While pitcher wins and losses have been abandoned by many as a means to assess a pitcher’s effectively, the traditional measurement of performance from a bygone era is still attached to every pitcher in the game. And even though pitchers have limited control over the ability to win and lose games, Chris Archer’s 19 losses last season do tell a story. They tell a tale of frustration, of an uneven campaign, and of poor luck on balls in play (and out of play) even as his underlying skills and fielding-independent numbers were suggestive of a pitcher who deserved a better fate.
Despite Archer’s 27.4% strikeout rate and the 19.5-point differential between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%), the Rays still managed to lose 23 of the 33 games Archer started.
But his Opening Day start against the Yankees suggested that Archer might be poised not only to bounce back by traditional measurements, but that he might be ready to leap to a new level of underlying performance thanks to an improved pitch.
After working as a top-of-the rotation arm mostly via a fastball-slider combo, Archer might have a new important variable for opponents to consider: an improved changeup.
Archer threw 13 changeups in the season opener versus the Yankees, and many of them were of the fading-, diving-, bat-missing, lefty-neutralizing variety.
An Archer change against Jacoby Ellsbury…
An Archer change against Gregory Bird…
And an Archer change against Chase Headley…
That troika of left-handed Yankees bats swung over the top of quality changeups.
While PITCHf/x tracking might be in need of calibration early in the season, the pitch had 11 inches of arm-side fade, which would be Chris Sale or David Price-level stuff. (Keep that second name in mind for a moment.) It would also mark improvement and refinement of a pitch, that has a negative linear weight for his career (-1.6).
According to the Baseball Prospectus changeup leaderboards, Archer finished 46th in whiff per swing 30.7% last season and 53rd in horizontal movement (7.1 inches), ahead of 54th-ranked Zack Greinke and 65th-ranked Michael Fulmer. He also had a 30.7% whiff rate in 2015, which ranked 51st, featuring similar horizontal movement. It was a big leap for the pitch from 2014, when Archer produced a 22.6% whiff rate, ranking 107th to go along with a 105 ranking in horizontal movement, at 6.6 inches.
The pitch appears to be making gradual improvement — and along with that improvement has been a corresponding increase in usage. Archer threw the pitch at a 5.2% rate in 2014, 6.7% in 2015 and 11.3% last season, the first time the pitch had jumped to double-digit usage. In his first start of 2017, the rate was 14.3%.
According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Archer made “expanding use of his changeup” a priority this spring.
If Archer was going to learn an effective changeup, there is no better place than Tampa Bay, which has taught and shared the craft as well as any club, a phenomenon that I detailed last month during my tour of Florida.
“It’s not so much a philosophy as it is a lineage,” Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said of the changeup.
Archer has spent a lot of time in conversation with Price, and it is Price who also slowly developed a changeup in Tampa and increased its usage in a fashion similar to Archer’s. The pitch has become a bat-missing weapon for Price, his most trusted non-fastball. While Archer doesn’t have a tremendous split differential for his career (.298 wOBA vs. LHH, .280 vs. RHH), the pitch could further limit lefties and allow his go-to slider to play up even more.
And regarding that slider, Ian Malinowski of D-Rays Bay recently made an interesting observation — namely, that Archer appeared to have two different versions of a slider on Sunday.
So perhaps the once two-pitch pitcher now has has a four-pitch mix and the potential to have three plus offerings. Coming off a 19-loss season Archer figured to enjoy better luck, and that was before considering the leap he might be ready to take.
Given his skill and contract, he was already one of the most valuable assets in the game. Archer could continue to climb in standing this season thanks to better luck and a better third (and even fourth) offering.