Chris Archer isn’t where he wants to be. He’s made four starts this season — in two of them, he’s allowed three runs, and in the other two of them, he’s allowed six runs. One of the especially bad starts came Wednesday, and now Archer stands with baseball’s fifth-worst ERA, and baseball’s sixth-worst FIP. Archer so far has been mostly dismissive of his struggles, but given how he also ended last year on a pretty flat note, fans are paying close attention. By no means would concern be unwarranted.
One certainly shouldn’t be too concerned. This is something we can say without even going too deep. While Archer has some ugly numbers, he also has a top-20 xFIP, owing to his high rate of strikeouts. The stuff is still there, for the most part. And while there have been too many hits, Archer hasn’t shown any decline in contact rate. It’s still not easy to get the bat on the ball, and as long as Archer is getting whiffs, he stands a good chance of getting straightened out.
You just can’t say this has all been nothing. Archer himself would tell you he hasn’t executed. Not with sufficient consistency. He hasn’t located the ball like he’d like to, and that’s made him vulnerable. When the location goes, you can blame something physical, or you can blame something mechanical. I trust that Archer is healthy, so I’m thinking about mechanics. And I do have a guess at what’s been wrong. To repeat: this is a guess! I am not Chris Archer, and we’ve never even emailed. If we’ve ever been in the same room, I sure as shoot didn’t notice. What follows is just one thing I have noticed. Put however much stock in this as you want.
Put simply, Archer was great for a while last year. Then his performance declined, and then he had the start to the 2016 season he’s had. That’s the general outline of what’s taken place. Now, there’s a pretty important issue with any mechanical analysis, for a pitcher or for a hitter. Pitchers and hitters go through their mechanics dozens or hundreds of times, and individual captures or screenshots don’t say anything about consistency. You don’t want to put too much trust in anything where N = 1. For what’s below, know that I’m just showing you a small selection of what I observed. I don’t want to overwhelm you with images. What I’ll talk about, I did see pretty consistently. That doesn’t mean I’m right! It just means what it says.
So, here’s Chris Archer throwing a pitch early in 2015:
Yeah, I know, it led to a bases-loaded walk, which is a bad outcome to highlight. But I think this was a good pitch, and an excellent take on the hitter’s part. So Archer did execute, I think. I’ve obviously slowed this down, and I want for you to pay attention to Archer’s front foot, or plant foot. Everything should look pretty ordinary. There’s nothing to compare to. Here’s Archer now from a short while back:
What I’ve noticed is subtle, as most of these things are. Again, watch the front foot. Go back and forth between clips if you have to. Pause them and compare if you like. In the first clip, Archer’s foot comes down flat, and he plants it right in front of his back foot. In the second clip, when his foot comes down, his toes are up. He lands more on his heel, and while in general Archer still plants his front foot right in front of his back foot, the alignment isn’t the same. Archer’s feet are more closed off.
David Laurila actually just talked to Archer in Boston. Here’s his response to a question about whether anything is different mechanically in the lower half:
“It wouldn’t be a conscious thing. I think my mechanics are pretty much the same.”
Everything does look so similar. It’s the same throwing motion, but with just that little difference in the landing foot. It’s the kind of thing that can just fold itself in over time, by accident, but a change to the front foot is a change to the stride, and every pitcher knows the stride is important. Here’s Archer when planted, from early in 2015:
I like to look at clips from Tampa Bay home games because of the mostly dead-center camera angle. This is ever so slightly off-center for some reason, but here you can’t even see Archer’s front foot. Here’s a recent image:
There’s that foot. You can see the heel. Here’s another recent image, just because:
Again, you see the heel, as Archer hasn’t swung his front leg as far around as he used to. We’re talking a matter of inches, so it’s not like all of Archer’s momentum is going toward third base or anything, but think about how much goes into delivering and executing a pitch. Everything has to be almost perfectly precise. When you go even a little off-line, it makes sense that your location could suffer. Some pitchers, granted, manage to get by because they’re just used to this:
I find that picture to be absurd, but the guy makes it work. A number of pitchers throw a little across their body just because that’s how they’ve always thrown. But for Archer, this seems like a little change. With a slightly more closed stride, he still looks like mostly the same pitcher, but he’ll leave some fastballs and sliders up. Sometimes he’ll over-grip and release too late. He’s not working in perfect alignment with the catcher, meaning there are forces pulling his pitches in other directions.
One more small group of photos. Here’s Archer at release, early in 2015:
Compare that to a picture from later 2015:
The easiest way to visualize this is that in the second picture, Archer’s feet are overlapping. Here’s a recent picture:
Same thing. Here’s another recent picture:
Same thing. It’s very subtle, and very easy to miss, but it’s a difference of a few inches, plus a fraction of a second if Archer is now planting his foot sooner. Those little changes can have profound effects on pitch execution, given how small the zone is, and given how much smaller the target area is. Even a wilder version of Archer is hard to hit. That’s been made abundantly clear. But the hitters like anything that makes the job any easier. If Archer doesn’t hit his targets as often as he wants, he’s going to be worse. That’s the truth of it.
It is not my stance that this is without question the matter with Chris Archer. I am completely open to being wrong, and solving problems like this is difficult. But if someone were to ask me, “what’s wrong with Chris Archer?” this would be my best shot at an answer. This is my guess, and if it’s right, it should be totally fixable. It would just take correction and reps. Let’s all of us check back in a month and a half.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.