Rick Anderson and pitching to contactby Scott Strandberg
May 24, 2013
While the Minnesota Twins’ philosophy regarding their starting pitchers was originally developed in the Tom Kelly era, it was pitching coach Rick Anderson who refined the strategy when incoming manager Ron Gardenhire named him to the position in 2002.
The theory of “pitch to contact and trust your defense; throw strikes and minimize walks to pitch deep into games” has become increasingly more prevalent as his tenure has progressed through the years. In fact, in Anderson’s early years with the team, it wasn't really that prevalent at all, with guys like Johan Santana around.
This past offseason, the Twins announced a drastic shift in philosophy regarding their starting pitchers (the strategy had never been applied across-the-board to the team’s relievers). General manager Terry Ryan was all over the media at the Winter Meetings, telling anyone with a microphone and camera about how the Twins had decided to start placing more value on velocity and strikeouts.
On an organizational level, Ryan seems to be staying true to his word, acquiring flamethrower Alex Meyer and strikeout machine Trevor May in trades and drafting Jose Berrios. All three are generating plenty of strikeouts in the minors this year in their first seasons in the organization.
Even Anderson joined in the fun, going so far as to say he would never use the phrase "pitch to contact" again. But the rest of that interview with Anderson is bizarre and cryptic, confusing both the reporter, Tom Powers, and Twins closer Glen Perkins. Perkins pretty clearly demonstrated that he never really had a clue what the phrase meant: “The definition of pitch to contact? Man, I guess throwing quality strikes in the strike zone and trying to induce contact. Weakly. Pitch to weak contact.”
Let’s pause for a moment and talk about Perkins. If you read between the lines of David Laurila’s interview with Perkins for Fangraphs, it appears that the Twins don’t teach their pitchers about advanced statistics at all. Perkins says he was primarily concerned about his win-loss record and ERA until stumbling across a FanGraphs article about Brandon McCarthy in 2010. Perkins doesn't mention any Twins coaches in the interview, but he does drop in some words of wisdom given to him by Greg Maddux at the World Baseball Classic.
Anderson, in his interview with Powers, basically said that he wasn’t changing his philosophy beyond ditching some terminology. He defines pitching to contact as, “Attack. Don’t pick.” In the same interview, he says, “If Alex Meyer is throwing 95 miles per hour—attack! Don’t pick.” Seems to me like somebody’s not going along with the program here.
As I mentioned, it seems that the organization on the whole is sticking to its word and valuing the ability to miss bats more than previously. So now, it’s time to find out whether Anderson is sticking to his word, being a stubborn curmudgeon and not changing a darn thing, or finally adapting along with the front office. As it turns out, Anderson is implementing his famous “pitch to contact” mantra more than ever, and it’s at least partially to blame for the failures of the Twins rotation.
The prototypeBrad Radke
Career (1995-2006, all with Twins):
- 2451 IP, 5.39 K/9, 1.63 BB/9, 82.7% Contact% (2002-2006), 4.22 ERA, 4.24 FIP
Radke’s contact rate, while a few percentage points higher than league-average in its few measurable years (FanGraphs didn’t start tracking the statistic until 2002), isn’t as high as the rest of the pitchers I’ll be talking about because contact rates in the era he pitched in were a percentage point or two lower than they are today. Also, Anderson wasn’t as extreme in the application of his philosophy until after Radke retired.
The recently departed
We’ll start out examining a couple of the Twins’ more prominent starters from recent years, then look at two veteran pitchers whose brief encounters with the Anderson Effect were less than pleasant. One quick note: I know I’m cherry-picking a bit here. It’s a necessity of a project like this; some guys were never really any good no matter what, plus the Twins haven’t acquired many starters with major-league experience in the last several years. What I’ve done here is try to pick the pitchers who best illustrate the Anderson Effect as it has developed in recent years.
Career Pre-Twins (1998-2009):
- 1209 IP, 5.81 K/9, 2.41 BB/9, 81.4% Contact%, 4.45 ERA, 4.20 FIP
- 579.2 IP, 4.83 K/9, 1.57 BB/9, 84.5% Contact%, 4.27 ERA, 4.05 FIP
It makes plenty of sense in Pavano’s case too, seeing as he, like Radke, was a pitcher with an 89-90 mph fastball whose change-up was his best pitch. You win this round, Mr. Anderson. Pavano was the perfect candidate for Radkeization.
Career with Twins (2005-2012):
- 783.1 IP, 9.05 K/9, 3.72 BB/9, 71.7% Contact%, 4.33 ERA, 3.69 FIP
- 74.2 IP, 10.00 K/9, 4.58 BB/9, 69.7% Contact%, 4.34 ERA, 3.70 FIP
The relationship between the two was always rocky, with examples ranging from Anderson questioning Liriano's work ethic to Anderson’s near-constant tinkering with Liriano’s delivery. A simple Google search for “Francisco Liriano Rick Anderson mechanics” turned up countless articles from 2006-2012 regarding Anderson “improving” or “refining” Liriano’s mechanics and the way he threw his slider. I couldn’t possibly link them all, so do the search yourself if you want to go through the history on that one.
Then there was Gardenhire and Anderson’s very public battle with Liriano regarding his refusal to follow the team philosophy. It will be interesting to track the next couple years for Liriano and see if he can develop a better relationship with Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage than he had with Anderson. It’s looking great through his first three starts in Pittsburgh, but it’s a miniscule sample, and don’t forget that Liriano can implode at any time.
*Italics indicate a career-low mark, boldface indicates a career-high
- 3189 IP, 5.58 K/9, 3.01 BB/9, 84.5% Contact% (2002-2012), 4.44 ERA, 4.40 FIP
- 139.2 IP, 3.48 K/9, 1.87 BB/9, 90.9% Contact%, 5.48 ERA, 4.68 FIP
- 40.1 IP, 2.90 K/9, 3.12 BB/9, 93.0% Contact%, 8.03 ERA, 5.86 FIP
- 180 IP, 3.35 K/9, 2.15 BB/9, 91.3% Contact%, 6.05 ERA, 4.94 FIP
There seems to be a direct correlation between Hernandez’s increased usage of his fastball and his decreased walk rate with the Twins. He threw his fastball more frequently (72.4 percent of all pitches) in 2008 than in any of his 16 other seasons in the majors. In fact, his career fastball percentage is just 59.4.
Couple that information with the fact that Hernandez threw more pitches in the strike zone than in all but one of his 16 other seasons, and you’ve got an explanation for that decreased walk rate. You’ve also got an explanation for why he was such a catastrophic failure in 2008.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t the greatest idea to have a guy with an 84 mph heater not only throw more fastballs than he ever had, but also throw them in the zone more often. Apparently, Anderson still doesn’t understand this; in his interview that I linked in the introduction, he says “Even if you’re throwing 83, just attack and pitch ahead in the count.” Okay, Rick.
Hernandez was placed on waivers by the Twins in August of 2008 and spent the last part of the season with the Rockies. Perhaps because he had spent all spring and most of the regular season with Anderson, he wasn’t immediately able to shake the philosophy and was even worse in his brief stint with Colorado. However, from 2009 on, Hernandez’s contact, strikeout and walk rates returned to near his career averages. His ERA and FIP were never worse in his 16 seasons as a starter (he pitched in relief in 2012) than they were in 2008.
- 1858.1 IP, 5.31 K/9, 3.46 BB/9, 83.9% Contact%, 4.56 ERA, 4.83 FIP
- 34 IP, 3.18 K/9, 3.71 BB/9, 91.1% Contact%, 8.47 ERA, 7.33 FIP
- 93.2 IP, 7.59 K/9, 2.69 BB/9, 76.6% Contact%, 4.04 ERA, 4.28 FIP
- 127.2 IP, 6.42 K/9, 2.96 BB/9, 80.9% Contact%, 5.22 ERA, 5.09 FIP
This past offseason, the Twins acquired three veteran starters to shore up their disaster of a starting rotation. These are all still small samples, of course, but when everyone’s small sample is screaming the exact same thing, it’s time to take notice. Why don’t you step right up and take a look at what Anderson is up to this year...
*Italics indicate a career-low mark, boldface indicates a career-high
Career Pre-Twins (2003-2012):
- 1066 IP, 6.01 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, 84.3% Contact%, 4.54 ERA, 4.51 FIP
- 57.2 IP, 3.43 K/9, 1.40 BB/9, 88.5% Contact%, 3.90 ERA, 4.37 FIP
Career Pre-Twins (2010-2012):
- 277.2 IP, 7.71 K/9, 3.14 BB/9, 86.5% Contact%, 3.50 ERA, 3.58 FIP
- 48.2 IP, 4.62 K/9, 2.77 BB/9, 90.6% Contact%, 7.21 ERA, 5.52 FIP
Unlike Correia, Worley has been getting absolutely pounded all season long and now finds himself in Triple-A after being the Twins’ Opening Day starter.
Career Pre-Twins (2006-2012):
- 896.1 IP, 5.15 K/9, 3.19 BB/9, 86.5% Contact%, 4.36 ERA, 4.20 FIP
- 38.1 IP, 4.23 K/9, 2.58 BB/9, 88.1% Contact%, 6.57 ERA, 4.31 FIP
On the whole, the argument I’ve laid out here is advanced further by this article Bill Petti wrote for FanGraphs. Not only are the Twins pitching to the corners of the plate more frequently than other teams on those all-important 1-1 counts. They also throw the fourth-fewest pitches outside the zone on 1-1 counts.
Consequently, the Twins have reached 1-2 counts by virtue of the called strike more than any other pitching staff. The problem is that their new starters aren’t used to pitching this way, and it’s producing some serious negative results. Yes, the Twins have been acquiring low-strikeout, command-and-control starters over the last several years in the first place, but the Anderson Effect makes them even Twinsier. Until this year, it had only been intermittently damaging and even occasionally helpful, but now it’s a glaring problem across the board.
Anderson’s downfall as a pitcher was partially attributable to his lack of ability to generate strikeouts (5.2 K/9 in 1,050.2 innings in the minors, 3.91 K/9 in 96.2 IP in the majors), so it’s understandable that he harbors some resentment toward strikeouts in general. They eluded him all those years; perhaps this is his way of getting back at the baseball world by doing everything he can to eliminate strikeouts from the game. Unfortunately, baseball has entered an era of increased strikeouts, leaving Anderson and his outdated philosophy in the dust.
Scott Strandberg lives in Norman, OK with his cat, Bea. He is a musician by night and a writer by day. In addition to writing for THT Fantasy, Scott writes for MLBDepthCharts and co-hosts the MLBDepthCharts Fantasy Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @scottstrandberg.