During his first day of rehabilitation, as he sweated through the slate of isometric holds, dead-bug exercises and planks designed to save his career, Brett Anderson noticed an unfamiliar sensation in his stomach.
“At the beginning,” Anderson said, “I felt like somebody had a blowtorch to my abs.”
The pain did not cease at the start of workouts after he underwent surgery for a herniated disk in 2014. Anderson paid little attention to his core muscles as he sped through the minor leagues. After his back gave out while he was pitching for the Colorado Rockies, doctors pinpointed his weakened abdominals and inflexible hips as impediments.
The condition decimated his free-agent value heading into last season. Anderson debuted with the Oakland Athletics in 2009, two months after his 21st birthday, and made 30 starts. Across the next five years, he started only 51 more times, disrupted by injuries both chronic and freakish.
To rebuild his standing within the game, Anderson needed to rebuild his midsection. He went to Brett Fischer, physical therapist for the Arizona Cardinals, who had worked with players such as Randy Johnson and Rafael Furcal. The path that allowed Anderson to make 31 starts for the Dodgers last season and return in 2016 as a member of their rotation started there.
A few weeks into the program, Fischer remarked on how weak Anderson’s core was.
“Is that bad?” Anderson said.
“No,” Fischer said, “because your ceiling of improvement could be so significant. You’ve never worked on this. Imagine what you could do if you actually get on this.”
The Dodgers experienced the benefit in 2015. Anderson established career highs for starts and innings (180 1/3). He didn’t make a start in September because of a calf cramp, but avoided the disabled list. The performance convinced Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, to offer Anderson a one-year, $15.8-million qualifying offer.
Anderson elected to forgo free agency and accepted the contract. He believed he could further polish his resume before entering the market next off-season, when the class of free-agent pitchers is thinner. The decision left the Dodgers with a quality pitcher on a short-term contract.
“We saw the dedication [last year] to the core and back program, which gave us confidence that that would be behind him,” Friedman said. “And felt really good about the risk that we took last year. We’re optimistic that there’s even another gear in there.”
Anderson grew up around baseball. His father, Frank, was a longtime pitching coach at Texas Tech and Texas, then spent nearly a decade as coach at Oklahoma State. His son grew into a burly left-hander.
“I’m a horrible athlete,” Anderson said. “I’m just left-handed and can pitch a little bit.”
After his rookie season, Anderson lowered his earned-run average to 2.80 in 2010. He dealt with elbow inflammation for much of the summer, but still managed 19 starts. Trouble lurked beneath the surface.
Brandon McCarthy joined the A’s in 2011. In Anderson and Trevor Cahill, McCarthy saw young men still raw in terms of preparation.
“They had the mentality of double-A pitchers,” McCarthy said. “It was ‘We show up to the field, and then go throw, and we’re really good, and then we go home, and we’ll see you again in five days.’ ”
The cycle stopped that June. Anderson needed elbow ligament-replacement surgery. He returned after a 14-month layoff, only to be beset by less common ailments. He suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in 2013. A pitch broke a finger the next April, after Oakland traded him to Colorado.
His back betrayed him soon after he returned in August. Pain radiated down his leg and “it felt like somebody had a hot poker to my back,” he said.
“Of all the [stuff] I’ve had, the back was the worst,” Anderson said. “By far.”
Surgery repaired the disk, but Anderson needed to rebuild his frame. His agents connected him with Fischer, who assigned him a series of exercises that Anderson found “tedious and monotonous.”
An activity like sit-ups improves the fast-twitch muscles at the surface of the abdominals, Fischer explained, but Anderson needed to dig a layer deeper to fortify the muscles that would stabilize his back and allow him to repeat his delivery. Fischer also focused on improving the flexibility of Anderson’s hips.
“If the hips don’t move, the next joint up is the lower back,” Fischer said. “And that takes the brunt of the forces.”
Anderson got over the initial discomfort and began to make progress. When he started playing catch at more than 60 feet, Fischer noticed, “the ball was coming out of his hand effortlessly.”
The Dodgers sent a scout to watch Anderson throw. The performance convinced the team to offer him a $10-million contract, a year after he made only eight starts.
During the season, McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu fell out of the rotation because of injuries. Anderson remained upright. McCarthy commended Anderson for his commitment to preparation, saying “he’s a much more professional pitcher now.”
Said catcher A.J. Ellis: “He answered the durability question. He fought through some things and stayed on the field and pitched some big innings for us. He was a huge part of us making the playoffs.”
In the off-season, after he re-upped with the Dodgers for another year, Anderson visited with Fischer again. Fischer inspected his hips and his core and sounded impressed.
Anderson hoped to only build upon the foundation he built for last season.
“I was able to have a healthy season, finally,” Anderson said. “It worked. So hopefully continuing to do some of that stuff will only make things better.”