For a pitcher who’s been in the majors fewer than five seasons, Brett Anderson has had a pretty eventful career.
Anderson made the Show as a 21-year-old, making 30 starts, posting a strikeout-to-walk rate better than 3-to-1, and finishing sixth in Rookie of the Year voting. The left-hander was good enough and underrated enough by traditional metrics to attract the interest of one baseball fan who’d played tons of simulation-league games but hadn’t fully embraced the analytical movement, thus turning Anderson into a sabermetric avatar. Four days later, he signed a four-year contract with two club options, marking one of the earliest cases of a team giving a multi-year, major league deal to a pitcher. His encouraging advanced stats proved prescient in 2010, as Anderson dropped his ERA by more than a run, to 2.80. Unfortunately his left elbow started barking that year, twice knocking him out for several weeks, but never proving bad enough to require surgery … until it did, in July 2011.
Anderson made it back to the mound in August 2012 and pitched very well in six starts, following that up with an incredible playoff start in the ALDS, in which he threw six shutout, two-hit innings against Detroit. He launched the 2013 season brilliantly, too, striking out 16 batters and allowing just two earned runs over his first starts. Everything blew up from there: Anderson got strafed for 17 runs in 10⅔ over his next three starts, then suffered a stress fracture in his foot, which has kept him off major league mounds since April 24. He’s rehabbing now and nearing a return, though he’s expected to return as a reliever, at least at first.
On the cusp of his return, Anderson talked to Grantland about the challenges of rehab, what he’s learned from studying advanced metrics, how it feels to play on a team in the middle of a playoff run, and how a pitcher handles having the weirdest hands in baseball.
There’s some disagreement about what it is you actually throw. You’re classified as mostly a fastball/slider guy, with an occasional curve and changeup. But watching you pitch, it looks like you’re throwing all kinds of pitches, taking something off different pitches, maybe some slurves. What is it exactly that you throw, and how did you develop your repertoire?
This all starts from when I was younger. I have the most odd hands you can imagine — palms like Dikembe Mutombo, fingers like Jose Altuve. They’re really really weird. When I started throwing breaking balls, I tried conventional grips for an over-the-top curve. And the ball would just pop out of my hand. It wouldn’t do what it was supposed to. I didn’t want to handicap myself by throwing just fastball/change. My dad was a college coach, so he and I started following guys who could throw a spike curveball. We’d play catch every day and work on it. It got to where I could really throw two different pitches off a similar grip, one I call a curve and one I call a slider. The curveball is a get-me-over pitch, with the rotation of a 12-to-6 curveball — something I throw for a strike on 0-0 or even 1-0, because no one’s expecting it then. It’s a slower pitch, so I throw it as a changeup, because my changeup’s not all that good. Then what I call a slider, you could call it a slurve. When it’s working I can throw it pretty hard, with big break. That’s another pitch I use to steal strikes early in the count.
There are all kinds of things I can do out of that same grip. I can spread my fingers, make it a little shorter, faster, or slower. The slider has the same grip, but I turn it at the end, almost like a doorknob. That’s probably why I had Tommy John surgery, honestly.
You’re also known as someone who throws inside to right-handers a lot. What led you to start doing that?
Baseball for 100 years, the mantra’s always been, “down and away, down and away.” But I would just hate it when I’d execute a good two-seamer or four-seamer on the outside edge, and then somebody hits a six-hopper in the four-hole for a single. Again, that was something where following college baseball and being around my dad a lot, you’d see guys keep their bat in the zone so long, they could crank out hits on those pitches. It’s happened to me a lot too when I’ve tried to go outside, especially with Derek Jeter or Michael Young. When I’m throwing inside, I’ll either blow you up or you smoke somebody in the dugout. So I’m either getting a weak ball in play or a strike.
You mentioned having T.J. and how you think the injury might’ve happened. Do you really think it was just throwing a lot of breaking balls?
It was hard to know for sure. One thing I did was I went to see Ron Wolforth in Texas, where Trevor Bauer and some other guys train. I wanted to do a look back, figure out why the injury happened, maybe change things. I went there and they looked at my mechanics; turned out they were pretty sound. One thing they did see was that when my front foot landed, my arm was a little behind, which creates extra torque. So I had to adjust that.
With throwing too many breaking balls, it was tough to say. And even if that’s what it was, it’s tough when you’re pitching in a game against the Rangers, you’re deciding what to throw, you’re going to think, This might lead to Tommy John in a year. You can’t think like that. The only thing you’re thinking when deciding how many breaking balls to throw is if it will help you in the game you’re in. Like if you can get one time through the order without showcasing your best pitch, that’s what you want. But then there are times where you have to throw your best pitch in a big spot, and that could be early in the game.
Both Wolforth and pitchers like Bauer who go there have reputations for some intense training methods. What did they have you do when you were there?
I would be out there foul pole to foul pole, going foul pole to foul pole the way a lot of these guys who work with [Alan] Jaeger and Tom House do. But they are healthy. So for me it was about figuring out what they do to stay healthy, and trying to take away a few things — working with tubing, and just general arm-care wise.
That’s what [former A’s pitcher and Anderson teammate Brandon] McCarthy and I worked on. Nothing as intense as what someone like Bauer does, just to name a prime example. But we felt we could benefit from some good distance in long-tossing, especially since both of us have injury histories, that armwise we could benefit from it. We went to 250 feet, probably the furthest was 280 a couple times. We went until we reached the point where we might be straining our mechanics; then we’d pull back.
Some teams get upset when players — especially pitchers — go looking for outside help, away from whatever the pitching coach and the trainers might suggest. Did you run into any resistance from the A’s when you went for outside help?
The A’s are probably one of the most lenient teams as far as that goes. Their attitude is very much, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” — if something’s working for a pitcher, don’t try to change it. Curt Young when he was here the first time and being back again now, he’s really like that. He, and they, won’t interfere. There’s no, “My way or the highway” attitude. The veteran guys that have come in from other teams, [Ben] Sheets, McCarthy, [Justin] Duchscherer, when they’ve had their own routines, there’s been no butting heads. They’re even good about that for the rookies, if those rookies have things they’ve always done.
You had to recover from Tommy John, plus you’ve been out for most of this year too. Take us through what each of those experiences were like, and how the rehab came along each time.
With the elbow injury, mine might’ve been a little worse. It wasn’t one pitch and pop. It happened over the course of a year, year and a half. I’d throw, and it would start to hurt. It wasn’t structurally bad enough for surgery. It would build up some scar tissue, then it would get better — you might get five or 10 starts this time, then two another time, then you’re out again. I’d go to [Dr. James] Andrews, take time off, but every time you do that you’re thinking, How long it is going to hold? It was really teasing me: I’d have some success, then stuff would deteriorate. I almost wish it would’ve been one-and-done rather than that teasing. Then after a while in 2011, my stuff just wasn’t coming back. Curt would say, “Throw hard!” I’d say, “I’m trying!” — I’m putting all my 240 pounds into this. I wouldn’t say it was a relief [to finally have surgery], but, fingers crossed, now I just want to be done with that for a while. Obviously rehab is tough. But we had six guys on our staff that year who either had the surgery then or were coming back from it. So it’s good to talk to those people, to hear their story. Plus as far as T.J. goes, it’s cut-and-dried. You knew what you had to do for this block of two weeks, then that block. You clear one hurdle, then go after another.
My foot was worse. I had to wear a frickin’ boot, playing catch on one knee, can’t do anything. With the elbow ligament, you wait this amount of time, then do it. With the foot you’re crutching around, just waiting. T.J. was not as frustrating, at least as far as ups and downs.
From what I hear, you’re into advanced stats. Is that you just being interested in them, or are you trying to find lessons in the stats that you can use to maybe help you pitch better?
A little bit of both. I’m a big numbers guy. Some of the SABR stats that the public, that your average players, don’t look at, I want to see because I’m just a numbers geek. One of the basic things that stuck with me was the idea of wins and losses, that, as McCarthy likes to say, “They don’t matter.” Now that I’m a veteran, I see, from the statistics side, that they really don’t matter. Baseball’s such a freak game, so many games to win and to lose, stats tell a different picture.
There are other things where it’s not exactly making decisions based on stats, but at least questioning what other people are doing, compared to what I’m doing. For example, Kurt Suzuki was here when I got here. Other guys would never shake [Suzuki off] when he called a pitch. I didn’t get that. It might be the right pitch to call, but without conviction, without confidence, I feel like I shouldn’t throw it. McCarthy would just say to execute when they call it and you’ll be fine. But for me, once you get out there, a lot of it is feel — in some ways the numbers go out the window. When I was a rookie, Gio [Gonzalez] and Trevor [Cahill] would never shake either. I want to throw what I want to throw. I’m going to win or lose based on what I want to throw. [Jarrod] Parker, [A.J.] Griffin, and [Bartolo] Colon don’t shake much either — although with Bartolo it’s a little different obviously, because he mostly throws one pitch. But I mean, I’ll shake four times sometimes just on the first batter.
Given how unique Colon is, throwing just one pitch, his age, his body type — is there anything you can learn from someone like that? Or is he just too much of an outlier to offer any lessons?
Well, he’s definitely unique. But there are things you can learn, especially that you can trust your fastball. When he’s right, he’s throwing 92 and it moves a foot and a half. He throws one pitch and makes big league pitchers look foolish. It’s like four pitches: a two-seamer, a four-seamer, changing velocity to make it look different. If I threw 85 to 90 percent fastballs, I wouldn’t get past the third inning. You have to trust your fastball, though. You have to locate it well.
We’re talking about Colon, and you mentioned being 240 at one point before losing weight during your rehab. Position players often need to be lean if they want to be multi-tool guys. But some of the best pitchers have that huge lower body, right? How do you decide which way to go, when carrying some extra weight can actually help in some cases?
Yeah, you look at the top pitchers, none of them are cut. You have [Roy] Halladay, guys like that — big, bulky, durable-body guys. For me I just never got over the baby weight … well, not baby weight, I guess, child weight. Coming back from surgery, I didn’t want to lose a lot of weight to the point that I would be skinny and frail — not that that would ever happen [laughs]. But just to reposition to where my stamina was good, that I wouldn’t be tired in the fifth inning. It can be tough. You make a conscious effort to eat and drink differently than you have. But then you’re on the road, you’re ordering room service at 11 p.m., it’s not conducive to eating healthy.
Anything you can do about that, maybe hire a personal chef? Or maybe have the team do it, given the expense could still be way less than your typical utility infielder?
It’s just so tough for scheduling. You’re here for three days, seven at home, then gone for 10. In spring training I had a service that dropped food off every day in a cooler. That helps. Especially at the start of a season, when you’re getting oriented, getting back into baseball. But really, baseball life is terrible for trying to be healthy, for the most part. In theory, chefs for the team, on the road, would be awesome. From a player standpoint it would be unbelievably beneficial. Most teams have a chef in some capacity, but often it’s just catering, so you’re getting things like fried chicken that might not be that good for you. I just don’t know that our team would be in position to [have full-time chefs traveling with the club].
There’s that famous scene in the Moneyball movie where Dave Justice is mad because he has to put money in the soda machine. Does it ever feel that way now, that the A’s are operating under such a small budget that it makes things tough, that you can’t get things that could help you as ballplayers?
Since everybody’s in that boat, we just take it as it is. It’s not like one guy’s making $20 million and everyone else is making the minimum. We don’t have too many stars per se. The field’s kind of crappy. Up until late last season we didn’t draw well. We get the plumbing backing up, which means showering in the other team’s locker room. You just have to let it go on the field, you can’t let it frustrate you.
When you started your career, the A’s had some talent but you weren’t a good team yet. How has the environment changed after that huge run last year, and you guys being contenders again this year?
It was a pretty crazy transition, and it happened seemingly overnight. It’s tough coming to the field with a sullen, sulky personality, the team’s not playing well, you’re not playing well.
I was talking to somebody just today about team chemistry. Analytics don’t factor that in. Someone said maybe Jonny Gomes should get more money, because he meshes with everybody, he has personality that helps people bond, and maybe in a way that helps you win — like maybe Gomes should get an extra $1.5 [million] a year just for that. Brandon Inge was probably one of the best things for us. The younger starters hadn’t been in the league long, let alone in a pennant race. But Inge is over there in the seventh inning of a big game, shooting peanuts at fans. That was awesome for us, to play at ease.
You’re rehabbing now and you’re supposed to be coming back in relief, hopefully pretty soon. That opens up some possibilities for a pitcher, where you can throw fewer pitch types and also throw harder, knowing you don’t have to conserve energy for 100 pitches. How do you plan to approach it?
I’m going to try to be the same guy. In my mind I’m still a starter, and I want to keep those skills. Some of it the situation will dictate. Early on I’m sure it will be more of a September call-up feel — clean innings, not coming in with runners on second and third, one out. We’ll see if I throw enough innings to get stretched out, maybe starting later. I definitely expect to start in the future, even if it’s next year.
To me, the biggest thing is getting the routine down as a relief pitcher. That part will be different. As a starter it’s all routine, resting, then having your throw day between starts, all of that. Here I won’t have time to warm up like I normally would, so I need to physically be ready to do that, to do that prep. I joke that I’m going to be the only left-on-right specialist; I’m notorious for that over the course of my career. And yeah, you can definitely throw harder if you want to, knowing you’re going maybe max 30 pitches. I said the other day if I hit 100 [mph], I’m just gonna retire right there on the spot.