Pitch Design: Is There Any Hope for Chris Archer’s Two-Seam Fastball?

Chris Archer was bad in 2019. In fact, he was as bad as he’d ever been, posting his lowest WAR total and the worst FIP, ERA, walk rate, and HR/FB rate of his career. The performance has made the trade that sent him to the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Tampa Bay Rays look like a complete abomination.

Yet he shouldn’t have to walk the plank just yet.

For Archer, who turned 31 at the end of September, it’s something of a long shot that he’ll be able to return to being the pitcher he was during his heyday with the Rays. As you can see, what was once a good arsenal has devolved into a group of mediocre, if not weak, pitches:

Chris Archer Career Pitch Values
Season Team wFA/C wSI/C wCH/C wSL/C wCU/C
2012 Rays -1.37 2.59 2.17 2.05 6.92
2013 Rays 0.59 0.11 -1.72 1.13
2014 Rays -0.65 0.48 0.05 0.85
2015 Rays 0.11 0.43 1.87
2016 Rays -0.80 -0.05 1.61
2017 Rays -0.18 -0.91 1.3
2018 2 Teams -0.99 -0.43 -0.40 0.59 -0.81
2019 Pirates 0.08 -3.00 -0.92 0.30 -2.01

The most significant dip for Archer came in the effectiveness of his two-seam fastball. The pitch worked well for him earlier in the decade, and after removing it from his arsenal in 2015, he brought it back three seasons later. Archer’s “new” two-seamer, which hasn’t been good (especially in 2019), was used sparingly against both left- and right-handed hitters.

Archer threw the pitch slightly more to lefties and it was beaten up badly. He allowed an xFIP of 13.29, a .668 wOBA along with a swinging strike rate of just 3.4%, and a paltry 8.2% whiff/swing rate. To righties, the pitch faired a bit better, though I use “better” generously here. And while his xFIP and wOBA numbers were not as bad, he missed fewer bats.

Though generally marked as a sinker, the recent version of the pitch has very little sinking action compared to the more traditional versions. This is due to the spin direction with which Archer has thrown the pitch after reincorporating it into his repertoire in 2018. Its new spin direction trend (around a 210-degree axis) allows for more drop than ride. That’s generally fine, especially with a true sinker, but given how hard Archer is throwing the pitch in relation to his average spin rate, he’s not keeping the pitch low enough or far enough away in the zone.

When he tries to elevate the pitch and doesn’t compensate for its typical shape, the following tends to happen:

With the two-seamer movement profile we see in Archer’s 2019 metrics, the pitch often risks dropping into the heart of the zone too far when aiming high.

Looking at the overall two-seam batting average against by zone above, it’s hard to find a good location for Archer to place the pitch. Archer does not draw many swings at his two-seamer when it’s thrown out of the zone, so effectively teasing the edge or chase zones will require some changes. If Archer could add some additional drop and ride — and with that confine the pitch mostly to left-handed hitters — maybe he misses a few more bats or draws some bad swings if he can attack them on the outside of the zone:

Precision will be necessary; allowing a lefty to get his arms extended on a pitch that hangs at the opposite side of the strike zone will get crushed, and one that runs too far will add another ball to the count.

Looking at the chart of his two-seam proclivities to lefties, and you’ll see Archer has spread the pitch around the zone. When he does attack the outer edge, he rarely has a lefty offer at the pitch near or outside of the zone. On the other hand, inside the zone, he’s drawn a fair share of fouls along with several conceded strikes.

With the current lack of strong movement on his two-seamer, Archer doesn’t create much deception, as the pitch is easy to track. When Archer has gone to the edges, he tends to miss and hitters aren’t fooled.

What Archer needs more than anything else is a minor adjustment to the two-seamer’s spin direction. In 2019, Archer threw the pitch under a spin direction of about 1:00. Archer wants to be closer to 1:30.

In the above example, Pitch 2 is the 2019 version of Archer’s two-seam, while Pitch 1 is the version he should be aiming for. Using the Driveline Edge tool, the generated pitch comparisons are shown being released at identical points to get a good understanding of how they move on average. As shown in the data charts, the Pitch 1 variant has the potential to generate an extra four inches of run with another three inches of drop.

Nothing really needs to change as far as how the pitch is gripped, unless Archer doesn’t have the ball tight to his palm. Generally speaking, with a ball held deeper in the pitcher’s hand, there is more potential for an elevated spin rate. This occurs because the ball will naturally be given more momentum with more surface area contributing to the spin coming from the palm to the underside of the fingers and off of the fingertips. (Granted, this is speculation on my part, as I’m not privy to how Archer grips the pitch and at what intensity.)

Have a look at the axis under which Pitch 1 is being “thrown.” Unless he bends his wrist, which would be pretty uncomfortable, there is going to have to be an adjustment to Archer’s arm slot to accommodate the extra tilt.

When Archer was able to throw the pitch under the recommended spin direction back in 2014, you can see that his arm slot was quite different. It’s not drastic, but Archer would need to drop his arm slot roughly a quarter of an inch (or more) to get the pitch out of his hands the way we want him to.

In the above demo, which now accounts for the suggested release point for Pitch 1, you can see that a hitter with a good, level swing chasing the current version (Pitch 2) of the two-seamer aimed up in the zone will have a good opportunity to make solid contact. With the adjusted version (Pitch 1), under the same swing, the ball will presumably ride away and under a lefty’s bat, which is exactly what Archer needs it to do.

So what about right-handed hitters? Well, Archer could certainly use the pitch to try to jam them inside, but he’d be better off using his four-seamer and slider (which tunnel incredibly well) while mixing in his seldom-used curveball more in lieu of the two-seam.

This adaptation isn’t going to suddenly transform Archer’s career. In fact, you could argue he shouldn’t throw it at all. Yet, if deployed selectively, it could be a powerful weapon instead of an overused liability. Archer’s command, or lack thereof, will certainly be a question. Saving it for low-risk situations (ahead in the count, for example) where there is more room for error, or perhaps simply a change-of-pace fastball option, would suffice and keep hitter’s honest.

Pitching strategist. Driveline Baseball pitch design-certified. Systems Administrator for a high school by day, I also provide ESPN with pitching visuals and am the site manager for SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.

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Jacob Foster
Jacob Foster

Great inside look at the thought process behind pitch design! Although I’m wary of the wording used to relate spin rate to grip surface area. Gripping tighter to palm might create more force, I’m not sure. But from what I’ve read, more surface area contacting the ball does not create more spin in all cases. I think Driveline posted a study about this a while back. If there has been some other study that says otherwise please let me know because I could be totally wrong about this.