Rick Anderson and pitching to contact

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 prototype

Brad Radke
Career (1995-2006, all with Twins):
{exp:list_maker}2451 IP, 5.39 K/9, 1.63 BB/9, 82.7% Contact% (2002-2006), 4.22 ERA, 4.24 FIP {/exp:list_maker}Ahh, Brad Radke, he of the 89 mph heater, devastating change-up, and pinpoint command; the prototypical “Twins starter.” When Anderson arrived in 2002, Radke had already been with the Twins for seven seasons and was the poster boy for the team’s developing pitch-to-contact strategy.

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.

Carl Pavano
Career Pre-Twins (1998-2009):{exp:list_maker}1209 IP, 5.81 K/9, 2.41 BB/9, 81.4% Contact%, 4.45 ERA, 4.20 FIP {/exp:list_maker}Career with Twins (2009-2012):{exp:list_maker}579.2 IP, 4.83 K/9, 1.57 BB/9, 84.5% Contact%, 4.27 ERA, 4.05 FIP {/exp:list_maker}For Pavano, the Anderson method worked quite well. Not a huge improvement in ERA/FIP, but it’s more significant when you consider that this was during his age 33-36 seasons, and also after his four injury-plagued age 29-32 seasons. Actually, look at Pavano’s numbers with the Twins and compare them to Radke’s career numbers above. Pretty much the same.

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.

Francisco Liriano
Career with Twins (2005-2012):{exp:list_maker}783.1 IP, 9.05 K/9, 3.72 BB/9, 71.7% Contact%, 4.33 ERA, 3.69 FIP {/exp:list_maker}Career post-Twins (2012-2013):{exp:list_maker}74.2 IP, 10.00 K/9, 4.58 BB/9, 69.7% Contact%, 4.34 ERA, 3.70 FIP {/exp:list_maker}In 2012, mere days before Liriano was traded to the White Sox, Anderson gave the following unceremonious response when asked about his time with Liriano and how he would feel if Liriano was traded: “We’ve had a lot of good times, a lot of frustrating times.”

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.

Livan Hernandez
*Italics indicate a career-low mark, boldface indicates a career-high
Career (1996-2012):{exp:list_maker}3189 IP, 5.58 K/9, 3.01 BB/9, 84.5% Contact% (2002-2012), 4.44 ERA, 4.40 FIP {/exp:list_maker}With Twins (2008):{exp:list_maker}139.2 IP, 3.48 K/9, 1.87 BB/9, 90.9% Contact%, 5.48 ERA, 4.68 FIP {/exp:list_maker}With Rockies (2008):{exp:list_maker}40.1 IP, 2.90 K/9, 3.12 BB/9, 93.0% Contact%, 8.03 ERA, 5.86 FIP {/exp:list_maker}Full Season (2008): {exp:list_maker}180 IP, 3.35 K/9, 2.15 BB/9, 91.3% Contact%, 6.05 ERA, 4.94 FIP {/exp:list_maker}Based on my research, I believe Hernandez’s 2008 season to be the first sign of how extreme Anderson’s philosophy would become. By this point in his career, the 33-year-old Hernandez’s fastball was sitting around 84 mph, and while he certainly did minimize his walks with the Twins, he paid quite a price for it.

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.

Jason Marquis
Career (2000-2013):{exp:list_maker}1858.1 IP, 5.31 K/9, 3.46 BB/9, 83.9% Contact%, 4.56 ERA, 4.83 FIP {/exp:list_maker}With Twins (2012):{exp:list_maker}34 IP, 3.18 K/9, 3.71 BB/9, 91.1% Contact%, 8.47 ERA, 7.33 FIP{/exp:list_maker}With Padres (2012): {exp:list_maker}93.2 IP, 7.59 K/9, 2.69 BB/9, 76.6% Contact%, 4.04 ERA, 4.28 FIP {/exp:list_maker}Full Season (2012): {exp:list_maker}127.2 IP, 6.42 K/9, 2.96 BB/9, 80.9% Contact%, 5.22 ERA, 5.09 FIP {/exp:list_maker}Marquis didn’t spend as much time getting Andersoned as Hernandez did, as the Twins gave up on him in May. By June 7, Marquis was in San Diego, pitching like he was trying to push the memory of Anderson as far from his mind as possible. Sure, that sample size with the Twins is very small (only seven starts), but the difference in the way Marquis pitched with each team, and compared to his career marks, is still eye-popping and is the perfect segue to our next case study.

The newcomers

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…

Kevin Correia
*Italics indicate a career-low mark, boldface indicates a career-high
Career Pre-Twins (2003-2012): {exp:list_maker}1066 IP, 6.01 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, 84.3% Contact%, 4.54 ERA, 4.51 FIP {/exp:list_maker}2013 with Twins: {exp:list_maker}57.2 IP, 3.43 K/9, 1.40 BB/9, 88.5% Contact%, 3.90 ERA, 4.37 FIP {/exp:list_maker}Well, gee whiz, what have we here? A strikeout rate more than 2.5 K/9 lower than his career mark, a walk rate less than half of his career rate, a career-high contact rate—and, so far, it’s working. Correia’s ERA and FIP are both below his career averages, but I can’t imagine either being sustainable when Correia is striking out fewer than 3.5 per nine. No way. But, hey, at least it’s working for now, and that’s worth something, right?

Vance Worley
Career Pre-Twins (2010-2012): {exp:list_maker}277.2 IP, 7.71 K/9, 3.14 BB/9, 86.5% Contact%, 3.50 ERA, 3.58 FIP {/exp:list_maker}2013 with Twins: {exp:list_maker}48.2 IP, 4.62 K/9, 2.77 BB/9, 90.6% Contact%, 7.21 ERA, 5.52 FIP {/exp:list_maker}I probably should’ve labeled Worley’s numbers as “Not Safe For Work.” They are so repulsive that they could offend even the most casual of baseball fan walking past your desk and, for that, I apologize. Just like with Correia, Worley has career lows in strikeout rate (by more than three K/9, which is just insane) and walk rate, along with a career-high contact rate. Also of note is that Worley is throwing more fastballs than ever before.

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.

Mike Pelfrey
Career Pre-Twins (2006-2012): {exp:list_maker}896.1 IP, 5.15 K/9, 3.19 BB/9, 86.5% Contact%, 4.36 ERA, 4.20 FIP {/exp:list_maker}2013 with Twins: {exp:list_maker}38.1 IP, 4.23 K/9, 2.58 BB/9, 88.1% Contact%, 6.57 ERA, 4.31 FIP {/exp:list_maker}He’s coming off Tommy John surgery, so there was some instability in the expectations for Pelfrey and his numbers could have a lot of TJ rehab-related noise in them. Still, his results so far line up with what we’ve seen from Correia and Worley, and his pitch selection and velocity are pretty comparable to his career averages. Pelfrey is the least extreme of these three examples, but his numbers are trending in the same direction.

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.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    I didn’t read the full interview with Anderson but his quote in the article seems to have it right.  In my mind, pitching to contact means being aggressive in the strike zone and not trying to strike everyone out.  It doesn’t mean you don’t want strikeouts but you don’t try to make perfect pitches every pitch to avoid having the guy hit the ball.  Now, maybe that’s not what Anderson really believes, but it makes sense to me.  Obviously, this only works if you have pitchers with enough stuff to actually miss bats without having to nibble at corners.

  2. Scott Strandberg said...

    Good points, Marc, especially your last sentence there. Anderson’s strategy, as I understand it, only works with pitchers who have the right skill set. It worked pretty well with Pavano, for example. The thing that bothers me the most is the comments from Perkins. Not only does a pitcher (and a highly intelligent one, at that) on Anderson’s own staff not really understand his strategy, but he also had to teach himself about advanced stats by reading Fangraphs, just like any regular Joe.

    But you’re right, it all comes down to the pitcher’s skill set and, for me, the reality that you can’t apply the same strategy across the board to all of your starters, because they all have different strengths and weaknesses. Especially when strikeout rates across the league have been steadily increasing during Anderson’s tenure, yet his method is producing fewer punchouts than ever. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Strikeouts are the only the way to go.  Studies by BP and THT showed that it is pitching and fielding that gets teams deep into the playoffs.  And BP went further and found that teams that with high K/9 pitching staffs was a key factor in going deep into the playoffs.

  4. mgraves said...

    Appreciate the reply and reasoning.

    Here’s hoping Berrios, Meyer, and May can stay healthy and effective—Baxendale doesn’t look too shabby either.

  5. mgraves said...

    Your “study” requires a few caveats:
    1) Small sample size
    2) Most of the pitchers chosen for your study were career national leaguers transitioning to the AL.
    3) Pitchers who could strike people out—Santana, Baker, Liriano—were not discouraged from doing so (with the exception of Liriano because he’d spent the spring unable to find the strike zone with a DAGR).  This is true to the extent that the Twins spent the first half of the decade solidly in the top 3 for K’s, to include a league leading number of K’s in 2006.

    All told, how much of this is Anderson—why would he change a formula that worked: mid-K starters combined with high-K relievers, and how much of it was Bill Smith? 

    The Smith regime coincided with the downswing in Twins’ K fortunes (and included buying out Blackburn’s arb. years, trading Garza, among other catastrophes).  It seems more likely that Smith liked low-K groundball pitchers because they were cheap, which would allow him to field more DH’s, such as Elmon Young, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Jim Thome—how many teams carry four DH’s?  The decrease in K’s, combined with the decrease in defensive efficiency explains the Twins’ current struggles, which will take time to recover from.

    Bill Smith did sign Sano and other highly touted prospects—none of whom, however, are pitchers—but many of them have defensive shortcomings, which is a continuation of the Smith infatuation with DH’s.

  6. Scott Strandberg said...

    @mgraves: First off, I totally love that you have as informed an opinion as you do. Secondly, the phrase “How many teams carry four DHs?” literally made me laugh out loud, because I’ve said the same thing about the Twins so many times. To address your points though, I do think its Anderson, and a big part of it is the regime change and the fact that he seems to be at odds with it. Also, I linked an article that addressed the fact that the “Anderson Effect” wasn’t that prevalent until 2008, perhaps I should’ve been more clear about that in the actual article text. At any rate, I thank you for providing legitimately constructive criticism!

  7. Zita Carno said...

    That’s one thing I will never understand about the game nowadays, with all that fancy terminology and abstruse technicalities. I used to play, many moons ago, and one top major league pitcher put it this way: “Get the ball over the plate and make them hit it.” It’s that simple.

  8. Scott Strandberg said...

    Baxendale is really starting to intrigue me. I haven’t seen him pitch yet, but you can’t ignore the numbers he’s been putting up. Plus, in case you missed it, he was subjected to one of the most poorly conducted interviews I’ve ever read this week: http://www.milb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20130523&content_id=48389128&fext;=.jsp&vkey=news_t509&sid=t509

    So I guess now we all know D.J. Baxendale’s spirit animal is a “zoo lion” (not just any lion; specifically one from a zoo) and that he hits up Wendy’s cuz their side Caesar is bomb.

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