According to then Braves scouting director Brian Bridges, there was only one player that area scout Greg Morhardt had ever believed in as strongly as he did Ian Anderson prior to the 2016 Draft.
That was back in 2009, when Morhardt was an area scout for the Angels and had New Jersey as part of his territory. The player, of course, was outfielder Mike Trout, who didn’t get taken until the Angels made their second first-round pick at No. 25 overall.
This might not seem to have anything to do with the 22-year-old slated to start Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night against the Dodgers at Globe Life Field in Arlington. But having Trout on his résumé certainly carried a lot of weight when the Braves decided to buck the trend, and the industry’s opinion, by taking a high school right-hander from upstate New York with the No. 3 overall pick in the Draft four years ago.
Always at the top of their board
The Braves knew Anderson was their guy before the spring season even began in 2016. A regular on the showcase circuit, he was often among the top performers at any event he attended. Atlanta’s coaching staff took notice of the projectable right-hander from Shenendehowa High School East in Clifton Park, N.Y., right away and never really strayed.
“I saw him early on in the summer and then we saw him again,” said Bridges, who now is a national crosschecker for the Giants. “I really liked him. I told Roy Clark [then a special assistant to the GM] to go over to see him. Roy looked at me, and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was feeling the same way.' From that point, I followed him the rest of the summer. He was at every event, I watched his interview at the PG game, just how mature he was, took it all to another level.”
“It was the game plan from the beginning,” said Morhardt, who joined the Braves from the Angels in 2015 and now scouts for the Red Sox. “You have to see him pitch in the spring, you wanted to make sure he was going in the right direction. We knew we could cut the slot, but we still believed he was the best player.”
When buzz started generating that the Braves were thinking about taking Anderson No. 3 overall ahead of high school arms like Jay Groome and Riley Pint, who ranked higher on MLB Pipeline’s Top 200 (Anderson actually was the sixth high school arm on the list at No. 13), many thought the Braves were doing so mostly for that money-saving reason.
It was partially true. Atlanta did end up giving Anderson a bonus $2.5 million below slot, and that enabled the club to add over-slot signings like Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, Bett Cumberland and Bryse Wilson in later rounds. But anyone who thought finances were the main consideration wasn’t paying attention to what the Braves had done previously.
In 2015, Bridges’ first as the team’s scouting director, Atlanta took two high school arms in the first round, Kolby Allard at No. 14 and Mike Soroka at No. 28. Like with Anderson, the Braves showed they weren’t afraid to buck industry thinking by taking Soroka, who was ranked No. 60 on the Draft Top 200 and will return as a cornerstone of the big league rotation following the Achilles injury that ended his season and led to Anderson's big league promotion.
The Braves’ belief in Anderson was severely tested in the spring of 2016. Bridges and company knew they’d have to wait for the weather to warm up and deal with the inevitable rainouts that happen with Northeast baseball, and then had to deal with Anderson being weakened by illness and an oblique injury.
“There were a lot of teams that did not have him in the first round,” Morhardt said. “There were a lot of guys who walked out of the ballpark. He was sick his senior year and missed some starts. Roy Clark and I saw one of his late starts, and he was upper-80s, touching 91 mph. A lot of guys jumped off him."
The Braves heard all the comments at the ballpark, that Anderson was a generic right-hander who was a dime a dozen in the Minor Leagues, that he couldn’t even win his high school games, that he was a second or third rounder, at best. That strength of conviction was definitely needed.
“Ian was our guy if we could get it past Congress, so to speak,” Morhardt said. “We knew he had been sick. If I didn’t believe what I did, I’d have heard what others were saying and gotten nervous.”
Unusual demographic and unique arm action
There were a couple of things that seemingly made taking Anderson that early. The first was him being a part of what is considered the highest-risk, highest-reward group of potential draftees: The high school right-hander.
A prep righty has never been taken No. 1 overall since the Draft began in 1965. Since 2000, a high school righty has gone in the top three only six times, including Anderson. The history of these picks have been spotty, at best, with Chris Gruler (2002) and Tyler Kolek (2014) serving as cautionary tales. Josh Beckett going No. 2 in 1999 is the best example of success, but suffice it to say the Braves were going against the grain with their desire to take Anderson.
“You have to tip your hat to the Braves on that one,” Morhardt said. “Bridge and Roy did the work, breaking the trend of taking a high school right-hander at 3. It’s unusual they go that high.”
The arm action fans seen now from Anderson is pretty much the same as it was in high school: straight over the top. It’s not typical, most come at hitters with more of a three-quarters arm slot, and the overhand delivery certainly put some scouts off.
“It’s so unique; he’s different than guys who throw from up there,” Morhardt explained. “It’s the way his arm works, it’s fluid, it’s not a rigid overhand. He throws from a high slot, but it’s a loose, easy and flexible arm.”
Coming out of high school, Anderson was known mostly for his fastball-curve combination, more than enough to dominate high school competition in upstate New York. But count Morhardt among those who saw the changeup that has dominated postseason competition (0-for-15 with 17 misses on 40 swings and eight strikeouts) coming.
“I‘d heard it, that he didn’t have a changeup in high school,” Morhardt said. “But he had a really good one in high school. You couldn’t tell if it was a fastball or a changeup. Sometimes you had to look at the radar gun to see what it was.”
Faith in the kid… and the area scout
Though the Braves felt really good about Anderson, they did their due diligence with other Draft prospects that year. They brought Kyle Lewis and Taylor Trammell in for a workout. They took a look at college bats like Will Craig. Nothing took their focus away from the kid in New York, with Roy Clark making five trips to Albany to see him.
“You start scouting everybody but you tend to go back to one,” Bridges said. “We met with the family at the house. It was just a wholesome family. They talk about their love for each other, they talk about the drive Ian had. There were no hiccups. When you’re checking boxes, there were none to worry about.”
Anderson was the only player the scouting staff had consensus on, but it wasn’t until Paul Snyder, one of the most respected veterans in the industry who advised the Braves at the time, spoke up that got everyone in the organization on board.
“He stood up and said, ‘It’s guys like Ian Anderson that we built this organization on,’” Bridges said. “It was so powerful because there was still some doubt.”
“No one was going to take him ahead of us,” Morhardt said. “We didn’t think Mickey Moniak or Nick Senzel (the top two picks in the Draft) were better than Ian, or guys throwing harder behind him [Riley Pint went No. 4 overall]. We were fortunate. We looked at it as if it was 1-1.”
That raises the question: What if the Braves did have the No. 1 pick in 2016? Would they have made history by taking a high school right-hander with the top pick?
“It would be hard to pull me off of him,” Bridges said.
That strength of conviction was as much about Anderson as it was about Morhardt. Bridges knew exactly who he was when he hired him from the Angels. Morhardt’s ability to see things other scouts didn’t see in a player and to believe that strongly about him had already paid huge dividends.
“He only thought about one other player this strongly: Trout,” Bridges said. “You hire a guy based on who they scouted and signed. He drafted the best player in the game.”
A good scouting director trusts his area scouts and Bridges had complete faith in Morhardt. That combined with what he and Clark had seen the previous summer and even that spring meant that Bridges never wavered once in his desire to add Anderson to the organization’s stable of good, young pitching.
“At the end of the day, that ultimately is what is the calming thing for a director the night before the Draft,” Bridges said. “I had a veteran who had been there, done that. Eddie Bane was crucified for taking Mike Trout at the beginning. Who was the one guy who believed in him? Greg Morhardt. Same thing with Ian Anderson. He believed in him. I’m not going to shy away from it.
“Was he really a mid-first-rounder? Maybe, but I knew what I liked. I was willing to ride it with Greg. I’m fighting an uphill battle with a guy who has a track record.”
Neither Bridges nor Morhardt are with the Braves now, but that doesn’t give them any less pride to see what Anderson has done since he got called up. And neither is surprised at his 1.95 ERA and .172 batting average against during the regular season, or his 11 2/3 innings shutout frames over two postseason starts. And they’ll be watching as he takes the mound on Tuesday trying to pitch the Braves to a 2-0 series lead against the Dodgers.
“How great is that?" Morhardt asked. That’s awesome.”
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly MLB Pipeline Podcast.