Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer began the 2015 season looking like one of the best pitchers in baseball. Through 16 starts, he was 9-4 with a 2.01 ERA, striking out 123 while walking just 24 in 103 innings. In his 14 starts since then, however, he has been decent rather than great, going 3-7 with a 4.03 ERA and a 113-27 strikeout to walk ratio in 89.1 IP. How do we make sense of that in any way other than saying that Archer was feeling good for a while but has since regressed?
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The first thing that has to be made clear is that Chris Archer is not a true-talent 4.00 ERA pitcher. He has experienced some bad luck–according to FIP, which attempts to be a luck-neutral ERA statistic, his ERA should be 3.13 in the second half. He has pitched fine on the whole, but more soft hits are dropping and the flyballs that ended up on the warning track in the first half are leaving the yard. He was pitching a little bit over his head to start the season, but he is still an excellent pitcher. Finally, even if Archer was having real issues, we can’t simply ignore how dominant he was to begin the season. He will feel just about as good at some point next year, and when he does, he has the ability to overpower opposing hitters like that again.
The biggest reason that Archer may be struggling in the second half, though, may be something that goes beyond his statistics. Luck plays a role in every pitcher’s results, but there is another form of fortune in baseball that we don’t think about as often–what a pitcher’s stuff looks like in any given start. As we know, there are some games when Chris Archer has everything working and others where something is off, maybe his fastball command or the sharpness of his slider. The order in which those games come in is complete chance.
If Archer was dealing with the same issue for this entire inconsistent stretch, that would be a red flag. Instead, he has dealt with a variety of problems. Sometimes his fastball has stayed up in the zone too often, forcing him to rely too heavily on his slider. Other times, his slider has been effective but he hasn’t been able to spot it for strikes. And last night, we saw a different variant where he could hit the zone with his slider but saw it flatten out too often. If these problems had been scattered between his good starts, we wouldn’t be talking about them. Instead, it just so happens that he has dealt with one issue or another in say 7 of his last 16 outings.
Maybe that leads us to a more overarching point: Chris Archer has difficulty adapting when he doesn’t have his best stuff. He really is a two-pitch pitcher, with his changeup having his moments but not being a consistent third option. The best pitchers in baseball are able to be successful most of the time even when something is off, but Archer is not quite there yet. He can be as good as anyone when he is on, but his Plan B trails behind those of others. If Archer is going to be a 2.50 ERA pitcher for an entire season, continued work on his changeup will be the key.
Does Archer’s inability to battle through his more difficult games make him less than a true ace? You can decide that for yourself, but remember that he is an excellent pitcher no matter what you conclude. No one should be complaining if Archer’s less-than-ideal changeup makes him into a top-10 or 15 starter in baseball rather a top-5. He is so good when he is on that it is certainly worth living with his worse starts. It would have been easier on the sanity of Tampa Bay Rays fans if Archer’s bad outings had been better dispersed throughout his season, but don’t let his recent inconsistent results overshadow how much progress he has made as a pitcher.