A quick look at Brett Anderson's numbers is pretty ghastly after his first five starts. He's now got a 1-4 record with a pretty unsightly 7.23 ERA. The most recent start against Boston was the worst of all: 4 IP, 8 hits, 6 runs. Brett was honestly pretty lucky his numbers for the day weren't worse: he left with 2 inherited runners on base, and only a nice outing from Jerry Blevins prevented those guys from scoring. So what, exactly, is Brett Anderson doing wrong?
The answer might surprise you. It's: nothing. Brett Anderson has been nowhere near as terrible as his numbers might suggest. True, he's not been the bona fide ace that we got used to in the final months of last season, but he's not the disaster that his basic stats say either.
Let's take today's start, for example. 4 innings, 8 hits, 6 runs, 2 walks, 5 strikeouts. Not a great line. But a closer look will tell you that Brett got plain unlucky today. An important statistic that gets thrown around a ton is BABIP (batting average on balls in play). On average, once a hitter makes contact, the ball has about a 30% chance of going for a hit (ie, the league average for BABIP is around .300). Today, Brett Anderson's BABIP was .533, way over what you might expect. Of course, in a small sample, this can lead to big innings as it did today.
Not all contact is created equal. For instance, line drives have a higher likelihood of going for hits than grounders or fly balls. However, all 5 hits Brett gave up in his 3 -run 4th innings were grounders! Typically, fewer than 30% of grounders will go for hits, but in today's 4th, the Red Sox batted 1.000 on ground balls. Brett was pitching to contact, looking for his defense to bail him out with a groundout or a double-play, and he succeeded in exactly what he meant to do. But when you give up ground balls, some of them are going to find holes. They found those holes at a higher percentage today. Brett's awful start today was due to some equally awful luck.
What about for the season? Brett's BABIP on the year is .366, again markedly above league average. Again, it's important to look at the profile of those balls in play. Brett's career Line Drive% is 16.1%, his career Ground Ball% is 54.5%, and his career FlyBall% is 28.7%. This year, his LD% is way down at 12.1%, his GB% is way up at 65.5%, and his FB% is down to 22.4%. In other words, Anderson is getting better results from his pitches: more grounders typically mean more outs, and fewer fly balls typically mean fewer home runs. That, too, is off this year, as Brett has given up a 17.6% HR/FB rate, well above the league average, which is about 10.5% (before today, it was 25%, meaning 1 out of every 4 fly balls he was giving up was out of the park (!!!!!) This was obviously a small sample size quirk). He's giving up fewer fly balls, but when he does, they're leaving the yard. He's giving up more ground balls, but they're squeaking through the infield whereas they usually go for outs at a much higher rate.
Brett is just not getting very lucky. His xFIP for the season, which attempts to adjust ERA by eliminating luck on batted balls and home run rates on fly balls, is 3.63. In other words, there's nothing wrong with Brett Anderson. He will eventually regress to the mean. He just needs a little more luck on his side.