The curious case of Tim Anderson

There is no doubt that Tim Anderson had a fantastic season in 2019. The 26-year-old was a key cog in the White Sox lineup as they raised their win total 10 games from the previous year. Anderson would go on to win the AL Batting Title after batting an astounding .335 from the dish with 18 home runs and 56 RBIs, but where did this come from? Before 2019, Anderson had been known as a mediocre player who was very undisciplined at the plate striking out at least 24% of his at-bats in each of the last three seasons. He had never batted above .287 before 2019, but his raise from .240 in 2018 to .335 in 2019 was the highest in White Sox history. So was this a season from Anderson a fluke, or has the 26-year-old taken great strides to improve his game? Let’s dive in. 

Approach at the plate

One thing that jumped out to me when looking at Anderson’s 2019 was he only had 15 walks all season ranking him in the bottom 1% of all hitters. His on-base percentage of .357 is only .22 higher than his batting average. I find it quite interesting that the man who lead the American League in batting average struggled to get walked. Wouldn’t you think teams would start pitching around him because he was so good at getting base hits? So then I looked further.

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated
Data via FanGraphs

When taking a look at Anderson’s batting average in various counts, Anderson was astounding. He was just about a consistent .300 hitter in all counts except for when there were 3 balls, where he was average at best. I found this very interesting as many pitchers elect to pitch to contact with three balls, rather than give up the free base. Anderson, as great as he was at getting hits, couldn’t seem to get them with 3 ball counts, nor did he walk very much. While continuing to look at these splits, it became clear that Anderson rarely walked because he rarely had the opportunities to. Only 45 out of Anderson’s 518 plate appearances (8.69%) featured three-ball counts. According to ESPN expanded batting stats, Anderson ranked 117 out of a possible 121 for pitches per plate appearance (p/pa) with 3.41 pitches per at-bat. Anderson was getting after pitchers early and often, making him a very tough out through the course of the season.  

Just Keep Swinging

Image via FanGraphs

The above chart is Tim Anderson’s 2019 swing percentage against all pitches in a given location. As you can see, there aren’t many squares not colored red. Any pitch remotely close to the strike zone, there’s a decent chance Tim was going to swing. According to baseball-reference, Anderson in 2019, swung at 58.6% of total pitches he faced not including intentional balls, well above the MLB average of 46.8%. You can’t blame him for swinging so frequently as Anderson saw the ball very well this past year. According to statcast, balls left Anderson’s bat at the highest exit velocity in his career (88.3mph), he had a career-high hard hit% (37.3) and featured the same number of ball-to-barrel contact as he did the previous season (20) with 435 fewer pitches faced this season. Had Anderson not spend time on the injured list this season, he very easily could’ve surpassed his career highs in offensive categories. 

The Verdict

There is no doubt that Tim Anderson had a great 2019 season, one we soon won’t forget. But when answering the question as to whether this kind of season is one we can routinely expect from Anderson, there are a few statistics I prefer to use when looking at a batter’s true success. Those are expected batting average (xBA), weighted on-base average (wOBA), and expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). Expected batting average measures the likelihood that a batted ball will become a hit based on comparable balls in terms of exit velocity, launch angle, and in some cases a batters’ sprint speed. xBA does not account for defense after a ball has been hit, and places a greater emphasis on skill rather than batting average. While Anderson had a batting average of .335, he only had an xBA of .294. I say only, but that xBA ranks Anderson in the top 8% in all of baseball. This suggests that Anderson was fairly lucky as to where he was hitting the baseball and he should’ve been a .294 hitter for the year. Still a quality year, but that certainly wouldn’t have won him the batting title. 

wOBA and xwOBA are great tools for measuring a players offensive value. wOBA combines all different aspects of hitting into one metric and weighting them in proportion with their actual run value. This metric is much more precise in determining the offensive value of a player than batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging ever could. A good rule of thumb to understand wOBA according to FanGraphs is that every 20 points of wOBA are worth about 10 runs above average and that an average hitter will typically have about a wOBA of .320.  In 2019, Anderson had a wOBA of .363 placing him above league average and ranked with players such as David Dahl, Cameron Maybin, and Edwin Encarnacion. 

xwOBA tells you what a player’s wOBA should have been given their contact tendencies and removes defense from its equation. This is because hitters are able to influence exit velocity and launch angle but have no control over what happens to a batted ball once it is put into play and much like xBA, this metric is much more indicative of a players skill and the overall quality of contact that a player makes. The difference between a player’s wOBA and xwOBA indicates whether or not they are overperforming or underperforming based on the contact they make.  A player such as Marcel Ozuna is great for such a measurement as Ozuna had a wOBA of .336 but based on the quality of contact he made, featured an xwOBA of .382 suggesting the Ozuna underperformed offensively. When we look at Tim Anderson, he only had an xwOBA of .328 for a difference in wOBA of .35. This suggests that Anderson overperformed offensively based on the quality of contact. 

The 26-year-old Anderson is a fine player. He was an instrumental piece to that lineup this year and coming off his finest season, the White Sox are looking to be busy this offseason and could be a team to perhaps surprise some folks next season. The reigning AL batting champ will have high expectations heading into 2020. I believe he could post similar numbers to 2019, but when diving into the advanced statistics surrounding his game, the numbers suggest that this season was closer to a fluke than it was a real deal.