Blue Jays' Rogers Centre- Credit: DaveMe Images

Have Blue Jays Found Another Diamond In The Rough?

When the Blue Jays signed Robbie Ray, he was considered to have outstanding stuff but had never realized on his potential.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Might the Jays have found another similar diamond in the rough?


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Stop me if you have heard this one.  The Blue Jays acquire a pitcher coming off an 8-ish ERA season.  Scouts agree that the pitcher has excellent stuff, but he has somehow never put it all together.  The Jays gamble that a bit of Pete Walker magic might help the young man to realize his considerable untapped potential.

 

Am I talking about Robbie Ray, at the 2020 trade deadline?  Or Shaun Anderson, who was recently acquired on waivers from the San Diego Padres?

 

No, I am not predicting a Cy Young for Anderson in 2022.  But hear me out.

 

“Bigg Shaun” was drafted by Boston in the third round of the 2016 amateur draft.  In his junior year at the University of Florida, pitching in relief, he had a 0.97 ERA with 13 saves (leading the SEC), a 11.7 K/9,  and he was a First Team All-American.   Traded to the Giants in 2017, he pitched as a starter in the minors and in his MLB debut with San Francisco in 2019 where he threw 96 innings (16 starts and some relief appearances) for a 5.44 ERA (5.86 xERA).  San Francisco converted him to a relief role in 2020, where his fastball gained 2 mph to 95 mph, touching 97.  In 2021, he was waived four times and each time he was picked up, resulting in stints with Minnesota, Texas, Baltimore and San Diego.  He was claimed by the Jays off waivers on November 19th.

 

So why should we care about a below-the-radar waiver pickup with a career MLB ERA of 5.75?

 

The first hint is in his much-travelled 2021.  Yes, he was waived four times – but in each case, another team jumped to claim him.  So clearly they saw the upside.

 

And what exactly does that upside look like?  Let’s compare Shaun’s pitch repertoire with another pitcher, using ratings from Fangraphs:

 

Shaun has 5 MLB-calibre pitches, which is crazy-good.  Of these, three are already 55-level (mlb average is 50).  And his fastball and slider – already both plus – have 60 grade upside.  Of his five pitches, four are as good as or better than pitcher X.  (For reference, Nate Pearson has two pitches 50 grade or better and Alek Manoah has three)

 

Pitcher X is Houston Astros SP Luis Garcia, who was a finalist for rookie of the year and is considered one of the league’s up-and-coming young pitching stars.

 

So how can such a paragon have an 8.49 ERA in 2021?  Digging deeper yields some interesting insights.  Shaun’s opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .375 – significantly higher than the league average .293.  And his left-on-base percentage of 45% was far lower than the league average 72%.  All of which implies bad luck, which is supported by his much lower xERA of 4.96.  So if he just had “normal luck”, without any further improvement, Shaun might be a perfectly cromulent #5 starter.

 

But there might well be further room for improvement.  When Ray came to the Jays, he was averaging one walk per inning, and he had a first-strike percentage of 46% (well below he MLB average of 60%).  One of the first things that the Jays did was to encourage him to attack the zone more, with the result that his F-Strike% increased to 62% with the Jays in 2020 and 2021.  Anderson’s BB/9 was 4.63 in 2021 – not Ray-level bad, but still bad.  And Anderson’s F-Strike% was a below-average 55%.  Is it possible that the Jays could compensate for Anderson’s command issues by having him attack the zone more, relying on his plus stuff?

 

Of course, it might seem that if it were that simple Anderson’s issue would have been fixed long before now.  But Ray was in the majors for seven years before his 2021 epiphany.  So sometimes it takes time for things to “click”.

 

The bottom line

Acquiring a struggling pitcher and hoping for a breakthrough is always a gamble.  But what would the ideal pitcher on which to take such a gamble look like?  He would have at least three pitches, so he has starter upside (Shaun has 5), outstanding stuff (Shaun has three 55-grade pitches), and he would be relatively young (Shaun will pitch 2022 at 27 years old) with plenty of team control left in case he *does* break through (Shaun is a free agent in 2027).

 

A balanced pitching portfolio should be built around dependable blue-chip starters.  But it should have few high-risk, high-upside investments as well.  Shaun Anderson might fit that role very nicely.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.

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Jim Scott

A Jays fan since pre-Series, Jim’s biggest baseball regret is that he did not play hooky with his buddies on 7 Apr 77. But hearing “Fanfare For The Common Man” played from a rooftop on 24 Oct 92 helped him atone.