This star is hitting the ball hard for White Sox

August 23rd, 2020

led the Majors in batting average at .335 last year, becoming the first White Sox player to do so since Luke Appling in 1936. And in 2020, he’s back for more -- and is improving, yet again.

Last year was a huge year for Anderson power-wise, as well, compared to the rest of his career. He slugged .508, the highest of any season of his career, and hit 18 homers, his second-most in 518 plate appearances, to go along with 32 doubles.

But in 2020, he’s added another element to his game: hard contact. And it’s transforming his entire hitting arsenal.

Hard-hitting prowess

Anderson was not much of a hard-hit-ball type of batter in his career before 2020. His highest average exit velocity in a season was 88.3 mph in 2019, which was below the Major League average of 88.7 mph. His prior highest hard-hit rate was 37.6%, also in ‘19, just above the average of 36.8%.

In 2018, he was in the bottom 6% of the league with an 85.8 mph average exit velocity, and bottom 9% with his 27.9% hard-hit rate.

In 2020, he’s been scorching the ball, both compared to his prior standards and overall. His 47.5% hard-hit rate ranks tied for 19th among 183 players with at least 50 batted balls this season. His 91.9 mph average exit velocity ranks 15th in that same group. His exit velocity is second to only José Abreu on the White Sox, a team that is quickly gaining a reputation for power. The hard-hit rate ranks tied for third with Luis Robert, behind Abreu and Eloy Jiménez.

It’s not just hard contact, it’s quality contact. He’s hit a barrel in 10.0% of his plate appearances, tied for 23rd among those players with at least 50 batted balls. He has eight barrels this season, after topping out at 22 in 2017 as his most -- in far more games and plate appearances.

How that affects his game

Hitting the ball hard has completely transformed the nature of Anderson’s expected stats -- which are based on quality of contact. In 2019, he hit .335, but had a .295 expected batting average. That .295 was still in the top 8% of the league, but was noticeably down from his actual batting average.

So far in 2020, more quality contact has meant expected stats that more closely align with what’s going on. He’s hitting .368 right now, which is fourth among players with at least 70 plate appearances, with a .323 expected batting average. That means that based on the contact he’s made so far this year, he should’ve hit around where he did last year. The dropoff is a similar number of batting average points, but if the expected stats have you in the .330s instead of the .290s, you are definitely making solid contact.

Hitting the ball hard has also helped his slugging percentage go through the roof. He’s currently slugging .711, which is fourth among players with at least 70 plate appearances, behind only Dominic Smith (.754), Luke Voit (.730) and Bryce Harper (.714). His expected stats indicate he won’t necessarily slug in the .700s forever, but his expected slugging percentage is still high, at .618, which puts him in the top 8% of the league. This is the part of Anderson’s game that’s new -- and making him an even more well-rounded leadoff hitter for the White Sox.

Anderson isn’t lifting the ball quite as much as he did last season, when 49.1% of his batted balls were line drives or fly balls, the highest of his career. But 42.4% of his batted balls have still been of that variety, and most importantly, 24.0% of those have been home runs. That’s the highest percentage of homers of line drives and fly balls in his career. Lo and behold, an 7.5% home run rate, on track to be by far the highest of his career.

What could be next

As Anderson continues to crush the ball, he adds yet another element to the strong White Sox offense. He won’t slug .711 for the whole season, but if he can even maintain a slugging percentage above .508, he’ll set a career best. And more than that, if he stays in the .600 echelon, he could be one of just a handful of leadoff hitters with a slugging percentage that high in baseball history.

The highest slugging percentage by a modern-era (since 1900) qualified hitter who had at least half of his plate appearances at leadoff is .640 by Mookie Betts in 2018. Only two others were in the .600s: 1996 Brady Anderson (.637) and 2017 Charlie Blackmon (.601), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

And if his batting average stays among the league leaders? We’ve had repeat batting champs as recently as 2018-19 by Christian Yelich, but for White Sox history, it’d be a first. Prior to Anderson’s batting title in 2019, the White Sox had only three batting champs -- Luke Appling in 1936 and ‘43, and Frank Thomas in 1997. The last player to lead the Majors in batting average in back-to-back years was Larry Walker in 1998-99.

The White Sox have been an exciting part of the 2020 season thanks to an offense featuring Anderson, Jimenez, Robert, Yoán Moncada, Abreu and others. If Anderson continues this pace atop their lineup, opposing teams will keep having trouble from the first plate appearance of the game. The team’s playoff odds are 96.7% according to FanGraphs. It’s a good time to be a White Sox fan.