Command, Changeup Only Things Holding Back Rays’ Chris Archer From Being An Elite MLB Starter
By Robbie Knopf
When Chris Archer arrived in the major leagues, it immediately became apparent just how talented he was. Archer burst onto the scene allowing just one earned run over 6 innings with 7 strikeouts in his major leagues debut, and two starts later, he struck out 11 over 7 innings of 2-run ball versus the Texas Rangers. But by the end of the season, his numbers were surprising bad as he went just 1-3 with a 4.60 ERA. He managed an 11.0 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9, amounting to a great 3.51 FIP, but it just seemed like he left the ball up in the zone too often and had too many lapses of control. From a pure stuff standpoint, Chris Archer looked like he had all the makings of a topflight major league starter, but there just to be something a bit off. Nevertheless, Joe Maddon said in spring training when the Rays sent Archer down to Triple-A that “for sure, he could be here right now.” Archer wasn’t perfect and had some kinks to work out, but Maddon seemed confident that Archer would be able to continue his development in the major leagues had the Rays had a rotation spot available for him. But if that was the case, why did the Rays put themselves in a position where Archer had almost no chance of making their roster out of spring training? Maybe the answer to that is that even though Archer could be in the major leagues, but just a little more time in the minor leagues would serve him even better.
In an article for the Rays’ official site, Bernie Pleskoff, a former MLB scout, shared his insights from scouting Archer. In Pleskoff’s opinion, Archer has a chance to be an All-Star caliber pitcher someday, but before that happens, Pleskoff would like to see Archer improve in two regards.
"There are times, however, when he totally loses his release point and fails to finish his pitches. That results in Archer “pulling” his arm across his body and missing his target completely. He can lose command fairly quickly, but he regains it fairly quickly as well. The net result is an increase in Archer’s pitch count and an earlier exit than he would like.…Archer’s third pitch is an 82-mph changeup. It’s a pitch I don’t think he uses enough. With a reduction in velocity from his fastball to the changeup of roughly 12 mph, the hitter can appear to be virtually helpless. I don’t think Archer trusts that pitch. He uses it far too sparingly. It’s a pitch that will separate Archer from being an effective Minor League pitcher to being an effective Major League pitcher."
At its best, Archer’s fastball is an overbearing pitch in the mid-90’s with great sink. It’s a pitch with the ability to force swing-and-misses and plenty of weak contact on the ground as well. Most power pitchers are very flyball-prone, but that isn’t the case with Archer when he’s going well. But “going well” wasn’t something that Archer did in the major leagues in 2012. That’s illustrated quite clearly by his Pitch F/X data courtesy of Brooks Baseball. Brooks has Archer throwing a “four-seam fastball” 33% of the time and a “sinker” 31% of the time. The issue is that those are really supposed to be the exact same pitch. How do we know? Their velocity is almost exactly the same (94.65 MPH versus 94.55 MPH), and more notably, Archer didn’t favor either one depending on whether a righty or a lefty hitter was at the plate. A lot of right-handed pitchers work with a four-seamer versus same-side hitters and a sinker versus lefties so their fastball is always moving away from the batter. That wasn’t really the case with Archer as the differences in usage were very slight. He threw his four-seamer 36% of the time and his sinker 30% versus lefties and he threw the four-seamer 28% of the time and his sinker 34% of the time against righties. It looks like there may be some correlation, and maybe Archer did attempt to use his fastballs like a pitcher like Alex Cobb does, but you would expect it to be a much more pronounced difference.
What was the result of Archer’s fastball turning into what Pitch F/X identified as two different pitches? That was a reason for a long part of his inconsistency. The fastball wasn’t a very effective pitch as Archer threw it just 50% of the time and generated just 3.80% whiffs and a 1.40 to 1 groundball to flyball ratio. His sinker, on the other hand, as a strike 64% of the time, a whiff 11.18% of the time, and a 3.00 to 1 groundball to flyball ratio. When Archer’s release point is right, that’s when he can dominate hitters. But Archer has to work to make sure that’s something that happens more often.
Archer’s best and most consistent pitch is his slider, which features devastating late break that gives hitters fits. But while the difference between his fastball and his slider is enough to dominate in the minor leagues, major league hitters are good enough to lay off the slider if they see it enough. That’s what makes it so important for Archer to have a third pitch, and Archer’s changeup is a pitch with the ability to be very good. Pleskoff loved the speed difference between his fastball and changeup, and Archer was actually able to use it to get whiffs 18.18% of the time against right-handed hitters in a limited sample in 2012. But Archer used it just 8% of the time overall, and that’s not nearly enough. Having two pitches is great for a reliever, but even if those two pitches are plus-plus, a starter has to have three pitches to be consistently successful. If Archer can just use his changeup more and learn to trust it, it will help him significantly.
Chris Archer has two dominant pitches and the ability to be a topflight starter in the major leagues. Right now, though, he would profile best as a 4th or 5th starter as he works on his command and changeup. Archer would have his struggles and if he got hit too hard, his confidence could be shattered. So what the Rays are doing is making sure Archer can sharpen up his repertoire to set him up to be as successful as possible once he arrives in the major leagues, and that is the best thing for his team and his career moving forward. Could Archer be in the major leagues right now? Absolutely. But with the luxury of starting depth, the Rays are taking him nice and easy, and because of that, Archer will be the best that he can be as soon as the Rays bring him up.