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Brian Anderson is the best rookie in the National League

The June edition of our NL Rookie of the Year update series focuses on the red-hot right fielder.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Anybody who says that they saw this coming is full of it. Maybe you envisioned Brian Anderson as an All-Star-caliber player, but probably not as a rookie and definitely not as an everyday right fielder.

The 25-year-old is proving himself to be a clutch, all-around threat, shining brighter than any of his inexperienced peers on the Marlins roster or elsewhere in the National League.

When right-hander Brett Graves officially joins the club this weekend, he’ll become the 15th rookie-eligible player used by the Marlins this season. That group includes their top starting pitcher (Caleb Smith) and most marketable individual (Lewis Brinson). Yet Anderson has distinguished himself from the rest with his consistency and diversity of skills.

The former third-round draft pick is batting .308/.385/.443 (131 wRC+), including .370/.425/.519 (161 wRC+) over the past calendar month. Within weeks of making an abrupt move to right field, where he had zero prior professional experience, Anderson is the first player to make this kind of throw in a teal uniform since baby-faced “Mike” Stanton:

Fish Stripes original GIF

Combine it all together and BA has produced 1.8 fWAR. Baseball-Reference is even more smitten, pegging his value at 2.5 Wins Above Replacement. Both figures put him at No. 1 among National League rookies.

Entering spring training, I liked Brinson’s NL ROY potential, but there’s no precedent for an eventual winner rallying back from two full months of abysmal offensive production. The Fish might take precautionary steps with KKKKKKKaleb come September considering his modest career high of 135 innings pitched (2015). Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. has a lot of catching up to do after a stint on the disabled list (sprained ACL). Juan Soto is a teenage phenom, but he, too, must make the most of a limited sample. San Diego’s Christian Villanueva is extremely streaky at the plate, homerless in June and mired in a 2-for-17 rut entering Thursday. Barring a teammate’s injury, outfielder Harrison Bader doesn’t have the necessary playing time to keep pace.

Anderson is the clear NL ROY frontrunner.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

He looks to join Álex González (1999), Dontrelle Willis (2003), Dan Uggla (2006) and José Fernández (2013) as the only Marlins to be selected to the All-Star roster as rookies.

That being said, so much can change during the remaining three-and-a-half months. BBWAA voters for the award in search of a viable alternative will be keeping a close eye on Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty.

What Flaherty lacks in quantity (45 23 innings), he’s compensating for with dominance: 2.96 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 26.1 K%, 6.0 BB%. There is no threat to his rotation spot or concerns about his workload. His performances “matter” on a team with postseason aspirations.

We should also be a bit skeptical about whether Anderson can continue doing this good. He sprays hits to all fields and has been earning his 2018 production, according to Statcast data (.363 weighted on-base average aligns with .369 expected weight on-base average).

However, BA simply doesn’t put balls over the fence. He maintains a relatively low launch angle in all situations. Although Anderson has the tools and approach to exceed the league norms when it comes to batting average on balls in play, the .379 BABIP won’t hold up—his luck will even out and opponents will adjust.

Anderson’s launch angles on 2018 batted balls
Courtesy of Baseball Savant

For the moment, at least, Anderson is on a NL Rookie of the Year pace. Even with the possibility of regression, keep in mind how much value he has already generated:

  • Runaway rookie leader in WAR
  • Legitimate defensive versatility—right field and third base—in this era of reduced bench players
  • Exceptional durability (started each of first 68 Marlins games)
  • 2.18 Win Probability Added

Let’s put that in context:

2018 NL Leaders, Win Probability Added

Rank Name Team WPA PA Rookie?
Rank Name Team WPA PA Rookie?
1 Daniel Descalso Diamondbacks 2.28 198 No
2 Brian Anderson Marlins 2.18 286 Yes!
3 Freddie Freeman Braves 2.12 301 No
4 Jose Martinez Cardinals 1.89 265 No
5 Matt Kemp Dodgers 1.63 226 No
6 Paul Goldschmidt Diamondbacks 1.59 287 No
7 Travis Shaw Brewers 1.53 268 No
min. 130 PA FanGraphs

He hits far above his usual standards with runners in scoring position and even better than that under high-leverage conditions. This is abnormal poise for a young player—the next-closest NL rookie, Villanueva, ranks 39th in WPA (min. 130 PA). Contrary to popular belief, these clutch moments also “matter” for teams that know they’ll be on the couch in October.

Many of the top position player prospects in the Marlins farm system—Monte Harrison, Magneuris Sierra, James Nelson, Brian Miller, etc.—expect to challenge for major league playing time in the outfield or at the hot corner over the next couple seasons. It’s a refreshingly good problem to have for a franchise that had been waiting years for an impactful, homegrown contributor before Anderson came along.

An unfortunately high percentage of Marlins rookie award winners did not translate their initial success into fruitful careers. But the wide variety of positives in Anderson’s game make him a relatively safe bet.