Anderson making strong case to crack Blue Jays rotation in 2018

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Brett Anderson works against the Detroit Tigers during first inning American League MLB baseball action in Toronto on Saturday, September 9, 2017. (Aaron Lynett/CP)

TORONTO — Less than a month into his Toronto Blue Jays career, Brett Anderson is giving the club’s front office some things to think about.

Anderson pitched well for the third time in three outings Saturday, allowing only two runs on five hits over six innings as the Blue Jays beat the Detroit Tigers, 5-4. With 2017 a write-off and plenty of uncertainty surrounding the club’s pitching staff for 2018, Anderson may present an unexpected yet welcome rotation option this winter.

Affordable, low maintenance, and, so far, effective, Anderson is pitching his way into consideration for the Blue Jays as they begin to plan for next season, one they hope unfolds much differently than the current one has.

“That was one of the reasons behind signing here — I was going to get a chance to start and go out there and showcase to the Blue Jays, or whoever, that I’m capable of pitching well and performing,” Anderson said. “And, so far, it’s worked out. Hopefully I can continue to do that for however many more starts I have.”

On Saturday, things began inauspiciously for Anderson, who left a 2-2 fastball up in the zone to Miguel Cabrera with a runner on in the first inning. Cabrera did exactly what he does with pitches like that, hitting the 461st home run of his career, tying him with Adrian Beltre for 37th in MLB history.

“He’s a future Hall-of-Famer,” Anderson said. “So, that’s going to happen.”

But Anderson couldn’t have been much better from that point on, scattering three hits over his next five innings while striking out five. The 29-year-old left after the sixth, having lowered his Blue Jays ERA to 3.06 over three starts

Anderson certainly had some help behind him, primarily from his infield defence which got seven outs on groundballs, but also from Kevin Pillar, who made his latest highlight reel catch in the fifth, and Jose Bautista, who made a nifty sliding catch in shallow right field to end the sixth and strand a baserunner at third.

“It’s phenomenal. There were gold glove calibre plays all over,” Anderson said. “Jose at the end was big to prevent the go-ahead run. And then, obviously, Kevin. You see it from afar and you see it happen behind other guys. But too have one like that — he’s obviously pretty special out there.”

Still, Anderson had all of his pitches working on the afternoon, and varied speeds effectively to keep Detroit hitters off balance. Anderson earned nine swinging strikes and kept hard contact to a minimum, averaging an exit velocity of 83.6 mph on the 17 balls he allowed to be put in play.

When he’s at his best, Anderson is mixing and matching with sinkers, change-ups and breaking balls, working down in the zone as he did Saturday, and, most importantly, getting groundballs. He’s had seasons with groundball rates over 60 per cent and his career rate of 57.7 per cent is third among all active pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched in their careers.

He also excels at limiting big damage, allowing less than a home run per nine innings over the course of his career. When he’s healthy enough to pitch the way he wants to, like he did Saturday, Anderson can be a very strong part of a major-league rotation.

Of course, that’s always the question with the oft-injured Anderson: can he remain healthy? He’s pitched a full season only twice over his nine-year career and part of the reason he even became a Blue Jay is because he missed extensive time earlier this season with a lower back injury and was let go by the Chicago Cubs.

But Anderson’s been healthy since mid-summer and with every strong outing he makes this September, the Blue Jays have to be wondering if the veteran could have a place in their 2018 plans.

“Oh, definitely,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said before Saturday’s game when asked if he could see Anderson being a part of the 2018 club. “I think everybody’s looking at him to see what’s available for next year. Hey, maybe if he’s really good they want to re-sign him. He’s experienced this place, maybe he likes it here, too.”

Perhaps what Gibbons enjoys the most about Anderson is his pace. The left-hander was averaging only 19.5 seconds between pitches coming into Saturday’s start, the fifth-quickest work rate of any major-league pitcher. At times in his career Anderson has hummed along even faster, averaging just 17.3 seconds between pitches in 2010 when he made 19 starts for the Oakland Athletics and pitched to a 2.80 ERA.

“You hope other guys learn from it. Work fast, throw strikes. It helps,” Gibbons said. “I think it makes a big difference. You’ll see [pitchers] who go out there and they take forever, and you can see it in the [infielders] playing behind him. Now they’re on their heels and they get a groundball and everyone wonders why the hell they booted it.”

Anderson may be a fit for the Blue Jays going forward because, currently, Marcus Stroman and JA Happ are the only locks for Toronto’s 2018 rotation. One assumes Aaron Sanchez will be a part of it as well, but his 2017 has essentially been a write-off due to persistent blister issues, and he’ll need to prove during 2018 spring training that he’s past them once and for all.

Marco Estrada’s due to hit free agency this winter, and although both he and the Blue Jays have expressed a desire for him to return, there’s a difference between saying the right things and making an actual commitment. Joe Biagini could also factor in, but the Blue Jays may decide he’s better suited for a bullpen role, especially if his rotation audition continues the way it has over his first 14 starts, which have seen him put up a 5.77 ERA as opposition hitters bat .280/.334/.444.

Left-hander Ryan Borucki will likely compete for a rotation job in camp, but the Blue Jays may prefer to continue the 23-year-old’s minor-league seasoning at triple-A, keeping him just a call-up away at the front of what should be a young Buffalo Bisons rotation.

So, if Anderson remains healthy and effective, and can be had for a reasonable rate on a one-year deal this offseason, it would make a great deal of sense for the Blue Jays to give serious thought to the idea of bringing him back.

Offensively, the Blue Jays got a run in the bottom of the first when Pillar singled at the end of a 10-pitch battle to cash Bautista from third base. And another in the fourth on a delayed steal, which saw Kendrys Morales scamper home from third while Teoscar Hernandez purposefully caught himself in a rundown between first and second base.

Pillar put the Blue Jays ahead in the sixth with a towering solo shot to left field off Tigers reliever Warwick Saupold. Luke Maile drove in another later in the frame, coming up with a two-out single to cash Darwin Barney from third. And Maile scored a fifth run in the eighth, doubling and scoring on a Jose Bautista single.

With Roberto Osuna sidelined by an injured neck, Gibbons turned to Ryan Tepera when presented with a save situation in the ninth. Tepera quickly put the first two batters he faced on before giving up a loud double to Nick Castellanos, which plated a run.

Tepera snared a comebacker to get an out, but then allowed a groundball single off the bat of James McCann, which plated another, put runners on the corners, and brought the Tigers within one. But Tepera rallied and left those runners right there, getting a pop up and strike out to earn his third career save.

“I made things interesting there, definitely,” Tepera said. “But, mindset wise, I’m still trying to attack there and get ahead. And be confident in everything I do out there.”