SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- "If he stays healthy…"
You'll hear those words frequently in sports, but particularly in baseball, particularly in relation to pitchers, and particularly in the spring, when hope springs eternal.
Nobody doubts that Brett Anderson, a strong young arm for the Oakland A's who was traded to the Rockies this winter for Drew Pomeranz and minor leaguer Chris Jensen, has the talent and ability to pitch very well in the major leagues…
…if he stays healthy.
Anderson has had a rough few seasons, and at 26 he's racked up the injury history of a much older player. He understands that his health is the first thing most people will ask about. "It comes with the territory," he says. "Hopefully at some point I can get over that; at this point you expect it. But I feel good, my body feels good, and I can't ask for too much more."
It's the first thing his pitching coach mentions, too. "I see a healthy pitcher," says Jim Wright. "Very professional in what he does, he's had a great spring so far. Fast worker, great tempo… he's actually sharper than I thought he might be, coming into spring training this season."
When health isn't the primary concern, Anderson, a solidly built 6-foot-4 Texan with reddish hair and a short beard, is probably best known for his ability to induce ground balls and for his affably sarcastic tweeting. While spring training stats are not to be taken seriously, he's looked very good and, more importantly, he's felt good (he's also been in fine form when live tweeting awards shows). He's likely to start the season as the No. 2 starter in a promising young Rockies rotation, and the hope is that by the end of the season, people will feel the need to ask how he feels much less often.
Coors Field, humidor and all, is still a name that can drive a chill into a pitcher's heart, but Anderson should be exceptionally well-suited to it: He's always been a ground ball pitcher, with a sinker and a slider that stay down and are hard to lift or drive when he's right. He has a higher ground ball rate over the last three seasons than all but a handful of major league starters -- nearly 60 percent. That's one of the main reasons the Rockies traded for him. And while Anderson enjoyed being part of what was a tight-knit group of young A's pitchers, he says, "maybe a fresh start's good for some people."
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Anderson was drafted out of high school in Stillwater, Oklahoma by the Diamondbacks in 2006. (His father was the baseball coach at Oklahoma State University, and Anderson was actually signed to play for him before deciding to go pro). He was traded to the A's as part of the package for Dan Haren. In 2008, he appeared in the Futures Game and played for the U.S. Olympic Team in Beijing, and by 2009, his rookie season, he was Baseball America's 7th highest rated prospect. That year, at 21, he went 11-11 with a 4.06 ERA and an ERA+ of 108, finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting and threw 175 innings. The following season he was able to make 19 starts, most of them very good -- his ERA was 2.80 -- but he also missed time with an elbow strain and inflammation, a foreshadowing of things to come.
In 2011 he learned he needed Tommy John surgery, and missed most of that season and the next. Last year, it was a stress fracture in his ankle. Over the last three years he's thrown just 163 innings.
"Once I'd got through the Tommy John process, coming back I thought I was over the injuries," he says. "So then to have that foot deal last year… it just makes you want to go out there that much more." He responded to the string of bad luck by "getting hungrier."
At least it doesn't seem to have discouraged or soured him, and he's still got his sense of humor, making cracks online during the Super Bowl, the Oscars, and other big TV events, and interacting with fans and civilians more openly and easily than most players. "I like making fun of awards shows and people who are more famous and probably more talented than me," he says. "Not too many athletes showcase their full personality, it's more pumping products and 'Go team' rah rah stuff, which is fine too, but that's not my personality. I try to showcase who I really am."
Had he not gone into baseball, Anderson thinks he might have followed in his mother's footsteps instead of his father's. She was a vet technician, and the family currently has a Swiss Mountain Dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, two Savannah cats, two Maine Coon cats and two house cats. "I don't know what field I would've gone into," says Anderson, "but something along those lines. I like animals -- I like sharks, maybe marine biology. Or zoology."
Like many ballplayers, he tends to be superstitious, and is concerned that he jinxed Colorado's professional sports teams when he visited Denver over the winter, as the Nuggets, Avalanche and Broncos all lost the games he attended. "My only rationale is, hopefully that all translates into some Rockies victories," he says.
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Baseball is bursting with stories of pitchers held back from greatness by injuries and misfortune, and one of them happens to be Anderson's pitching coach. Jim Wright was a 23-year-old pitcher back in 1978 when he discovered he had a benign tumor in his arm. When it was removed, it left a hole in his ulna, but he returned to pitch in '79 -- until one day, pitching through pain, his arm just snapped, mid-delivery. Though he did return to the mound, he was never the same player. "I'm very cognizant of what [Anderson] had to go through," he says, "and somewhat sympathetic."
Wright and Anderson have not talked in depth about what happened to Wright, though. "No, you never really want to talk about injuries too much," says Anderson. "Especially coming from where I have the last couple years, I'm trying to put that stuff behind me. As long as I feel good day in and day out … I try not to think about it. You try to get that word, 'injury,' and 'training room,' out of your head, keep it on the back burner."
Pitcher injuries are notoriously difficult to predict or prevent, but unfortunately, the best predictor of future disabled list stays that we currently have is past disabled list appearances. But there are always exceptions. All Anderson and the Rockies can do is hope that he's one of them and proceed accordingly.
Regardless of his online hijinks, Anderson is "professional, dedicated, very serious the day he pitches," says Wright. "Got his own routines down, he's going to be good for some of our younger pitchers to watch, how he goes about his business."
It's a little odd to refer to "younger pitchers" when Anderson himself is still only 26. But the Rockies staff is a young one and likely to get younger, a situation Anderson says is not unlike that in Oakland, where "everyone kind of came up at the same point and had that same route to the big leagues for the most part, got to be a pretty cohesive unit. Seems that way here… pretty much the same dynamic."
That Rockies rotation looks to feature Jorge De La Rosa (at 32, the staff veteran), Jhoulys Chacin (26) once he recovers from a shoulder issue, Tyler Chatwood (24) and Franklin Morales (28). Prospects Eddie Butler (23) and Jonathan Gray (22) are waiting in the wings. Add Anderson into that mix, and that could turn into an impressive staff, Coors Field or no Coors Field, and a fun one to watch.
If, well, you know.