The Atlanta Braves farm system boasts Cristian Pache and Drew Waters in the top two spots. After the promising outfielders comes a trio of starting pitchers, though. Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson are the 3-4-5 prospects for the Braves. Today, I’m getting to know the top arm in the system, Ian Anderson.
Drafted: 2016 June Amateur Draft; Round 1, Pick 3 (3rd overall)
2019 levels: AA-AAA
Future Value: 55
The Braves drafted Anderson third overall out of Shenendehowa High School in New York as an 18-year-old. He was selected after Mickey Moniak and Nick Senzel, and ahead of fellow pitchers A.J. Puk, Cal Quantrill, and Matt Manning, for reference.
The original comp given for Anderson by former Braves scouting director Brian Bridges was Mike Mussina, maybe due to the curveball being such a weapon for Anderson. Here’s what Bridges had to say about Anderson’s pitching ability right after he was drafted:
“A lot of kids throw for the radar gun and they don’t learn the art of pitching. If you do learn the art and you have stuff, the road can be a lot shorter to the Major Leagues. There are humps in the road and things they have to go through. But this kid does have a head start with his ability to throw strikes.”
Anderson was also touted for his maturity coming out of high school, where he compiled a 6-1 record, 0.66 ERA, and 91 strikeouts as a high school junior. In the summer of 2015 he played for the 18U National Team that won the World Cup. And in his senior year, he helped his team win the NYS Large School State Championship. Since then it’s been a pretty smooth ride at the professional level...let’s take a quick look at each year’s performance.
After high school, Anderson made his debut with the GCL Braves, but was shortly promoted to the Danville Braves in August of 2016. He finished that season with a combined 2.04 ERA, allowing only one home run in his 10 starts and striking out 36 hitters over 39 2⁄3 innings.
In 2017, Anderson pitched 83 innings for the Class A Rome Braves, making 20 starts in all. He compiled a 4-5 record and a 3.14 ERA, striking out 101 hitters and walking 43. The 12.1% walk rate reads like the only blemish. The 28.4% strikeout rate was elite, though, as was another professional season of not being stung by the long ball...at all. Ian Anderson allowed ZERO home runs in 2017, a year after allowing only one during rookie ball. That’s 122 2⁄3 inning of professional baseball and only a single home run allowed.
In 2018, Anderson pitched 100 innings at the Class A Advanced level with the Florida Fire Frogs. He was again elite with not allowing homers, with only two allowed during said time. He compiled a 2.52 ERA and 118 strikeouts against 40 walks. That’s a 28.5% strikeout rate and a trimming of the walk rate, down to 9.7%. Anderson was promoted to the Double-A Mississippi Braves in August of 2018, where he made four starts over 19 1⁄3 innings. He logged 24 strikeouts against nine walks, and finished that brief stint with a 2.33 ERA. Cumulatively, it was a 2.49 ERA over those 24 starts in 2018—which spanned 119 1⁄3 innings.
He began 2019 back with Double-A Mississippi, where he made 21 starts and hurled 111 innings. He had a 7-5 record, a whopping 147 strikeouts, and 47 walks. Put differently, he carried a shiny 31.8% strikeout rate against a 10.2% walk rate. His 2.68 ERA was still elite despite finally being stung a bit by the long ball. He allowed eight homers, but that was still a very good 0.65 HR/9 mark. For his efforts, Anderson was named to the 2019 All-Star Futures Game.
Anderson finished out 2019 with the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers. He finally ran into a bit of trouble, making five starts and tallying a 6.57 ERA over 24 2⁄3 innings. He still managed 25 strikeouts, but the 18 walks were an issue, as were the five homers allowed. Though it was a small sample, this was the worst walk rate of his pro career (15.9%) and the lowest strikeout rate (22.1%) at any level. The 1.82 HR/9 was ghastly, too.
Still, it was an incredible 2019 campaign, one that saw Anderson reach the highest level not named “the majors.” In all, he made 26 starts and pitched 135 2⁄3 innings. A 3.38 ERA, 11.4 K/9, and 4.3 BB/9 are still plenty to get excited about for a 21-year-old—even if the walks still need work. Anderson was named Atlanta’s 2019 Minor League Player of the Year for his efforts, and went from the No. 5 overall prospect to the No. 3 prospect—and the top pitcher in the system.
Anderson’s four-seam fastball tops out around 95 MPH, but he works in the 91 to 95 MPH range. He can elevate the fastball, and it has been described as “heavy.” In the 2019 Futures Game, Anderson got seven feet of extension on his fastball, which put him in rare company. If you don’t know exactly what “extension” refers to, it’s basically “how much closer a pitcher’s release point is to home plate.” Releasing the ball closer to home plate means that Anderson’s “perceived velocity” will be higher. And obviously, 95 MPH heat is already pretty, pretty good.
Anderson’s curveball hovers around 82 MPH and from what I can gather it has a lot of drop despite not being a high spin pitch. Here’s the propaganda:
Ian Anderson flashing the curve to Nick Madrigal in the Futures Game pic.twitter.com/jVNuyzM9vG— Matt Powers (@MattPowers31) July 7, 2019
It’s a 12-6 breaker for sure, despite not having a high spin rate. A lot of depth will still play, as the curveball induces a lot of swing-and-miss.
There’s also a lot of dive on Anderson’s mid 80s changeup, and it can also serve as an out pitch. Anderson has improved the changeup over time. Whereas the curve was regarded as his best weapon early on, the changeup has close the gap—and now even has a higher future grade of 60, per Fangraphs (the curve is at 55).
Here’s a view of all three pitches:
Cut together some standard and high speed video of Ian Anderson from last week's Triple-A playoff start and a couple pitches from July's Futures Game. Mid-90's, plus changeup, solid average curveball with fastball command as the last element that needs sharpening. pic.twitter.com/prlvD2r1Py— FanGraphs Prospects (@FG_Prospects) September 10, 2019
In short, Anderson’s secondary offerings are slightly ahead of his 95 MPH fastball. But I like the sound of a three-pitch pitcher with plus breakers and 95 MPH heat. He’s also young, with plenty of time to improve at the Triple-A level before being jettisoned up to the majors.
It seems prudent to allow Anderson a full year’s worth of seasoning at the Triple-A level, given that he’s still young and could have suffered from some tiredness after all those 2019 innings. But the present pandemic presents a problem and a potential lost season for the youngster. In a perfect world, he’d have spent at least majority of 2020 with the Stripers and perhaps gotten a taste of MLB action late in 2020. As is, we don’t know what to expect from a 2020 year—or how teams will handle their top prospects in the event of expanded rosters.
What I would have wanted in a non-pandemic is for Anderson to pitch another 140-150 innings at the Triple-A level, to further build his stamina and work on trimming his walk rate. He would have been primed for a 2021 debut with Atlanta and had a chance to become an immediate fixture in the middle of the rotation. As is, we just simply don’t know what opportunities a top prospect like Anderson will have to pitch in meaningful games in 2020.
He’s clearly a “hold” in dynasty formats, though. Of all the guys who could potentially miss a year, at least he’s only 22 years old. For my part, I’m eager to see if Anderson can trim that walk rate down to a tolerable level. He already seems like a guy who we can rely on for strikeouts at the big league level. I guess we’ll all just have to stay tuned to what happens with the MLB season, to see what sort of opportunity Anderson will have to grow in 2020.