So what's the deal with Brett Anderson?
That's a line you could just hear Jerry Seinfeld saying, and perhaps that's fitting. After all, it might be about as difficult for fantasy owners to get a read on Brett Anderson as it was for the comedian to crack open that confounding bag of airline peanuts.
But unlike Seinfeld's show, this isn't a column about nothing.
It's a column about one of the game's most enigmatic left-handed pitchers, a guy who was one of the most popular breakout candidates heading into the 2010 season. He would subsequently spend two stints on the disabled list (totaling 91 days) because of elbow problems, yet somehow was successful enough between them to earn a reasonably healthy No. 67 ranking among starting pitchers on our Player Rater.
It's also a column about -- in one man's opinion -- the greatest risk/reward pitcher in the game entering the 2011 season. Go ahead and look at our starting pitcher rankings; no one in our top 40 fits that description better.
The problem is weighing the significant amounts of both risk and reward that are present with Anderson. It's a precarious balance, and ultimately, selecting him is going to be a decision that probably comes down to how risk-averse an owner you are.
Let's take a look at the compelling cases on either side, and we'll start with the positives. After all, doesn't everyone prefer good news?
Anderson's statistics alone underscore the considerable levels of reward present and, truth is, it's not like much has changed for him in terms of raw talent from a year ago, when he was regarded a potential contender for top-25 starter status.
This is how Anderson has fared in the 35 starts he has made -- effectively one full season's worth of work -- since July 1, 2009: 2.91 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 14 wins, 22 quality starts, 173 K's.
To put those into a full season's perspective, let's take the 92 pitchers who qualified for the ERA crown in 2010. Only 12 had a better ERA than Anderson's 2.91 mark above, 16 had better than his 1.16 WHIP, 24 had more than his 14 wins, 17 had more than his 22 quality starts and 31 had more than his 173 strikeouts. Taking that a step further, Anderson's command numbers were even more sparkling. He averaged 3.84 strikeouts per walk, a number exceeded by only five qualified pitchers in 2010, and 1.90 walks per nine innings, a number only four pitchers beat.
It's that pinpoint command that makes Anderson such an attractive fantasy investment, especially coupled with a fastball/slider/curve/changeup combination that helps him generate a high rate of ground balls. To the latter point, he has a 53.4 percent ground-ball rate since July 1, 2009, which helps explain how he has been able to maintain a 0.55 homers-per-nine ratio and 6.7 home run/fly ball percentage during that same time span. Anderson doesn't make many mistakes, he's rarely burned when he does because he rarely walks anyone, and he's often taken off the hook by getting a timely double-play ball.
The ballpark factor also provides Anderson with a benefit; Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is one of the game's most favorable pitchers' parks, thanks in large part due to its expansive foul territory. Sure enough, Anderson has a 10.0 percent infield fly-ball rate in his two big league seasons; the major league average typically ranges somewhere around 9.0 percent. Don't think for a second that Anderson doesn't get a few "freebie" outs per month that an average pitcher wouldn't.
Anderson is also only 23 years old, so he has plenty of good years ahead of him, but also an age at which he could take another significant step forward. So let's call Anderson's ceiling, at least for 2011, something just shy of Cy Young Award status (worthy of lower-placed votes, though not a prime contender to win it). That's his best-case scenario.
Now let's look at the worst
Health, health and health, and all directed at his elbow, which, again, landed him on the disabled list for a combined 91 days last season. That is not an injury to scoff at, especially not in a season when another young starter, Adam Wainwright, has already succumbed to Tommy John surgery, and six months after one of the game's most promising young pitchers, Stephen Strasburg, went under the knife.
That's not to say that Anderson is destined to be the next pitcher headed to the operating table, but the warning signs are there. He battled forearm trouble during spring training in 2009, an injury that at the time threatened his chances at earning a rotation spot as a rookie. Forearm problems often portend future elbow or shoulder issues, and Anderson's health didn't move in the right direction in 2010.
Another concern: While Anderson surged to a 2.59 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in a 12-start stint to close last season, his strikeout rate plummeted to 6.13. He wasn't quite as overpowering a pitcher as he was during the first year-plus of his big league career, and one can only wonder whether the elbow had anything to do with it. Along those lines, Anderson's average fastball velocity, per Fangraphs.com, dropped from 92.6 mph as a rookie to 92.1 as a sophomore, his swinging-strike percentage dropped from 7.4 to 6.3, and opposing hitters' contact rate on all swings rose from 82.8 to 84.5 percent. He was not exactly overpowering, his success perhaps more a product of his craftiness.
That 6.13 K's-per-nine ratio in his final two months underscores Anderson's downside in the event that he stays healthy all year; of the 28 qualified starters to strike out fewer than 6.20 batters per nine in 2010, only four had an ERA beneath 3.50. FIPs (Fielding Independent Pitching score) are typically north of 4.00 for such pitchers; two from that group had a FIP beneath 4.00, and not one under 3.87.
And what of the worst-case scenario? Ask those who drafted Wainwright early. A season lost to a significant elbow injury isn't out of the question.
So which side carries the greater weight?
Again, it's going to come down to how risk-averse you are. In a season when we've already seen two top-20 starters lost to injury -- Wainwright for the year and Zack Greinke for at least his first three turns -- it's understandable if fantasy owners are concerned about Anderson's downside. Whispers of health questions surrounding Francisco Liriano (shoulder), Johnny Cueto (forearm) and Wandy Rodriguez (shoulder) don't help ease concerns.
But here's a thought: What pitcher isn't a risk to get injured these days? Considering the fact that any hurler you pick comes with some degree of health risk, Anderson isn't a pitcher you should avoid outright. He's being selected 32nd on average among starting pitchers in ESPN live drafts, and 127th overall (ADP: 134.6), which isn't bad considering that on talent he could exceed the performance of a Tim Hudson, Matt Garza or Jonathan Sanchez, all of whom are being picked ahead of him. Certainly Anderson shouldn't last much longer in drafts than his current ADP.
Anderson could be a serious boon for your fantasy squad. Just keep your fingers crossed if you pick him.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.