A Tale of Two Archers

Last week I took a look at the Rays current rookie crop of potential starting pitchers. Within, it was difficult to find good things to say about Chris Archer. The biggest takeaway was that his change up to lefties was utterly useless showing a glaring hole that a lefty-stacked lineup can and will exploit. The change has always been Archer’s third pitch with the hope being that it could someday approximate league average so that he could at least fend off his greatest weakness. Well, Chris Archer made his second start of the season against the vaunted Baltimore Orioles lineup, and at least on the surface performed quite a bit better:

Green is better, red is worse, but you can see that he really separated himself in a few areas. Obviously, he went deeper in the game and in that extra innings he only faced an extra three batters so he really shortened his innings from the bad start. The ERA and affiliated estimators show a pretty solid start, though xFIP doesn’t like it as much due to a preponderance of fly balls with none leaving the yard. His K-rate was pretty abysmal, but it came with a coinciding improvement in walks and we can’t ask for anything, and of course we see the effect of poor contact with that phenomenal average and babip. The line drive rate was better than league average and a big step forward while also increasing his ground ball and infield flyball rates. And you’re always going to look improved when you’re not giving up two homers for every three flyballs.

It’s when we get into the plate discipline figures that we start to sense some discord. He got batters to chase out of the zone about the same, but they swung A LOT more on pitches in the zone with an aggressive Oriole lineup ultimately swinging at half the pitches they saw. The increased swing rates came with a ton of contact attached totaling 82.9% on the day with rates slightly higher in zone and slightly lower out of zone. The crazy thing is that Archer only threw a pitch in the strike zone 37.8% of the time, though first pitch was on par with Matt Moore last year at 60%! The inference here is that Oriole batters expected a wild Archer, who came through for strike one and then expanded the zone to buried-in-the-count Orioles all day. It’s a nice theory, but does it bear out?

The Indians took 73% of first offering from Archer with seven out of 22 being called balls and nine called strikes. The Orioles, meanwhile, took 75% of first pitches with ten being balls and eight being called strikes, but they did put five balls in play showing good contact ability when they did swing. Of course putting bat on the ball is an entirely different animal from making solid contact. We can infer in the BABIP that Archer was producing some weak contact and/or getting an abundance of lucky bounces. Of course the former means a lot more than the latter, but teasing out BABIP nuances is still beyond this analyst’s skillset. I will say that seeing the drop in line drive rate is very encouraging and would cause me to lean more towards the former than the latter. We’ve seen what the outcomes look like, but what about the process? For that we can dig into the pitch F/x data and see if there are any areas that showed improvement. Let’s start with his pitch usage:

In his first start Archer faced 79% opposite-handed batters which regressed closer to league average in his second start coming in at 70%. Archer threw even less change ups than the week prior while subbing some four seamers for two seamers and upping his usage of his very good slider. Generally, the slider shows a pretty large platoon split, such that, lefties should hit it better than righties, but Archer doesn’t throw the normal slider. His is pretty, prettaaayy good and he threw it a quarter of the time. It’s discouraging to see him backing off the change, but the MLB level is not where you want to be working on something you don’t have a ton of confidence in. Still, it’s something he’s going to need to show going forward.

Against righties he did throw the change twice, which is encouraging. Cobb, Hellickson, Torres, all the guys that throw the change really well on the Rays throw it to same-handers enough to keep the batter off balance. He threw more fastballs of both variety at the expense of the slider. This could be a reason the Orioles were so swing-happy and it’s a sort of compliment to Archer. If they fear his slider and are up there hacking at any fastball they see then we could really see Archer start to pitch off the fastball, mix in some change ups, and then throw that wipe out slider as a genuine put away pitch. It’s just two starts, but this last one leads to far more optimism than the first. Overall, from start to start we see him subbing a few two seamers for four seamers and throwing slightly few change ups. I like the idea of his two-seamer boring in on righties and tailing away from lefties, but Wade Davis another guy that didn’t have a change up and used to look very impressive at times with his two-seamer. It’s a good pitch when it’s not left over the plate, but it requires high velocity to have success. This is an area where Archer has gas to spare as we’ll see in a little bit, but for now let’s take a look at where he pitched:

Anything in blue is from the first start and anything in red was from the second start with different shapes denoting the different pitches. This is from the catcher’s point of view so anything to the right of the vertical axis will be considered glove-side and arm-side for vice-versa. Notice how very little he pitches glove-side? He threw a few sliders in the second start, but almost nothing that would be away from righties and inside to lefties. Instead, he pounds that edge arm-side throwing a ton of two-seamers and change ups right on the borderline and further off the plate. Focusing on the second start it’s very encouraging to see the four-seamer up and the two-seamer down. The two-seamer can also be thought of as a bit of a sinker as it doesn’t generally have quite the climb of it’s straighter, faster brother so keeping it down is a good way to get grounders. Another takeaway is just how few pitches he threw in the zone in his first start. He wasn’t able to locate anything arm-side in his first start, and don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting throw meatballs, but if you’re always living on the edge you increase the chances of falling off. Also, that cluster of high change ups is just begging to get smashed hard. I hope you dig into this some more for your own conclusions, but I want to move on to some stuff via ESPN:

THIS IS FROM THE PITCHER’S PERSPECTIVE!!! This includes both starts in 2013, but I thought the reader would find this useful to see where he’s pitching and to confirm what we’re showing above using the pitch f/x data. That’s an awful lot of pitches in the hittable part of the zone. It’s good to pitch low and away, but he’s clearly catching too much of the plate, though I really like that cluster of hot fire up and in as I can only assume that is mostly comprised of four seam fastballs. Let’s move on to what he has thrown vs. lefties:

That’s a little better. You can see how he has pounded away and down to lefties, though there is still a cluster of pitches that are too middle-middle for anyone’s taste. With umpires consistently calling strikes off the plate to lefties it’s a good idea to just fill that part of the zone up and give them nothing they can turn on. Of course once they’re leaning out there then the back foot slider is an incredible pitch. Now that we’ve seen where he’s pitching, let’s dig into the results from a run values perspective:

By now you should have a good grasp of what he threw and where and how that differed by start, but run values give us an incredibly insightful look at how each pitch performed. Negative is better for pitchers and here’s a look at what these numbers look like on a per pitch basis. You’ll notice that these adjust each outcome based on the count.

It stands out just how truly awful Archer’s change up was against the Indians and how against the Orioles it did mostly what he needed it to do. Again, he doesn’t need a world-beater, but if he can accrue -0.79 runs with the pitch against lefties every start he’s going to have a very good career. The two-seamer against lefties was another revelation in his second start going from slightly worse than league average to a very good pitch. Against righties I think he can probably get by going almost exclusively fastball/slider and the four-seamer and slider both showed very good results in his second start. That last portion of the chart really shows just how bad he was in the first start and how good he can be in his second start. The two-seamer will be worth keeping an eye on because it can give him a chance to get quick outs via the groundball provided he can still throw the four-seamer enough (and up) to keep batter’s eye levels from locking in low in the zone. This combination might be enough to make up for if the change never develops, but obviously you hope he can refine the offspeed offering.

One thought during the data-gathering portion of the program is that maybe Archer did something with his release point that helped his pitches become more effective:

You’ll notice that he releases his pitches mostly between one and one and a half feet right of center and mostly around six and a half feet off the ground. Nearly across the board he showed a higher and slightly further extended from the body release point. This could have been the source for those fastballs and change ups having more tail, though it could just as easily be calibration error. Due to this entirely likely caveat I don’t want to read too much into this, but it’s another thing to keep an eye on going forward as a higher release point should allow for great velocity and a better downward plane. The last things I want to cover is to take a look at his pitch movement. As just mentioned above the further from his body release point could be leading to more tail and if so that’s a pretty easy thing to confirm:

It actually looks like Archer had more glove-side movement on nearly all of his pitches. The slider, especially, had a lot more bite and several of those four-seamers almost look like cutters in the second start. The two-seamers and change ups get lost amongst each other in here so let’s bring velocity into the equation. First, focusing on the horizontal movement:

That’s a little better. Again, we see everything shifted over so I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility that this is all a simple calibration error, but it’s also possible that the new release point had something to do with this. And of course there could be a thousand other reasons ranging from humidity to time of day to it no longer being his first start of the year so let’s not get too caught up, but these are solid theories and worth following forward to see how they change. One rather scary sight here is just how straight his four-seam fastball can get. Even at 97-98 MLB batters can get good wood when they’re sitting on that flat fastball. The two-seamer really stands in stark contrast, however, when it’s coming in at nearly the same velocity, but showing 5-6 inches of run. Lastly, let’s look at the vertical movement and velocity:

Velocity is on the x-axis here to better show the vertical movement interactions between pitches. I think this does a nice job of showing just how well he can bury that slider. I’ve said often that pitcher’s are at their best when they’re showing clearly defined pitches with no stragglers in between pitch groupings. When pitches are clearly defined they’re each bringing their own brand of justice to the table and it’s just so difficult for batters to figure out what’s going on. Ideally, he can find some more velocity separation between the change and slider, but with their differing movements it’s less of a big deal. You’d also like to see any sort of fade in the change up so that it’s not just a change of pace pitch and my guess is that being on this staff for more than a month will help some with that, but right now he’s hiding his change up in the fastball and never bringing it out.

Chris Archer still has some things to work on before we can expect him to be an every fifth day starter in this rotation, but boy oh boy is that a lot better of a start to come off of than the preceding clunker. Between his work ethic and physical gifts I see no reason why Archer can’t take the necessary steps forward to go from someone that has the promise of being pretty good to someone that’s looked at as one of the handful of aces in baseball, but unlike 75% of all pitchers Archer at least has a chance to join that elite group.

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About Jason Hanselman

Rays fan.
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