Missouri pitching ace Anderson to work in as position player

Monday, February 10, 2014 | 6:20 p.m. CST; updated 8:34 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 11, 2014
In this photo from 2013, Missouri pitcher Eric Anderson throws during warm-ups at the Devine Practice Facility. Later that day, Anderson pitched to live batters in batting practice for the first time since undergoing Tommy John (reconstructive elbow) surgery in May 2012.

During Missouri's Fall World Series in October, Eric Anderson began to look like "a dude."     

Those are Missouri coach Tim Jamieson’s words, using the baseball slang for a player with an impressive skill set and legitimate impact potential.

What made Anderson so dude-like? Surprisingly enough, it wasn't the Missouri ace's performance on the mound.

On Oct. 23, the second day of the Tigers' intrasquad series, Anderson took a healthy hack at a pitch from Jace James and smoked the ball down the left field line, breaking hard out of the box and pulling into second with a double. It was the first of his four hits on the night.

The 6-foot-5, 226-pound senior’s success at the plate in the fall put him in strong contention to get at-bats when the Tigers’ season starts on Feb. 14.           

Add that to the potential contributions from Anderson, who will also serve as a front-line starter for the Tigers. It's a rare balancing act for a Missouri player. In fact, Jamieson, who's entering his 20th-year as the Tigers coach, said he cannot remember another instance of a starting pitcher also playing a position in the field when not on the mound.

Hitting has been part of Anderson’s profile since he was recruited out of Mountain Vista High School, near Denver. He quarterbacked the Golden Eagles’ football team, and while Anderson was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 28th round of the 2009 MLB Draft as a pitcher, Jamieson said some pro teams were looking at him as a position player because of his athleticism.            

Missouri was, too. However, the Tigers’ coaching staff didn’t want to give Anderson too heavy of a workload as a freshman, so they planned on having him focus on pitching, and then expand to other areas of the game.           

A shoulder injury stalled Anderson’s progress that year. With the way the rehab process worked out, though, he was able to swing a bat before starting his throwing program. He began working with the position players the following fall.           

Anderson got some at-bats in his sophomore season, but he didn’t see any kind of sustained success that would have warranted keeping him in the order. He collected only three hits in 24 at-bats (.125 batting average).            

Running parallel to Anderson’s poor performance in the batter’s box was a run of success on the mound. Fully recovered from a surgery to repair a torn right labrum, Anderson carried his strong performance from the end of the Big 12 season over to summer, where he allowed just two earned runs in 24 innings, split between the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and the Falmouth Commodores of the Cape Cod League.

After that, Anderson decided to focus on pitching, especially because he would be draft-eligible the next season. Injury intervened again, though, as he hurt his right elbow at the beginning of the 2012 season and needed Tommy John surgery.

Anderson made a relatively quick recovery and pitched for Missouri in 2013, but he struggled to balance pitch effectiveness and command. As he was getting set to play for the Denver Titans of the Mile High Collegiate Baseball League, the reality that he had just one season left at Missouri entered his mind, and though he hadn’t worked on hitting since 2011, he started to consider picking it back up. He touched base with Jamieson to consider his options.           

“I said, ‘If you get a chance to hit, do it,’” Jamieson said. “‘Worst thing (that) could happen is you hit, and you stop hitting at the end of summer. But if you hit and do well, who knows what could happen?’”           

At first, Anderson got at-bats just to fill in for teammates. He was hitting line drives and feeling more comfortable at the plate, so he started playing designated hitter to go along with his outings on the mound.           

When he got back to Columbia and started practicing with Missouri, it was as both a pitcher and position player. Pitching took precedence, but after getting his necessary work in, he would join the position players, occasionally coming in early to practice to make up for lost reps.

Though Anderson had to adjust to facing slightly better competition than he had seen on the mound during the summer, he kept producing. He didn’t have to deal with a lingering injury like he did after his freshman season, nor the doubt and uncertainty about his role on the team.

“It’s a pretty refreshing feeling, knowing that this could be your last year, so you just got to lay it all on the line and see what you can do with it, you know?” Anderson said.

Jamieson said Anderson’s performance was decent early in the fall, but that he didn't quite look like a true difference-maker. That changed as Anderson became increasingly confident and got his timing down.

“He wasn’t hitting the velocity real well, or he wasn’t hitting a guy with a good breaking ball real well, but in the Fall World Series, he kind of put it all together,” Jamieson said.

Although the winter break and Missouri's confinement to indoor practices has caused Anderson to regress a bit, he’s still going to be in Tigers’ mix of position players.

Jamieson said Anderson hasn’t won a starting job yet and emphasized that Kendall Keeton has been playing well and will also be considered for playing time at first base.           

But if Anderson is producing, the coaches will try their best to get him in. It could be in left field or at designated hitter, where Keaton Steele, one of the team’s best returning hitters, will also be in contention.           

“It might be whoever’s hottest,” Jamieson said.           

Anderson is not the first two-way player Jamieson has coached: Steele is a current case, as he worked extensively as a reliever last year and even got a few starts. There was also Ryan Stegall, who served as the team’s closer and shortstop back in 2000 and 2001.

But Anderson, as a weekly starter, is an exception at MU.      

That combination has happened before at other schools. Danny Hultzen, the second overall pick of the 2011 draft, hit .309 and played first base while also serving as University of Virginia's Friday starter. Marco Gonzales, who the St. Louis Cardinals picked 19th overall in 2013, played a similar role at Gonzaga University.

Anderson’s situation includes a special set of concerns, though. The coaching staff will have to make sure his arm doesn’t come under too much strain in the field, which likely won’t be a concern at first base, but will exclude him from playing right field, where long throws are often made to try to retire runners going first-to-third.

Then there’s the issue of mental stability. Jamieson said it’s a concern with any player that poor performance in one area of the game might bleed over into another; a bad error might lead to a poor at-bat, for example. With Anderson, pitching is also part of the balance.

“He’s got three spots you’ve got to worry about,” Jamieson said. “So hopefully two of the three are going well.”

Right now, Anderson is feeling confident about all three. He’s gotten enough practice at pitcher to be unconcerned about playing defense after a long layoff — “A ground ball’s a ground ball, pretty much anywhere you are on the field,” he said — and said he’s feeling healthier than he ever has in college.

Playing both ways might work, or it might not. But with four-plus years at Missouri under his belt, doubt and apprehension are scarcely on Anderson’s mind.         

“There’s no second-guessing anything,” he said. “I mean, what happens, happens. It’s my last year anyway.”

Supervising editor is Mark Selig.

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