Feature photo courtesy of Robert Rescot.
This is the second in a series of profiles of pitchers whose production ranks them among the best in baseball, but who haven’t received proper national recognition for their accomplishments. Find the first installment here.
Any conversation about the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation often focuses on what they’re missing: they don’t have Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Drew Smyly, or Jake Odorizzi, who are all injured, and they certainly don’t have David Price, who was traded last season. That angle’s fair, because the depleted staff is a bit of a ragtag group. But what the Rays do have is Chris Archer, who has developed into one of the most dynamic young pitchers in baseball.
Archer was good in the past two seasons, but he wasn’t blowing people away, at least not consistently. In 2013, he went 9-7 with a 3.22 ERA and 4.07 fielding independent pitching, with 101 strikeouts in 128.1 innings. Those numbers were good for a distant third-place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, behind teammate Wil Myers and Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias.
Archer improved in 2014 and went 10-9 with a 3.33 ERA, 3.39 FIP and 173 strikeouts in 194.2 innings. The way his ERA and FIP matched up proved he wasn’t a product of the Rays’ good fielding like his 2013 numbers could suggest. However, his control wasn’t perfect, as his walks per nine innings rate went up from 2.7 to 3.3 and he surrendered more hits per nine innings.
Even with the success Archer found last year, the most attention he received was for his spat with Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Ortiz hit a three run, game-winning homer off Archer and celebrated with a bat flip and a slow trip around the bases. Archer was irked enough to agree with Price’s previous statement about Ortiz, that he thinks he’s “bigger than the game.” Ortiz dismissed Archer’s critique, saying the young pitcher had “two days in the league” and that “players today are too sensitive.”
But things are different this year: Archer has let his pitching do the talking, and he’s commanding a ton of respect with the level he’s doing it at. After Tuesday’s victory against Toronto, in which he went eight innings, struck out seven and allowed only one earned run, Archer sits at 9-4 with a 2.10 ERA, 2.23 FIP and 123 strikeouts in 103 innings. His FIP, wins and strikeouts are third best in the majors, his ERA and WHIP are seventh, and he’s pitched the fourth most innings.
Archer is posting career-best numbers across the board, and he’s done it by improving his control. After last year’s 3.3 walks per nine, that figure is way down to 2.1. He’s getting 64.7 percent of first pitches to go for strikes. He’s pitching inside the zone more than ever before at 49.8 percent, but batters are missing much more often than they have in the past, only making contact 72.7 percent of the time. To summarize, he’s quickly piling up strikes, which keeps him away from walking people and allows him to strike out 10.75 batters per nine, fifth best in the majors. This refined approach has also dipped Archer’s opponents’ batting average 40 points lower than last season, way down to .199.
Archer has been practically unhittable, as made abundantly clear by his three-start streak of having double-digit strikeouts and no walks, a feat not accomplished in at least 100 years of major league history. Over that span, Archer pitched 23 innings, gave up 14 hits and struck out a whopping 38 batters, allowing one earned run. On June 2, in the middle game of Archer’s brilliant trilogy, he rung up Mike Trout three times en route to picking up 15 punchouts, breaking Price’s Rays record of 14.
It’s not as if Archer is fooling hitters with a deep pitch selection that makes it impossible to predict what’s coming. Everyone in the park has a pretty good idea of what’s coming: either the fastball or the slider. He seldomly goes to a changeup. Having only two pitches is usually a characteristic of a reliever, someone in charge of one inning, not seven or eight. It’s why Reds closer Aroldis Chapman has remained in the bullpen with his fastball and slider, despite the exciting prospects of him becoming a starter. To perform as well as Archer has with only two real offerings, those pitches have to be spectacular.
Luckily, Archer’s are. He has a fastball with the ninth most average velocity at 94.7 mph, according to PITCHf/x data. He’s capable of dialing that up to 98, like he did here against Mariners first baseman Logan Morrison:
That kind of heat, when located well and set up by previous pitches, can make professionals look silly, like Matt Joyce did in Archer’s 15-strikeout masterpiece:
That counts as a swing, but that’s being very generous.
Archer’s deadliest weapon is his high-speed slider, which comes in at an average velocity of 87.8 mph, sixth most in baseball. That pitch has been tracked going as fast as 92 mph, which really isn’t fair, as Erick Aybar found out:
Hitters must think breaking balls should not legally be allowed to move that fast. They have no time to react to the tight spin and are forced into hacking at sliders out of the zone for the fear that they’re fastballs. They simply cannot lay off the slider, and they can’t make contact with it:
With two strikes, Archer looks low and his slider tails toward the left-handed batter’s box. Hitters have whiffed on an unbelievable 75 percent of pitches in the area low and toward that batter’s box, and hit a completely unprofessional 0 for 73 there. There’s just no fighting that pitch, as Dustin Ackley found out:
According to PITCHf/x, Archer’s slider has prevented the most runs of any slider in baseball, by a country mile (18.9 runs prevented, with Francisco Liriano’s 12.8 coming in a very distant second). Part of that total is inflated by Archer’s high usage of the pitch, but when the value is standardized over 100 pitches, it’s still the seventh best slider in the majors in terms of run prevention, at 3.02. He may only have two real pitches, but they are incredible ones at that.
Archer is shouldering the load for the Rays’ battered pitching rotation, and has very recently started getting credit for doing so. ESPN’s David Schoenfield just published an article anointing Archer as an MVP candidate. That will be very tough to pull off, but we can celebrate what we know of Archer right now: at 26, he has blossomed into one of the AL’s best aces. His national recognition mirrors his Cy Young candidacy: it’s not completely there yet, but it’s well on its way.