Ian Anderson was great in October. Was that the real deal?

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves pitcher Ian Anderson comments on his success from the shortened 60-game, 2020 season and how that will propel him in 2021.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

A year ago, Ian Anderson felt nervous before his first spring start. A year ago, Ian Anderson was trying to make the Braves’ rotation, which seemed stout before the COVID-19 lockdown. Above him on what seemed a deep depth chart: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mike Foltynewicz, Cole Hamels, Sean Newcomb and Felix Hernandez.

Had there been a minor-league season in 2020, Anderson would have started it as a Gwinnett Striper. As it happened, he wound up in Gwinnett as a member of the Braves’ auxiliaries. As of Aug. 25, the third overall pick in the 2016 draft still hadn’t thrown a major-league pitch.

On Aug. 26, with the Braves’ rotation having been reduced to Fried and nobody, Anderson made his MLB debut. On Oct. 17, he started Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. He’d started Game 2s against the Reds, Marlins and Dodgers. The Braves won all three. They were tied in Game 7 when Anderson threw his final pitch, which ended the third inning. Only in that inning had he yielded a postseason run.

ExploreIan Anderson enters Year 2 with same confidence of 2020

A 22-year-old who’d made six big-league starts was all but untouchable in October, a month that saw him work 18-2/3 innings and finish with an ERA of 0.96. He struck out 24. He was great.

Now it’s 2021, and Anderson figures to be a part of any Braves rotation. Still, we note that his body of work – counting playoffs, he had made 10 major-league starts – is slender. And he wasn’t the only Braves pitcher to do better work in the 2020 postseason than he managed before. This applies to Kyle Wright, who went six scoreless innings in the clinching game against Miami; to Bryse Wilson, who yielded one run over six innings in Game 4 of the NLCS, staking his team to a 3-1 series lead, and to Huascar Ynoa, who threw 99 pitches over four bravura relief innings in Game 3 versus the Dodgers, saving the rest of the Braves’ bullpen for another day.

By Baseball-Reference’s calculations, the career big-league WAR for Anderson, Wright, Wilson and Ynoa is 0.6. Only Anderson (1.3) is above minus territory. By way of comparison, Tom Glavine’s b-WAR in 1991, the worst-to-first year that saw him win his first Cy Young, was 8.5. What we saw from Anderson, Wright, Wilson and Ynoa in October was massively encouraging. That said, there’s such a thing as recency bias. What we saw last mightn’t tell the whole truth.

On Tuesday, Braves manager Brian Snitker was asked if the playoff performances of his four youngish pitchers — all were acquired during John Coppolella’s rebuild; Wright is the oldest at 25 — might give him pause, seeing as how they hadn’t done much before October 2020. His response: “That’s a good question. The biggest thing I hope is that they use that experience to have more confidence in themselves. They know they’re capable of that now. As they come into a new year, I think they can draw off that and use it. ‘I can pitch here; I belong here’ — it’s huge for these guys. It took them a while to get in that position.”

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson (foreground) and catcher Travis d’Arnaud are all smiles after Anderson's two scoreless innings of a 6-0 shutout of the Minnesota Twins Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson (foreground) and catcher Travis d’Arnaud are all smiles after Anderson's two scoreless innings of a 6-0 shutout of the Minnesota Twins Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

If you can pitch against the Dodgers in the crucible of October, you shouldn’t be cowed by the Mets in May. But there are examples of young pitchers having banner playoff runs that didn’t lead to Cooperstown careers. At 21, Steve Avery was MVP of the Braves’ 1991 NLCS victory over Pittsburgh; at 23, Michael Wacha was MVP of the Cardinals’ 2013 NLCS victory over the Dodgers. Avery would make the All-Star team once; Wacha, now on his third team in three years, has been an All-Star once.

Said Anderson, who went two scoreless innings against the Twins on Tuesday: “It’s nice to take what I learned last year in those big games. … Obviously this game’s not as important, but it’s a building block for what we’re trying to accomplish. I’m trying to take what I learned from last year and go forward with it.”

Snitker: “To see how he handled (the playoffs) was very impressive. I remember in his first (regular-season) start against the Yankees looking down the dugout and seeing the confidence, how he wasn’t overwhelmed with the situation.”

Coming off October, the Braves have reason to believe Anderson, Wright, Wilson and Ynoa can be more than replacement-level major-leaguers. Any/all could turn out to be special. Add those four to Fried, who’s a ripe old 27, and Soroka, who’s 23, and the Braves might have been tempted to go with a homegrown kiddie corps as their rotation. That Alex Anthopoulos spent $18 million for one year of Charlie Morton and $11 million for one of Drew Smyly tells us this club is determined not to fall into the recency trap.

Not since the early ’90s have the Braves’ pitching prospects looked this good. But there’s an adage in baseball: Prospects will break your heart. And, as everyone who has worked in the sport has said a thousand times, there’s no such thing as too much pitching. Ergo, Morton. Ergo, Smyly. To borrow from Skip Caray: A little insurance never hurts.

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