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Tuesday, August 6, 2013
The curious case of Lars Anderson

By David Schoenfield

In case you missed it, the White Sox recently released Lars Anderson, who was hitting .194/.302/.251 in 66 games at Triple-A Charlotte. You may remember him as a highly rated prospect with the Red Sox; after hitting .317 with 18 home runs between Class A and Double-A in 2008 -- reaching Double-A at age 20 -- Baseball America ranked the first baseman as the No. 18 prospect in the minors before the 2009 season.

Anderson never developed from there, and although he received a couple sips of decaffeinated tea with the Red Sox, his professional career is now in jeopardy at the age of 25. Former major leaguer Gabe Kapler, who managed Anderson at Class A Greenville in 2007, had an interesting article on WEEI, titled: "Understanding Lars Anderson: A study in baseball makeup."

While raving about Anderson's approach and swing plane, Kapler ultimately attributes Anderson's struggles to a lack of confidence and belief in his own abilities. He compared Anderson to Josh Reddick, a teammate on that Greenvile team:
Josh Reddick, who hit in front of or behind him in the lineup, had an athletic attitude that I’d seen in every clubhouse I’d occupied. Josh thought nobody could beat him and if that they did, he’d win the next time. His was a self-fulfilling prophecy advantageous for a baseball player. For Lars, it seemed to work in the opposite manner.

The Reddick/Anderson study has some implications beyond confidence and mental toughness. While there is no question that Josh was the most assertive hitter I had in Greenville that year, he didn’t have a traditionally "smart" approach to hitting. He walked up to the plate, identified a ball he thought he could drive -- which was a pitch anywhere in the general vicinity of the state of South Carolina and at any speed — and swung as hard as he could.


It's a terrific insight into a player and Anderson himself says in the piece that he now has more confidence in his fielding than his hitting. But I also wonder if there's something else going on here. In a recent excerpt in Sports Illustrated from David Epstein's new book, "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance," Epstein writes how the best hitters in the major leagues weren't able to hit softball pitcher Jennie Finch -- even though her fastball took about the same time to reach home plate as a 95-mph fastball.

In explaining Albert Pujols' failure to hit her, Epstein writes, "Since Pujols had no mental database of Finch's body movements, her pitch tendencies or even the spin of a softball, he could not predict what was coming, and he was left reacting at the last moment. And Pujols's simple reaction speed is downright quotidian. When scientists at Washington University in St. Louis tested him, perhaps the greatest hitter of his era was in the 66th percentile for simple reaction time compared with a random sample of college students."

Basically, it's not reaction time that makes Pujols or other major league hitters so good, but their experience in facing certain pitches and ability to read on opponents' body language and thus better anticipate, for example, if the pitch is a fastball or curveball or whatever. It's what makes hitting Mariano Rivera's cutter so difficult: It breaks so late compared to what hitters are used to that they can't anticipate the ultimate location of the pitch. Same thing with facing Finch.

As Epstein writes, "No one is born with the anticipatory skills required of an elite athlete."

In the case of Anderson, I wonder if the separation between him and Reddick isn't just confidence but that ability to anticipate or predict pitch patterns. Anderson had the better swing, the better approach and similar raw bat speed and power, and that was enough to get him through Class A ball, against mediocre breaking balls and mediocre fastballs. At higher levels, it takes more than a pretty swing. Maybe some guys are just "better" at somehow reading what the pitch is going to be. Reddick may have a poor approach and swings at too many pitches out of the strike zone, but he learned to anticipate the correct pitch often enough to become a major leaguer.

I see the same thing going on right now with Dustin Ackley of the Mariners. The raw ability is there -- he was the second overall pick in the draft -- but he looks completely confused at the plate -- unable, apparently, to successfully discern what the pitch is going to be, leading to him taking fastballs down the middle and being labeled passive by his organization. Some guys learn and get better with experience. Some players just have "it'; Kapler refers to a Pudge Rodriguez incident where Pudge couldn't even tell you what pitch he hit. Somehow, though, Rodriguez knew what was coming.

You can't teach that. And while Anderson is no doubt suffering from a crisis in confidence it could be that his brain just doesn't work at the level needed to be a major league hitter.