When Tim Anderson quickly climbed through the Chicago White Sox farm system and arrived to the major leagues in 2016, there was always plenty of reason for optimism from a tools perspective.
An elite athlete finding power as he grows into his wiry frame is what an old-school baseball scout dreams of unearthing. Anderson wore that label as if it were tailored to fit that aforementioned body.
However, as the game continues to evolve with the mounds of data becoming available to it, Anderson also presented significant issues. The speed, the range up the middle, the arm and the potential for power are all great, but an old-world plate approach threatened to cap his overall value.
Tim Anderson simply refuses to take pitches.
Still, the White Sox felt they saw enough in his rookie season to reward him with a long-term contract. They attempted to get out in front of his star potential by signing him to a deal that protects his rights through 2024 rather than leave it to arbitration, even though arbitration may be cheaper in the short haul.
It was a genuine gamble, and 2017 only brought that risk further into the forefront. Anderson walked just 13 times in 606 plate appearances and saw his batting average drop considerably, leaving him with an ugly slash line of .257/.276/.402.
Yet, only a couple decades into this great experiment with all the information provided by this game of outcomes, the White Sox clearly looked at Anderson as a test. Can you teach somebody plate discipline without usurping their natural abilities?
With Moneyball as our entry point to sabermetrics, the assumption has been that you could find hidden value in players who get on base a lot. But if everybody is doing it, is the value actually hidden anymore?
As an organizational philosophy, it’s probably not wise to take a million stabs at drafting athletes and trying to teach them efficiency. However, if you can pull it off in isolated instances with clearly talented people like Anderson, you can find a new sort of hidden value.
So finally we arrive at 2018, where the clear focus all offseason and all spring has been about getting Anderson to be more patient at the plate. Through 15 games, it’s working.
Anderson’s slash line still isn’t anything to marvel at. He’s batting .232 with an on-base percentage of .317 while slugging .411. However, he’s still incredibly fast and hits a lot of baseballs on the ground, so his .270 BABIP indicates his average and slugging percentage should rise over a larger sample.
It’s the fact that he’s already drawn 7 walks (more than half his 2017 total) in 63 plate appearances that should excite Sox fans. Even if that pace is unsustainable and his walk-rate cuts in half, you’ve got a 25-year-old who just more than tripled the numbers of walks he takes over 1,000 plate appearances into his career.
And it raises his entire offensive profile. Suddenly, as the average climbs back towards where it belongs and as his power continues to increase, Anderson has the potential to be an .800+ OPS guy that happens to steal 30 bases (only being caught stealing 8 percent of the time throughout his Major League career).
That changes his career arc considerably. Prior to this newfound discipline at the plate, justifying the risk of extending him so early would have been dependent on him significantly getting better with his glove and hitting a lot of home runs to mask the holes in his game.
He’s got a ton of range, and his power numbers have increased year over year. Those weren’t impossible asks but far from an inevitability. If he makes those gains and maintains this level of plate discipline, the metrics begin to align with the athleticism we always knew he had.
That’s how you go from capable starter to star in this era.
It’s an admittedly small sample size, but one reason to be encouraged that it can stick is the way Anderson has embraced the philosophical shift. Look at the way he celebrates walks when he arrives at first base after a walk with first-base coach Daryl Boston.
Sure, it’s partially in jest. But he also knows this is career insurance in a way.
If he were to fail to meet expectations as a power hitter or with his glove, Anderson’s slash line would have made him a guy who had to learn three other positions and maintain his speed in perpetuity just to bounce from roster to roster. It’s a great way to earn a living, but it’s not what he had in mind when he went No. 17 overall back in 2013.
But by drawing 40 or 50 walks a year, he’s got 5 or 6 WAR potential for the next decade. Again, potentially higher if he starts making fewer mistakes defensively and hitting 25-30 home runs.
At that point, maybe we’ll realize he was the one who took the risk by signing that contract so early. In a perfect world, that extension will be just one of many instances where we look back and say that Rick Hahn knew what he was doing during this rebuild.