The Tampa Bay Rays were hoping for a little bit more from Chris Archer as he started against the Baltimore Orioles on Opening Day. He finished with 5.2 innings allowing 4 runs, 3 earned, on 6 hits, striking out 5 while walking 1. His two big mistakes were home runs to Alejandro De Aza and Steve Pearce–otherwise, he looked fine. One thing that becomes apparent when looking at the Pitch F/X data from Archer’s start, though, is that he was too excited as he took the ball in the Rays’ first game.
According to Brooks Baseball, Archer’s average velocities on his three primary pitches yesterday were markedly higher than his average velocities from last season. His four-seam fastball and sinker averaged 97.22 MPH and 97.03 MPH respectively compared to 95.72 MPH and 95.55 MPH in 2014. His slider was at 89.27 MPH compared to 87.08 MPH last year. Only his changeup remained in the same range, staying at 87.08 MPH versus 86.96 MPH last season.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that Archer threw harder, but the big issue for him was that throwing harder cost him significant movement on his pitches. This chart demonstrates that visually.
Although those of you who have been following Rays Colored Glasses for a few years know that I used to make graphs like this all the time, it has been quite a while so I’ll give a quick explanation again. The different lines are Archer’s pitches (which one is which is indicated in the key), and the movement is how they would move from the batter’s perspective.
The key tells us which pitches’ movement we should compare, although that is relatively clear for every pitch other than Archer’s sinker. In that case, you have to look hard for the orange line (it’s next to the dark blue line) because its vertical and horizontal movement is nowhere near that of the green line, Archer’s sinker from 2014.
Archer’s fastball and slider on Opening Day at least followed the trajectory from last season, but in both cases, they fell well short. Archer lost 5 inches of vertical movement on his slider and a few inches both vertically and horizontally on his fastball. During the game, the Rays’ broadcasters talked about how Archer’s slider simply didn’t have its usual bite–the missing 5 inches is the data validating their point.
The results of the increased velocity and decreased movement are clear for Archer’s results. It wasn’t all bad–his four-seamer forced whiffs 15.79% of the time compared to 7.17% last season while his changeup was extremely effective other than the home run, forcing 3 swings-and-misses out of the 10 times he threw it. The fact that Archer threw harder and didn’t get as much action on his fastball made his changeup’s speed and movement more impressive aside on the nine occasions that he didn’t hang it.
On the other hand, Chris Archer’s slider was a complete disaster in this game. It went from a 17.89% whiff rate and a 2.81 groundball t0 flyball ratio in 2014 to just a 9.38% whiff rate and a 0.33 GB to FB ratio. Yes, he went from forcing nearly three groundballs to every flyball to allowing three flyballs for every groundball. It is very difficult for Archer to succeed without a good slider, and his Opening Day slider may end up being his worst of the year.
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Archer’s sinker also had major issues with the increased velocity. Conceptually, it makes sense that an overthrown sinker shouldn’t move as much as normal, and the dramatic drop-off in this game compared to last season certainly fits in with that. Against the Orioles, Archer missed less bats with his sinker, allowed less groundballs, and allowed a home run in 24 times throwing it after allowing just 3 in 1296 uses of it last season. It was as though Archer didn’t even throw a sinker–it was just another hard fastball that moved slightly more.
The big thing to remember as we make this analysis is that this game shouldn’t affect our outlook on how Chris Archer will perform for the Tampa Bay Rays this season. He simply got a little over-exhilarated on Opening Day, and he will look to relax a little more and find better break on his slider in his next contest. Even so, it is interesting to see exactly why Archer’s outing went wrong, and we will have to see whether he suffers from a similar affliction the next time one of his starts ends poorly.