Especially prior to his last two starts, it was not difficult to say that 2014 marked a major step forward in Chris Archer‘s development. At the time, he had a 3.09 ERA and a 147-60 strikeout to walk ratio in 157.1 innings pitched, putting him on pace to finish the season with just under 200 frames (193.2 to be exact). He would occasionally give up a mind-numbing disaster start, but on the whole, improved fastball command and his usual dominant slider helped him to be a reasonable facsimile of an ace a high proportion of the time. Case in point: from May 16th to August 24th, Archer put up a 2.25 ERA in 18 starts and 112 innings pitched. It takes an extremely talented pitcher to deliver a stretch like that, and it has been clearer this season than ever that Archer has the ability to be a frontline starter in the major leagues. It also was far too superlative a stretch to be undone by a pair of poor outings. What Chris Archer’s last two starts have pointed out, however, is that even amid Archer’s improved performance, a has plenty of work ahead of him in regards to his maturation as a pitcher.
Chris Archer has two plus pitches, and maybe even two plus-plus pitches. Archer’s fastball tops 95 MPH routinely–other than the now-departed David Price, just one other Rays starting pitcher has touched 95 MPH in a start this season: Matt Moore. Archer’s fastball is electric, and it isn’t even fair that he combines it with such a devastating slider. His issue, though, is what nearly all of the Rays’ other starters have that he does not: a third pitch that he trusts. Archer’s breaking ball is easily the best on the Rays’ staff, and only Alex Cobb‘s split-change gives it competition for the best secondary pitch overall. But when a game happens where Archer doesn’t have command of his fastball or his slider doesn’t get its usual break, he so rarely finds a way to succeed because they are essentially all he has.
Archer is working on his changeup. That is true now, just like it was when he made his major league debut and when he was acquired by the Tampa Bay Rays in the Matt Garza trade. You go back in the Baseball America archives and read about that being a concern for him for years and years. It is not as though Archer is unique–plenty of pitchers struggle to develop a changeup. What is staggering about Archer, though, is that his progress with the pitch has stalled entirely and may in fact be going backwards. In his three years in the major leagues, Archer has actually decreased his changeup usage each season. He went from throwing it for 7.85% of his pitches in 2012 (despite pitching a third of his games in relief) to 6.53% in 2013 down to 5.07% this season. A great illustration of that was last night’s game, where Archer’s slider was not working, but he still threw his changeup just four times. Archer’s changeup simply is not progressing, and until it does, he may never get any better than this.
If Chris Archer never develops a great changeup, he will still be a great pitcher because his pure stuff is incredible. The extension he signed with the Rays will look smart for the team, and he will be a valuable piece of their rotation. Even if that is the case, though, we will all know that he had another gear left as a pitcher that he never harnessed. He will turn into a number two starter or a strong number three, but he could have been an ace. Chris Archer is not a frustrating pitcher in a vacuum, but his lack of progress is irritating because we know just how talented he can be.