Blue Jays’ Chase Anderson looking to rediscover curveball in 2020

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Chase Anderson. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

BRADENTON, Fla. — Chase Anderson’s always working on something. An approach wrinkle here, a delivery tweak there. He doesn’t throw the hardest or with the nastiest movement. So, if he wants to stay ahead of modern hitters, armed with more information and video than ever before, he has to continually adapt.

This spring it’s his curveball, a pitch that’s been both great and not-so-great for him in the past. Anderson changed how he threw the pitch last season, utilizing a spiked grip which has helped him create more tension and spin on the ball, and ultimately keep it from hanging up over the middle of the plate. This spring he wants to throw it and throw it and throw it, reading how hitters react to it before the results start to count later this month.

And in that regard, Anderson’s outing Sunday — the Toronto Blue Jays starter’s second of spring — could’ve gone better. He wasn’t quite on the same page as his catcher Reese McGuire. Or maybe McGuire wasn’t on the same page as him. Either way, Anderson threw only a pair of curveballs over his brief outing, which was disappointing. His results were, too.

Anderson allowed four runs on three hits and three walks against the Pittsburgh Pirates, retiring only two before being pulled at 31 pitches (16 strikes). He gave up loud contact, like Adam Frazier’s double to the wall that scored one. He lost long battles with Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco, walking both. He got unlucky on soft contact, too, like Cole Tucker’s comebacker over the mound that was hit just hard enough to get past Anderson’s glove, and just soft enough to stall on the infield grass for a single.

So, not the outing he wanted. But that happens early in spring. There’s little reason to fret the results, as Anderson’s track record of limiting walks and eating innings — he’s pitched to a 3 BB/9 over his career, averaging 148.2 innings per season over his last five — is well established. Now, he just has to get back to working on that curveball and get into a better groove with his catcher going forward.

"This is the first time Reese and I have been paired up together. So, we’re just trying to get the feel for each other. How he sets up, how I want to call a game. Just get that rhythm going," Anderson said. "This is a good starting point to kind of see, ‘OK, he didn’t want that, I didn’t want that.’ Kind of think a couple pitches ahead. ‘OK, you’re going to go heater here, let’s go cutter off of that. And then we’ll go change-up away or curveball. And then we’ll go heater up.’"

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This isn’t to say there weren’t positives from the outing. Anderson got swinging strikes with each of his fastball, changeup, and curveball. He also started a couple hitters with change-ups for strikes, which he’ll need to be able to do as he turns lineups over. And his fastball velocity sat at 93-m.p.h., reaching 94 and even 95 once, which is an encouraging sign this early in the year.

"That’s above average for me," he said. "I’m usually 92, 93 — maybe 90, 92. So, it feels good that it’s coming out that way. Hopefully I can build and consistently sit in the mid-90’s. That’s going to help my change-up and other pitches playing off the fastball, for sure."

It wasn’t so long ago that Anderson was atop the Milwaukee Brewers rotation, shutting out the San Diego Padres over six innings on opening day in 2018 to help the club to its first of 96 wins that season. Anderson earned that start by finishing 2017 with a 2.74 ERA, supported by strong peripherals of 8.5 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9. It earned him a two-year, $11.75-million deal, as well, with a pair of club options tacked onto the end.

But 2018 didn’t go nearly as well. Anderson regressed to a 3.93 ERA, allowing more home runs (30) than any other National League starter that season. The 8.6 per cent HR/FB rate that helped sustain him in 2017 soared to 15.4 per cent. That strong K/9 dropped by 1.2, while his BB/9 increased by 0.6. And in 2019 he slid again, opening the season in the bullpen and ultimately finishing the year with a 4.21 ERA over 27 starts and 32 appearances.

Those were the results that made Anderson’s $8.5-million club option for this season too pricey for the Brewers to exercise, and gave the Blue Jays an opportunity to add him through trade at a meagre prospect cost (24-year-old double-A first baseman Chad Spanberger), betting he could look more like the 2017 version of himself with some better luck on fly balls.

There’s actually a good chance that salary will still represent a bargain on the value Anderson can provide, even if he merely repeats the 1.2 fWAR he posted last season. But Milwaukee’s payroll is weighed down by large commitments to Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain. The Blue Jays, loaded with pre-arbitration youth, had much more budgetary room to play with.

And a pitcher of Anderson’s profile is exactly what the club needed following a 2019 season in which it used 21 different starting pitchers, including Ryan Feierabend, a left-handed knuckleballer who’d been out of the majors for five seasons, and Buddy Boshers, who’s currently a free agent.

Anderson’s been extremely reliable, making at least 21 starts in each of his six MLB seasons, and 25 or more in his last five. The Brewers have been one of MLB’s more progressive franchises in limiting starters to only two trips through a batting order and exercising caution with regards to pitcher workloads. That’s why Anderson’s innings total has never surpassed 158 despite all those starts.

And yet, no Blue Jay threw 158 innings last season. Or the year before that. Anderson isn’t an all-star — but he would’ve finished as the best pitcher statistically on the Blue Jays in both 2018 and ‘19. Along with Tanner Roark, who’s made at least 30 starts and thrown 165 innings or more each of the last four seasons, Anderson ought to bring some stability to a Toronto rotation that hasn’t featured it in some time.

"They’re innings-eaters. You can have a chance when they take the mound," said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. "That’s all you can ask as a team. They’ve done it in the past and I expect the same thing this year."

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On the mound, Anderson will mix and match with a variety of secondary weapons, playing his changeup, cutter, sinker, and curveball off a 92-93-m.p.h. fastball he’ll use about 40 per cent of the time. The ability to attack all quadrants of the zone, using any pitch in any count to either side of the platoon, is key. Anderson isn’t out-stuffing anyone. His velocity and spin rates are all right around league average or below. Rather, he’ll use variability and deception to make it difficult for hitters to game plan against him.

Anderson’s been playing that cat-and-mouse game with MLB hitters for years. He’s reinvented himself several times, introducing a cutter in 2016, finding a new release point in 2017, and upping his changeup usage significantly in 2018. Last spring, he overhauled his delivery.

This year he’s trying to carry over the success he had with that new curveball grip last year. The curveball was Anderson’s most-used secondary weapon during his 160 ERA+ 2017, producing a stellar .178 wOBA and 34.4 per cent whiff rate. But he lost his command of it sometime in 2018 and really struggled with it early on last season, leading him to switch to the spiked grip he’s using now.

The vertical movement on the pitch improved, as did Anderson’s results when using it. But the real key is how it impacts his other offerings. If Anderson can command his curveball consistently, it’s one more weapon hitters have to be wary of. Suddenly, his fastball’s playing up and his change-up’s more of a surprise

That’s why he’s trying to throw it as much as he can this spring. And you can bet he will his next time out. In the meantime, Anderson will dial into the Trackman data from his outing in the coming days, looking for what he might want to work on in his next bullpen. He already suspects he felt his front shoulder coming slightly open in his delivery Sunday, which led to some of his trouble locating on the outside corner to the seven left-handed hitters he faced. Now, he’ll go to the objective data to confirm it.

That information’s become a minor fascination for Anderson over the years, as he continually searches for the next wrinkle to add or mechanic to tweak. Ask and he’ll recite his ideal spin rates from memory and tell you exactly how he’s trying to tunnel one pitch off another. For Anderson, there’s always something to work on.

"Obviously, getting the guys out is the name of the game. But this early in spring training, I really want to make sure I have all my pitches dialled in. If they get hit, that’s fine," he said. "It’s probably about that third, fourth, fifth outing, once you get into that fourth inning, 60 pitches — that’s kind of when you dial it in. You know what you’re doing from inning-to-inning. You get going with the flow of the game. And just feel good about getting up and down five or six times. And understanding that it’s getting close to opening day."

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