity, per Statcast. Pitch to contact and allow poor contact: it’s a formula for success.

The adjustments Anderson made to his repertoire, mechanics, and pitch selection were more subtle than Heaney’s. FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens summed it up well:

The key driver of Andreson’s success is a reworked changeup. He’s throwing it slower and with less induced vertical movement now, which allows it to drop like a stone while fading arm side against opposing righties. He also doubled down on a wrinkle from last year: a drop-down sinker that he throws exclusively to lefties. He releases it roughly a foot lower than the rest of his arsenal, turning into a sidearmer. It creates a nasty angle for same-handed hitters, who pick up the ball while it’s headed for their hip. He now also spins cutters from both arm slots to further confuse the opposition.

The market seems to assume there is something “fluky” about the success of low-strikeout, innings-eating starters. (Anderson finished in the 26th percentile in K% in 2022, per Statcast.) In Anderson’s case, though, I think the Dodgers found an ideal marriage of pitcher and team. My faith in his 2022 performance rests in the fact that he didn’t have to change much besides emphasizing different parts of his repertoire and adjusting his arm slot at times. Anderson said as much too during interviews throughout the season. He’s also spoken about the importance of health. His surgery to correct a knee issue in 2019 was a major one. Being three years removed from such a procedure is better than two. And, hey, four years removed is better than three!

The Dodgers’ one-year gambles on Anderson and Heaney both look smart in hindsight, but they paid off in different ways. If 2022 represented the best version of each pitcher, Heaney still doesn’t look like a rotation workhorse going forward. He still has something to prove health-wise after losing much of the season to shoulder injuries. Anderson does not. He’s healthy. He’s efficient. He’s a potential staff workhorse who can put up an ERA in the 2s in the right environment.

With a qualifying offer in tow, Anderson might simply accept the offer and run it back on the premise that he can replicate his 2022 success. Then, he can test the free-agent market in a year without being attached to draft-pick compensation. That almost feels like a more likely avenue for a reunion than re-signing with the Dodgers on a multiyear contract.

Why Anderson leaves

If the Dodgers’ reasons for re-signing Anderson don’t really mirror those for re-signing Heaney, I might as well copy this sentence from my summary of why Heaney may depart: A team looking to capitalize on Anderson’s new career trajectory might offer more of an opportunity than the Dodgers.

In Anderson’s case, that means a contract with lots of years and dollars is within his grasp.

Even before the rumor mill turned out this tweet, I would have suggested that a team that missed the postseason in 2022 looking to make the leap in 2023 might try to make Anderson a centerpiece of their rotation plans next season. There are a lot of teams in that bucket. Throw in any clubs that make a losing bid on Justin Verlander or Jacob deGrom, and it’s not hard to imagine Anderson having a very robust market this winter.

Being attached to the qualifying offer would hamper Anderson on the open market, but it doesn’t make him any less of a fit on almost every pitching staff in baseball. It’s really tempting to look at that and see what offers are out there sooner rather than later. Anderson, who turns 33 in December, might not have the opportunity again.

Then again, if I’m Anderson, I’m thinking long and hard about using the qualifying offer to prove that this season wasn’t a fluke. His market might be even stronger in a year. Then as now, the Dodgers might be the best fit for his style of pitching. In the moment at least, the Dodgers’ front office has higher priorities. (Identifying their next Opening Day shortstop and re-signing a certain future Hall of Famer come to mind.) Anderson has 10 days to decide whether to accept or reject the qualifying offer. Should he reject it, retaining Anderson should become a high priority for the Dodgers’ front office, too.

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