TEMPE, Ariz. — The pitch that changed Tyler Anderson’s career, turning him from a journeyman starter to an All-Star who would sign a $39-million deal with the Angels, was borne out of confusion.
The changeup he had been throwing simply stopped working in 2021.
“It was the same grip I’ve used for 10 years, and throwing it exactly the same, but the pitches weren’t moving the same,” the Angels’ left-hander said. “It seems like I had to keep changing the grip.”
What really puzzled Anderson was that the problem was just with his changeup, which he gripped across two seams. All of the pitches with a four-seam grip were just fine.
The more Anderson talked to other pitchers, the more he realized they were sharing his experience. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that it was the baseball that had changed.
“The seams, I think, were higher,” Anderson said. “If you look across the league, every pitch that was a four-seam pitch overperfomed compared to their historical data for players, and I feel like most two-seam pitches underperformed. I don’t know that it’s 100%, but from the outside look I’ve done talking to guys, it just seemed like guys were all having issues.”
Major League Baseball announced that the balls were changing in 2021 to make them slightly lighter without changing the size, which would make them carry slightly less. The announcement said that the wool windings in the outer layers of the ball would be loosened. There was nothing about the seam height.
That season Anderson pitched for the Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates, posting a 4.53 ERA over 167 innings. After the lockout ended, the Dodgers signed him to a one-year, $8-million deal.
One day in spring training, Anderson tried a four-seam changeup grip that he’d used at the University of Oregon. Anderson held the ball with just his pinky and ring finger, which made it tough to control. He scrapped it in Double-A.
Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior told him he liked the pitch. Anderson just had to harness it.
“I just decided I’m going to throw the crap out of it and figure it out,” Anderson said.
As Anderson gained mastery of the pitch, it became a weapon. The average velocity was 79 mph, which was the slowest he’d thrown his changeup throughout his career. That represented an 11.7-mph gap between his changeup and his four-seam fastball, the largest gap of his career. The pitch also had an average vertical movement of 34.8 inches, which was about four inches more than in any other season.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh man I’m getting way more swing and miss,’ or, ‘I’m getting way more this and that,’” he said. “It just felt a little bit safer. It felt like the damage was a little bit less.”
Opponents hit .179 against Anderson’s changeup in 2022, the lowest average of his career against the pitch. The average exit velocity was 82 mph, also the best of his career.
And the zeroes piled up.
Anderson went into the Dodgers rotation on April 23, and he stayed there all season. He gave up seven runs in a May 12 start, but then he ran off a 13-start stretch in which he had a 1.98 ERA. The Dodgers won 12 of those games.
During that stretch, Anderson earned a spot on his first All-Star team. When the season was over, he was 15-5 with a 2.57 ERA.
While Anderson acknowledges that the new changeup grip was the primary reason for being so much better than the 4.62 ERA of his first six years, there was more.
Anderson said he’d strengthened his legs, giving him better stamina deep in games and deep in the season. He also had another season of mastering his non-traditional approach of altering his release point during games.
Anderson said he’d always struggled to get the ball inside to left-handed hitters, so he started occasionally dropping his arm down to put a different spin on the ball.
“It kind of evolved into figuring out different ways, different pitches to throw from down there, to lefties and righties,” Anderson said.
Angels infielder Brandon Drury, a right-handed hitter, has faced Anderson 22 times, about half of them in Anderson’s first two seasons and then half last year.
“When you’re in there facing somebody and they drop down, as a hitter you aren’t even really looking for that,” Drury said. “You can steal a strike like that.”
Anderson further confuses hitters with an extra pump of his leg during his delivery.
“He’s tough with that little double leg kick thing,” Drury said. “He’s a guy that’s always attacked the zone, but I feel like he’s getting better and smarter with time. He’s tough to square up.”
As a result, Anderson has transformed himself from a pitcher who bounced from the rotation to the bullpen, from team to team. The Angels expect the 33-year-old to be a fixture in their rotation for three years.
“I’ve always believed I was a starter, even when my role was in question,” Anderson said. “It was maybe a question to other people, but in the back of my mind, it never was. I know how to start. I know what I’m doing. Just let me pitch enough and we’ll see.”
UP NEXT Angels vs. Padres, 1 p.m. PT, Friday, Tempe Diablo Stadium, Bally Sports West, 830 AM.