Tim Anderson’s defense is good enough to support everything else he’s doing

One of the most important plays in Monday’s White Sox winner over the Twins isn’t captured by the box score, the game log, or even the package of highlight clips on the MLB.com recap.

The official description of the game event, which occurred with two outs in the sixth inning, states what happened: “Josh Donaldson singles on a ground ball to shortstop Tim Anderson, Jake Cave to 3rd, Ehire Adrianza to 2nd.”

It doesn’t state what didn’t happen, because game logs would go on forever if they covered all the things that never occurred over the course of a play. You have to watch the video to understand the stakes.

If Anderson doesn’t stop that ball, Cave scores from second to give the Twins a 2-1 lead. Adrianza makes it to third, which puts runners on the corners for Nelson Cruz to enhance the lead further. Instead, while Cruz came to the plate with the bases loaded in a different sort of unenviable situation, at least the game was tied.

The game log on Baseball-Reference.com measures the Win Probability Added for each play, and even though nobody scored on the play, Donaldson’s infield single increased the Twins’ chances of winning by 4 percent. The continue our theme of what’s going unsaid, this doesn’t tell you what Anderson preserved by stopping the ball.

Fortunately, we can calculate decent estimate of Anderson’s contribution thanks to a handy WPA calculator found on The Book’s Wiki. The program spits out the same result for the actual event, so I feel comfortable what it says about what the Sox would have faced if the ball slipped past Anderson’s glove.

  • WPA, infield single: 4 percent
  • WPA, ball gets through: 17 percent

Anderson’s play had a 13-percent swing, making it the fourth most important play of the game behind Adam Engel’s game-winning butcher boy, Donaldson’s inning-ending double play in the seventh, and Cruz’s bases-loaded groundout in the eighth.

* * * * * * * * *

Anderson can’t be credited for a play made, but he can be credited with good timing. Prior to stopping a tough ground ball that he couldn’t convert into a documentable out, MLB.com unveiled the initial leaderboard for its cornerstone infield metric Outs Above Average, and it shows Anderson as the weak link of the infield. Sox Machine supporter Louis shot me a message essentially asking, “What gives?”

Indeed, this isn’t the kind of snapshot we’d have expected from the infield before the season:

  • Yoán Moncada; +2
  • Jose Abreu: +1
  • Leury García: +1
  • Nick Madrigal: 0
  • Danny Mendick: -1
  • Tim Anderson: -3

This list is mostly good news, but Anderson’s poor showing sticks out. His -3 OAA is good for 33rd out of 36 shortstops. Perhaps you can take some small-sample solace from Anderson being tied with Paul DeJong, who was among baseball’s best defenders last year.

The number is disappointing because it doesn’t reward Anderson’s improvement in making the easy plays. He committed 26 errors in just 122 games last year. Through 37 games in 2020, he’s setting a pace for just 16 over a similar sample. Defensive Runs Saved reflects such improvement in his execution. He’s breaking even in DRS thus far in 2020, as opposed to losing 12 runs last year.

But DRS is the outlier of the three main metrics. Statcast had Anderson at -2 OAA in 2019, so he’s more or less within that margin for error, and Ultimate Zone Rating has him on the same 150-game pace (-11.6 runs) as last year (-11.7).

I expected Anderson’s defense to be interpreted on the negative side, mostly because there aren’t many examples of him completing amazing plays in 2020. MLB.com has enhanced its video search so you can find just about every ground ball hit to Anderson, and there are a host of infield singles in the group this year. Some examples:

Hell, this wasn’t even Donaldson’s first infield single on a grounder in Anderson’s direction this year.

All of these chances are difficult on an individual basis, but Anderson’s highlight page hasn’t turned up the kind of web gems that offset some of these incomplete plays. His strongest efforts involve double-play turns, line drives, and this crazy relay throw home. All are good and help the cause, but if there’s a shortage of range-based highlights, I can see him lagging behind the field in the advanced metrics.

It’s a small sample, so perhaps Anderson is in line for some tougher batted balls that he can convert. Or maybe the abbreviated training camp and early-season groin injury makes him a step slower than usual, preventing him from getting into better throwing position on these ground balls that test him.

The good news is that he’s showing more polish on the grounders within his range, especially with regards to footwork. He made one of the key plays during Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter by rounding off this spinning bouncer in order to get rid of the ball faster.

And while he might not be fielding the tough plays cleanly, he’s not compounding these compromised positions with ill-advised throws. The phrase is “playing within himself,” and it’s a phrase to treat carefully. Omar Vizquel’s White Sox career shows that it’s sometimes a euphemism to cover for no range whatsoever, but here, I think it’s an encouraging step at this moment in Anderson’s development.

After all, since he’s apparently hoarding batting titles for the foreseeable future, he won’t need to be a Gold Glover to garner MVP support. And with the White Sox showing drastic teamwide improvements in the field, Rick Renteria isn’t praying for sensational plays from Anderson that make up for deficits elsewhere. The White Sox finally have enough talent to disperse responsibility accordingly, rather than requiring the few talented individuals to be even more than they’ve shown. Maybe Anderson’s range has taken a hit, and here’s hoping it’s only temporary, but as long as the errors don’t resurface, he and everybody else should continue making up for it.

(Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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Milky✌️

I have to say I’m surprised the metrics are so negative. By the extremely untrained eye test Anderson’s been pretty solid with some fun basketball leap catches thrown in. I guess those stick in the mind a lot more than the occasional off throw to first.

denny

It used to be that, in a crucial game situation, I’d hate to see a ball hit to Anderson. Now I absolutely am glad when that happens as I have tremendous faith that he’ll make the play. Eye test and comfort levels are both way better than the metrics.

HallofFrank

It’s an interesting MVP race. The contenders are Trout, Rendon, Anderson, Abreu, Jose Ramirez, or Nelson Cruz.

Cruz and Ramirez are on the bubble. Cruz because he’s a DH and isn’t much above the others offensively. Ramirez because, even though he’s done everything well, is a step behind the others in almost every category. He’d need a monster two weeks to sneak in. That leaves Trout, Rendon, Anderson, and Abreu as the Final Four.

Rendon’s case is walks and fWAR. His 2.4 fWAR is league best and 17.7 BB% is 3rd (easily best of the contenders). However, he lags behind in counting stats, and bWAR is less rosy (1.9). He has half the HR of Trout (8 to 16) and almost half the RBI of Abreu (25 to 48). His wRC+ (162) is lowest of the Final Four.

Trout’s case is being Mike Trout. He’s basically Nelson Cruz offensively except, oh yeah, he plays an above average CF. He bests both Sox at wRC+, fWAR, wOBA, HR, and OPS. However, his bWAR (1.1) is uncharacteristically low and almost a whole run below a trio of Sox. His average is under .300 and his 23.5 K% is highest of the bunch.

Anderson’s case is basically being a fast, SS version of Tony Gwynn. His average (.369) is almost 20 points higher than anyone else in the AL and more than 70 points higher than Trout. He’s the only player in the AL above 2 wins in both fWAR (2.2) and bWAR (2.1) despite playing less games than everyone else. he also leads the Final Four in steals (5). However, his 7 HR are less than half of Trout or Abreu and the numbers say he’s played a pedestrian SS.

Abreu’s case is being an RBI machine. His ridiculous 48 RBI is nearly ten more than Trout (39). He also leads the league in bWAR (2.4) and is 6th in fWAR. He’s played a serviceable, even good, first base. However, he plays 1B. His 163 wRC+ is below Anderson and Trout. He has fewer HR than Trout, too, and his .362 OBP is more than 40 points lower than the others.

Correct or not, the Stoney’s of the world won’t vote for Rendon or Trout if the Angels remain out of the playoffs—and it doesn’t look likely. For this reason (and the others above), it would shock me if Rendon won. I think he’s 4th of the 4 easily. That leaves Trout, Anderson, and Abreu. Trout has just been so good, but my impression is bWAR is out there more than fWAR. That helps Anderson and Abreu a lot. They also both excel in traditional stats.

It will come down to the final two weeks, but after this little exercised I’m putting TA in first place. He’s the hardest to mount a case against, in my opinion. A high BABIP may matter for predicting what will happen, but the MVP is about what happened. He’s had a monster season. He’s played less games, too. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll likely finish 1st in fWAR *and* bWAR. It’s hard to argue with that.

joewho112

I’d throw Shane Bieber in the conversation

Whoom

I agree about Bieber. Unfortunately, outside WAR, it really is hard to make a direct comparison between Bieber and any of those guys. And even WAR is a bit sketchy, since you are basically beholden to the internal scaling factors that differ pitchers vs. hitters for a comparison.

That being said, I really hate when pitchers get into the MVP conversation, mostly because there is already a “best pitcher” award, and there isn’t a “best non-pitcher award”.

HallofFrank

That’s fair. I didn’t even think about it. Although it seems unlikely, especially with the shortened season, but he has been incredible.

HallofFrank

Another reason to be on the TA for MVP train: it would be nice to see a black American win the award this year. Off the field value should count, too, and Anderson has been the gold standard of leadership in voice and action. That *surely* adds value to the White Sox and, probably even more so, to the league. It would be a great story if Anderson won—and great for the league.

I’d want Anderson to win by on the field merit, but if it’s him/Trout/Abreu in coin-flip close territory, that would swing my vote if I had one.

Right Size Wrong Shape

That’s not a reason to vote for someone.

LuBob DuRob

It’s long been a reason players didn’t get votes.

Right Size Wrong Shape

Yeah, and that’s wrong too. Skin color should not be a consideration in any way when giving an award for how well someone plays baseball.

As I said, on field merit first. And I specifically referenced TAs leadership during this time. That adds value. And value should be a consideration for the most valuable player.

Right Size Wrong Shape

I enjoyed your first comment, and my opinion both before and after is that TA should be the frontrunner right now. Where I disagree is that it shouldn’t be merit first, I think it should be merit only.
I understand your leadership angle, but honestly I have a problem with that as well. First of all, we may have impressions of who we think are good leaders, but sometimes that’s not really the case. The whole thing reminds me of guys like Dick Allen and Eddie Murray who were great players that didn’t always get the respect they deserved because of their personalities (and probably because of having that personality while being black). Either way, you can be the nicest guy in the world, but I think the award should go to the guy that plays the best. I get that it’s called the MVP, but since there isn’t a Most Outstanding Player Award, I like to see the best player get it.

Sure, I really don’t think we disagree, necessarily. But “merit only” maybe impossible, since two on the field resumes maybe “too close to call.” In that case, you need a tiebreaker. I suppose you could arbitrarily pick some stat to tie break, but it also seems reasonable to pick some off the field value maker as well (e.g. leadership or community philanthropy Etc).

lifelongjd

I can’t remember anyone improving so much over the course of his first few seasons with the big league club. When you consider how truly raw he was when the Sox drafted him and then where he was at when he first came to the MLB, to be the player he is now is truly astonishing. One of the few times drafting on potential and athleticism didn’t blow up in the FO’s face.

Willardmarshall

What, nobody’s demanding he be moved to center field?

burning-phoneix

Surprised Danny Mendick is at -1.

soxexile

If we want Anderson’s defense to improve, we need to trade him the the Yankees. Then his offensive production and team leadership would make him an annual gold glover. Just like Derrick Jeter.