When you can throw a baseball more than 100 miles per hour, you’ll get a lot of attention.
That’s the story of Matt Anderson, once the top blue chip prospect in the Tigers organization. But proving just what a crap shoot the scouting business is in baseball, Anderson never became a star. And when you’re the #1 player selected in all of baseball, nothing short of stardom will ever do. Every moderate success is a “yeah but” and every failure is a “he’s a dud.” Talk about pressure.
Anderson wasn’t built like a man you’d think would be able to throw a sphere at such an alarming speed. He didn’t look like a guy whose arm was once insured for millions of dollars.
As a collegiate player Anderson was listed at 195 pounds, but he was probably closer to 185, which was spread modestly over his 6’4 frame. He looked like a basketball player or a pole vaulter. Or maybe the pole. Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson may have been the models for big league pitchers at the time, but Anderson looked like a skinny punk. He wore his cap low on his brow with a flat brim, giving him a sinister, if not menacing look on the mound.
As a teenager in high school in Louisville and in his first years at Rice University, Anderson set off his share of radar guns. He established records at Rice for wins and strikeouts. He had what big league scouts call “command”, meaning he could make his fastball and other pitches go where he wanted them to. In his senior year at Rice he turned even more heads, frequently topping 101 MPH. He was far and away the best pitcher at his level, and when MLB clubs prepared for the 1997 Amateur Draft in June, Anderson had them drooling.
In that draft, Anderson was taken first by the Detroit without much hesitation. Nearly every big league club had him rated at or near the top of their list. He was the top rated prospect out of the Cape Cod League, a quaint little playground for baseball’s best college players that’s held in Massachusetts. Anderson was taken before J.D. Drew, Lance Berkman, Vernon Wells, and Troy Glaus. He was picked before Michael Cuddyer and Chase Utley.
Anderson didn’t pitch at the pro level in ’97, sidelined with an injury, but the following year he was on the mound and vaulted from Class-A Lakeland all the way to Motown, making his big league debut on June 25, 1998. That season he struck out a batter per inning coming out of the Detroit bullpen, winning five games. The team was grooming Anderson to be their next closer, but in 1999 after four rough outings in late May, Anderson was sent to Toledo. He was back in September as a setup man, and Anderson spent the following two years in that role. But the slim fireballer was inconsistent. One outing he’d look like Pedro Martinez, the next outing he’d look like Pedro Feliciano. As wonderful as Anderson’s heater could look, he was also frequently frustratingly wild. In 2000 he walked two batters in a single inning or less eight times. Then, the following year he found his control and walked just 18 batters in 56 innings while serving in the closer role for the first time for manager Phil Garner. That year, Anderson saved 22 games (a third of the team’s victories) but still managed an ERA of almost five runs per game. The next season, in 2002, the Tigers were so unsure of Anderson’s talents that they signed Juan Acevedo to be their closer. Anderson got hurt that season and pitched in only 12 games, and in ’03 he was on the DL again in early May after allowing runs in seven of his 12 outings. He came back in September and pitched pretty well in the setup role, but it was his final stint as a Tiger. He suffered another sore arm in spring training in 2004 and missed the entire season after undergoing surgery. In October the 27-year old was granted free agency and left the Tigers to sign a deal with the Rockies. One partial season was all he got for the Rockies, again showing his wild ineffectiveness, and Anderson spent the next six years trying to get back to the big leagues with the Giants, White Sox, and Phillies in their minor league systems. A man who can throw the ball 100 miles an hour will get lots of chances to prove himself, but finally, in April of 2011 he was released by Philadelphia and his career (it appears) is over.
Anderson’s golden right arm never delivered on the great promise that made him the most sought after amateur pitcher in the country, but he remains the only overall #1 pick in the history of the Detroit Tigers.