Anderson's path from indy ball to the WS

October 25th, 2020

Rays right-hander always had two things: size and a whole lot of arm strength. That combination might get a pitcher an opportunity here and there, but it is far from a guaranteed ticket to the big leagues.

Nothing about Anderson’s career has been automatic. He was an unsigned 32nd-round Draft pick and an independent league hanger-on. Anderson played across three Major League organizations before making his big league debut at age 28. And after all that, in 2020, he’s the best reliever on a World Series team.

Early struggles and finding a home

By now, Anderson’s off-the-field issues that nearly ended his career in college have been well-documented. He got involved in a bar fight as a senior at St. Cloud State University, spent eight days in jail and received seven years’ probation. Anderson transferred to Mayville State University in North Dakota and was taken by the Brewers in Round 32 of the 2012 Draft, but Milwaukee didn’t sign him after learning about his past.

So Anderson went the independent league route, serving as a starter for the Rockford RiverHawks in the Frontier League for two years with poor results (6.79 ERA). After a year with an amateur team in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, he found another home in the Frontier League, this time with the Frontier Grays.

Anderson took his first real step towards becoming the reliever he is today with the club. Billy Bryk Jr., the son of legendary scout Bill Bryk, who currently works for the D-backs, was the Grays’ pitching coach at the time.

“The first time I saw him playing catch, I couldn’t believe his arm speed,” Bryk Jr. said. “I moved him to the bullpen.”

Anderson already threw hard, and would top out at 95 mph, but he had a crude delivery that led to inconsistency with his velocity. Bryk Jr. helped him correct a delivery flaw and watched the velo climb back up while trying to help him find a breaking ball that worked for him. It was more than enough for him to dominate the competition to the tune of a 0.65 ERA, 11.4 strikeouts per nine, a 0.831 WHIP and 13 saves in 25 games.

Bryk Sr. had interest in signing the right-hander for the D-backs, but the Twins were intrigued. That came in the form of scout Billy Milos, who has managed to sign several MLB-bound independent ball pitchers in recent years.

“I just liked his fastball,” Milos said. “Not just that he threw hard, it just played really well. He was 93-96 then, and it came out of his hand so well. And he threw strikes. And I loved how he competed.”

It took Milos a while to convince the Twins to take a chance, so he ended up seeing Anderson at least four times, far more than typical for someone mining for undiscovered indy league talent. As a result, he got to know much more about what made Anderson tick.

“I got to know him,” Milos said. “This guy’s smart. He had that ‘it factor’ of being able to get out of jams. He could strand runners. He still has that it factor. He’s also in tune with himself. He doesn’t make excuses. He can self-adjust. He has a really good awareness of his own body, how to train himself. And he handles pressure.”

One-pitch pitcher

What Anderson didn’t have was a breaking ball. As Milos puts it, “He had one; it just wasn’t any good.” It was slurvy, it lacked consistent shape and didn’t really serve as an effective weapon. It was his ability to throw hard and command his fastball that got him signed in 2015 and allowed him to methodically climb the Twins ladder. There were no expectations, not for a mid-20s reliever in A ball.

By 2018, however, Anderson had reached Rochester and was a Triple-A All-Star. He struck out 13.2 per nine that year and hopes were rising that the Minnesota native might get called up by his hometown team. His breaking ball had improved -- he started with an upper-70s slurve and he had tightened it to 81-82 mph at this point.

The call never came and rather than add Anderson to the 40-man roster (or leave him exposed in the Rule 5 Draft), they traded him to the Marlins in November.

“He had made progress in the few years we had him,” said Brad Steil who, as Minor League director, had been responsible for acting on Milos’ evaluation and signed Anderson. “He was still somewhat of a one-pitch guy. His slurve was OK, it was usable. That was all part of the evaluation.”

A big league opportunity

“His path is so unique that it’s not surprising to see the development take place a little later than your typical pitcher,” Rays pro scouting director Kevin Ibach said. “It’s certainly a testament to Nick and how he really took advantage of an opportunity that was finally given to him.”

The Marlins added Anderson to the 40-man roster and made the Opening Day bullpen. His big league debut came on March 28, 2019, at age 28 and he became a mainstay in Miami’s bullpen. Anderson's 14.2 K/9 rate caught the eye of the Rays, who were interested in him during the offseason, and they acquired him and Trevor Richards in a Trade Deadline deal that cost them a Top 100 prospect in Jesus Sanchez as well as right-hander Ryne Stanek.

“We almost acquired him from the Twins the prior offseason, and then got a second chance from Miami,” Ibach said. “We always liked his ability to pitch with his fastball and his ability to locate it for strikes.”

Anderson was even better with the Rays down the stretch in 2019, with a 2.11 ERA and a whopping 17.3 K/9 rate. He appeared in four postseason games a year ago and didn’t slow down this year, finishing the regular season with a 0.55 ERA. In two years in the big leagues, he has a combined 15 K/9 rate to go along with a 2.3 BB/9 rate.

Anderson still pitches off of his fastball, throwing his four-seamer nearly 60 percent of the time. But that breaking ball that didn’t exist a few years ago? It certainly does now. He only threw it 83 times in the 2020 regular season, it has relatively low spin (2,005 rpm) and people don’t know what to call it, with some thinking it’s a slider and others labeling it a curve. Whatever it is, it’s effective, with a whiff rate of 53.5 percent this year.

“The breaking ball came along more with Miami and after we acquired him,” Ibach said. “It really complements the fastball and allows him to touch multiple parts of the zone.”

Anderson’s ability to adjust on the fly, identified early on by Milos, has really come into play. Working with pitching coach Kyle Snyder and bullpen coach Stan Boroski, he’s been able to make small adjustments as he’s been getting big league outs.

“The slider development has been a big piece of his improvement,” said Steil, now the Twins’ pro scouting director. “He’s added some velocity and carry to his fastball the last two years. To his credit, he was able to make those improvements at 29 and now 30 years old.

“He’s always been a good worker and put in the time to get better. The slider has really taken off in the last year. I don’t know what changes he’s made, but it’s definitely better than it was. When he was with us last it was more of a slurvy slider, 81-82 mph. He’s shortened the break and it’s more 84-85.”

Talk to anyone about Anderson, and talk of that work ethic comes up in pretty much every conversation. A desire to compete, to push himself to become better. That’s what’s allowed him to go from the Frontier League to the World Series.

“I’m definitely happy for him,” Steil said. “He’s come a long way from getting drafted and not signed, three years of indy ball. I’m sure there were questions how long he was going to do it after his first two years. It’s a great story of long odds. In hindsight, you wish it had happened with us. You still root for him. It’s good to see him doing well.”

“I told him, I believe you can be a closer,” Milos said. “Not that I thought he’d be this good. But if he’s good enough to get there, he could close. Just being able to understand himself and that stinginess to leave guys out there when guys are on base… that’s something that’s intangible and it’s not talked about, but we should scout it.”

“I always knew he was going to do something,” Bryk Jr. said. “I said the sky is the limit with this guy. He was making so many strides and was the first guy to come and last to leave. It almost got annoying because he always wanted extra work. I love it. It’s a crazy story he’s in the World Series, but it’s a beautiful thing.”