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The Oakland A’s might have another Rich Hill candidate

The line wasn’t pretty, but on Saturday night Brett Anderson showed signs of a new approach that could be successful for the lefty.

Oakland Athletics v San Francisco Giants Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Rich Hill is fondly remembered as one of the A’s best buy-low free agent signings of the past few years. In 2015, the 35 year-old fought his way from independent ball to the Major Leagues where he made four dominant starts for the Boston Red Sox. He turned this into a one year, $6 million contract with Oakland where he would make 14 more great starts before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the deadline.

Hill’s age and injuries took a couple miles per hour off of his fastball, and he was forced to reinvent himself. He began to rely on his curveball, and in 2016 threw it more often than his fastball. The pitch became his bread and butter, and he used it (along with two distinct arm slots) to fool batters left and right, getting plenty of called strikes on seemingly hittable pitches.

On Saturday night against the San Francisco Giants, starter Brett Anderson started to do something a bit similar. Of his 54 pitches, only 27 (half) were either sinkers or four-seam fastballs. Of the eight hits he allowed, six came on a fastball (as well as one hit by pitch). Three of these six hits (along with a few hard outs) were hit harder than 90 MPH. This is all to say that Anderson’s fastball isn’t very good, or at least, wasn’t very good on Saturday night.

Of these 27 fastballs, only 15 were strikes. Of his 27 offspeed pitches, 18 were strikes. Now this is a one start sample so obviously some of this could be noise, but just from watching the game last night it seemed like Anderson’s offspeed pitches were much more effective than either of his fastballs. Anderson actually has a pretty solid curveball - it even has more vertical movement than Hill’s - and he used either his curveball or his slider to steal a called strike seven times on Saturday night, out of ten total called strikes.

So what we have is an old, oft-injured starter with a middling fastball that decided to throw 50% offspeed for a start with some signs of success. To me, there are some clear steps forward for Anderson, and if he takes them he might be able to reinvent himself into a capable starter.

First off, he needs to either locate his sinker better or ditch it altogether. Almost every sinker Anderson left relatively high in the zone either got hit hard or was a ball. Anderson hasn’t had plus control since his first time around with the Athletics, but his goal should be to bury his sinker low in the zone every time he throws it. His four-seamer actually touched as high as 92.2 MPH last night, and could be an effective weapon high in the zone. But his sinker needs to stay down.

Next, he should continue to use his curveball and slider more, but use them the way Hill does. The Gorkys Hernandez at-bat leading off the top of the fourth on Saturday night is a great example of what I mean. Anderson fell behind 2-0 on a sinker low and outside and a well placed changeup in the same spot. After Hernandez missed a bunt on a mediocre 2-0 changeup, Anderson stole strike two with a curveball down the middle. His next pitch was a fastball up that Hernandez fouled back, so at 2-2, he went back to the curveball. He didn’t get the pitch down enough and it was hammered for a double. He needed to bury the pitch, and maybe that was his intent, but the end result was a very hittable pitch.

Hill succeeds by using his curveball intentionally different ways. He would use it when hitters weren’t expecting it to steal a called strike up in the zone, often either on the first pitch or behind 2-0 or 3-0. He would also bury it when trying to get a swinging strike. I think if Anderson increases his curveball/slider usage with this approach, he will find more success. His changeup is also a pretty solid pitch, and can be mixed in here as well.

Finally, I don’t think Anderson needs to develop a second arm slot like Hill did. Very few can successfully change their arm slot like Hill does without throwing their original slot off and losing all of their command. I think Anderson’s slider can do mostly the same thing Hill’s lower arm slot does - keep hitters off the curveball with something that looks a little different.

Anderson won’t magically become Rich Hill overnight. His curveball doesn’t have the combination of both horizontal and vertical movement that makes Hill’s so effective. Anderson also doesn’t have the command that Hill does, which is a huge factor in making such an offspeed-heavy approach work.

However, I think this change in approach could really help Anderson. For the most part, I liked what he was doing on Saturday night, and if not for a handful of seeing-eye and bloop singles I think his line would have looked a lot better. This could help Brett turn the corner from DFA candidate to second half rotation mainstay. At the very least, it’s worth a shot.