Sunday Notes: Archer’s Innings, Boston’s Backstops, much more

Chris Archer’s attitude toward stats is a mix of new-school and old-school. The 26-year-old righty realizes pitcher Wins and ERA are influenced by things he can’t control. The number he cares most about, from a personal perspective, is innings pitched.

Archer threw 194-and-two-third innings for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2014. He did so effectively, fashioning a 3.33 ERA and a nearly identical 3.39 FIP over 32 starts. Pitching in his second full season, his W-L record was 10-9.

He fell short of his goal, albeit just barely.

“The one goal I had this year was to pitch 200 innings,” Archer told me. “If you’re pitching into the seventh pretty much every time, that’s the number you reach. For me, elite starters pitch 200 innings because, A: They’re making every start, and B: They’re keeping their team in every game. The manager’s not going to leave you out there if you’re not throwing well.”

The hard-throwing right-hander wasn’t pulled early very often last year. He went at least six innings 23 times, and on just three occasions fewer than five. He surrendered four or more earned runs only eight times.

Archer pitched better than his 10-9 record. In 14 of his 32 starts, he got either a loss or a no-decision while allowing three or fewer earned runs. No teardrops were shed – at least not for selfish reasons.

“It’s not about personal Wins or personal ERAs,” said Archer. “The point is to win the game. Some days you’re going to give up one run and get a Loss. Other days you’re going to give up five runs and get a Win. You obviously don’t want to give up any, but what matters is you gave your team a chance.”

Archer is familiar with FIP, although he professed to not know what his was. He did know his ERA, but only because “It’s plastered on the scoreboard.” Not surprisingly, he knows the players stationed behind him impact the more standard of the two stats.

“There are pitchers who are better than what their ERA shows, because their team doesn’t get to as many balls,” said Archer. “You can take two guys with the exact same stuff and have them put up the exact same type of contact, but if the defense is one step slower, or they’re not shifted properly, that can be the difference between having an 4.01 ERA or a 3.01 ERA.”

“Think about that,” added Archer, who lauded – overstated, actually – the quality of Tampa Bay’s defense. “One extra run per nine innings, or one extra run per outing. If you go seven innings and give up three runs instead of two… and if you give up three, maybe you’re not even getting the opportunity to pitch into the seventh. That one run makes a huge difference in the grand scheme of things.”

In the grand scheme, you have to be consistent to get 200-plus innings in a modern-day season. Archer kept coming back to that. He said he wants to be in the same class as pitchers like Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, Mark Buehrle – “He’s done it something like 13 years in a row” – and James Shields.

“That’s the one thing I’d really like to hang my hat on,” said Archer. “In order to do it you have to be healthy and above average. I want to be that guy, I want to be that horse. I want to eat up as many innings as I can.

“I know there are other numbers that tell you if a pitcher is good or not, but a pitcher’s job is to help his team win and if you’re on the mound in the seventh or eighth inning, you’re doing that. To me, the sexiest number is innings.”

——

Christian Vazquez caught 458 big-league innings with the Red Sox in his rookie season. That number should grow exponentially over time. The 24-year-old is emerging as one of the best catch-and-throw backstops in the game.

There are questions about his bat. Vazquez had a .736 OPS over seven seasons on the farm and hit .240/.308/.309 in 201 plate appearances after his call-up. There aren’t questions about his defense. The native of Puerto Rico threw out 52% of runners attempting to steal in his extended cameo. His final two minor league seasons yielded a 40% caught-stealing rate.

He works out with the Molina brothers during the offseason, but the stocky 5′-9”, 195 lb. receiver more closely resembles another of his countrymen. Vazquez reminds Yankees first base coach Mick Kelleher of a 13-time Gold Glove winner.

“Just looking at him – his size, his stature, the way he throws – he’s kind of a Pudge Rodriguez-type,” Kelleher told me. “That’s kind of my impression. He’s built like Pudge and he throws like Pudge.”

Vazquez gets high grades in multiple departments, including framing. He was credited with six Defensive Runs Saved, a heady total given his 458 innings behind the dish. Russell Martin, who topped all catchers with 12 DRS, caught 940 innings. Jonathan Lucroy had 11 DRS in 1,182 innings.

Game-calling, which Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett said was a primary focus for Vazquez prior to his July call-up, remains a work-in-progress. That’s the case for any young catcher, and his mentoring comes from more than Molina.

“I talked to Salvador Perez a few weeks ago,” Vazquez told me in late September. “We talked about catching and calling games. He’s a great catcher and has a lot of good advice. Jose Molina helps me a lot, too. We talk about everything.”

Two days before I talked to Vazquez, he hit his first big-league home run. It came against Tampa Bay’s Jeremy Hellickson and landed in Fenway Park’s Monster seats. He alluded to it when I asked how satisfied he was with his 2014 season.

“I’m very happy,” said Vazquez. “I made my dream of making the big leagues and I finished strong. In my last game, I went 4-for-4 with a homer. I’m very happy.”

Vazquez admitted hitting is “still a learning process” for him, adding that he’d “keep learning by listening to the hitting coach and to veteran guys like David Ortiz.” He does know who he is at the plate – “an up-the-middle and opposite-field guy who tries to hit line drives.”

Behind the plate, he’s gaining a lot of admirers. I asked Vazquez if he’s received much feedback from opposing players as he’s gone around the league for the first time.

“A little bit,” responded Vazquez. “They (sic) say about my defense. They say I’m a good catcher. They say I’m doing a good job and have a great arm. A cannon. Simple things like that.”

——

Ryan Hanigan will be Vazquez’s backup in Boston this coming summer. The veteran catcher was obtained in December after spending last season – his first in the American League – with the Rays. It will be an easier transition for the former Cincinnati Red, as he is now familiar with the junior circuit.

Hanigan downplayed the difference in leagues when I spoke to him late in the 2014 campaign. He said it was “really more about the pitchers you’re catching,” and that he’d been working with the Reds staff for so long that “getting them back to where they needed to be was pretty easy.” He added that until you learn the pitchers on your staff, “on-the-fly adjustments won’t happen as quickly.”

It is, of course, also necessary to learn the league. Hanigan admitted that took time, but even so, once he’d seen each team, he “felt comfortable with what hitters were doing, and how to pitch to them.” He said that was especially true for the American League East, which would give him “a real jump-start for (2015).”

Hanigan doesn’t anticipate any surprises, but not because every team does things exactly the same way. Going over opposing hitters before each series wasn’t the same in Tampa Bay as it was in Cincinnati.

“With the Reds, it was a little more dictated how much preparation a guy was going to do before a game,” explained Hanigan. “The meetings were run differently. We do the same type of preparation here, but there’s more leeway in terms of allowing guys to get ready on their own, in the way they want to.”

——

Not too long ago, in this space, I suggested a few moves the Reds might consider making. They were primarily panned in the comments section, and that’s all well and fine. I was spit-balling ideas, and while that isn’t standard fare here at FanGraphs, a little “Hey, what about this?” is a good diversion for the occasional Sunday column.

Why am I bringing this up? Not because I need more criticism, but because I’m not so sure the Cincinnati front office doesn’t deserve some. There are obviously financial factors at play, but some of the salary woes – Joey Votto’s contract is an albatross – are of their own making. Trading a pair of established starting pitchers for decent-but-not-great prospects, and then trading a prospect for an over-the-hill outfielder, is essentially wheel-spinning.

You’re either trying to win, rebuild, or exist in .500 purgatory with false hopes. The last option is almost always the worst option. Which direction are you going, Cincinnati Reds?

——

Tony Wolters may or may not one day play all nine positions in a game. The jury is also out on whether he can catch at the highest level. The latter is the hope, although the former is an intriguing idea to the up-and-coming Indian.

Cleveland’s 2010 third-round pick began his professional career as a shortstop. He moved behind the plate two years ago, and so far the transition has gone well. The 22-year-old spent last season at Double-A Akron, where he displayed improved receiving skills while continuing to hone his hitting.

Wolters swings from the left side, and while his 2014 numbers weren’t impressive – his OPS was .633 — he possesses a promising bat. Power isn’t a forte, but his approach is solid.

“I go up there aggressive, but also looking in one zone,” explained Wolters. “I stick in that zone until I get two strikes and have to protect. Before I get in the box, I’ll watch the pitcher and adjust to what he’s doing, Why look fastball in certain counts if he’s not throwing fastballs?”

Wolters employs what he described as “self-talk” before each at bat, telling himself positive thoughts – “I’m going to hit the ball hard” — and reminding himself what he’s looking for. At times, he brings the mental tools of ignorance with him, which is a predictable mind-set change given his move behind the plate. He feels the switch brings more positives than negatives, albeit for a reason you might not expect.

“Sometimes it gets in the way to think like a catcher up there,” admitted Wolters.” I kind of over-think things a little bit. But at the same time, with all the times I’m seeing the ball from behind the plate, it kind of slows everything down more for me in the box. The ball is kind of slowed down, if that makes any sense.”

According to Akron manager David Wallace, it isn’t so much a matter of slowing down as it is separating offense and defense. In his eyes, Wolters would sometimes get so immersed in preparing for opposing lineups that hitting would take a back seat.

“He’s realized it’s important to shut off the defensive mind and just be a hitter when it is time,” said Wallace. “Once in the offensive mindset, Tony knows if he keeps his thoughts simple, and gets ready on time, he is a dangerous hitter.”

Wolters is ready and able to play multiple positions when needed. His primary home is behind home – it’s where his heart is – but he also got into games at second base (10 games) and shortstop (8 games) last year. Two seasons ago he saw action at the hot corner. He’s athletic to play the outfield and has a strong arm. Could he imagine himself playing all nine positions in a game?

“I don’t know about that, but Justin Toole did it in 2012,” said Wolters. “That was in the Carolina League. I’ve talked to him about going from position to position and how he goes about it. He can play anywhere and I’d love to play anywhere.”

——

Four players – Campy Campaneris (1965), Cesar Tovar (1968), Scott Sheldon (2000) and Shane Halter (2000) – have played all nine positions in a MLB game. Numerous players have done so in the minors. College players to perform the feat include Buster Posey, who did so for Florida State in 2008. Afterward, Posey told ESPN that first base “was probably the weirdest position” for him to play. Posey has since appeared in 117 games as a first baseman for the Giants.

Jose Oquendo (1988) is one of 14 players to play all nine positions in a single season.

——

Dan Duquette has a direct connection to Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. He traded for Martinez twice, first as GM of the Expos, later as GM of the Red Sox. The second of the swaps, which followed two-and-a-half months of talks, was certainly worth writing home about.

Duquette was Montreal’s director of player development when Johnson was jettisoned to Seattle for a partial season of free-agent-to-be Mark Langston. Dave Dombrowski was the one who pulled the trigger – he was GM at the time – but he did so with a gun to his head.

“The owner has a right to put all of the resources into the current team,” Duquette told me in an interview several years ago. “Charles Bronfman got all of the executives together and said he wanted to make it clear that we were going to do everything we could to win now. Johnson was traded for Langston, a solid third-starter type, because Langston would help us more (in 1989). The future wasn’t part of the consideration of the trade, because the only future the owner had with the team was that season.”

The Expos finished the year in fourth place, with a record of 81-81. Bronfman subsequently sold the Expos to a group led by Claude Brochu, who was later involved in the Martinez-for-Armas-and-Pavano discussions. Langston signed as a free agent with the Angels. We know what the Big Unit went on to do.

RANDOM STATS AND FACTS

On this date in 2000, Tony Perez was elected to the Hall of Fame. Perez finished his career with 379 home runs and a 122 OPS+. Carlos Delgado, who earlier this week fell off the ballot in his first year of eligibility, finished with 473 home runs and a 138 OPS+. Perez, who had a reputation as an RBI machine, drove in 140 more runs, and had 2,204 more plate appearances, than Delgado.

Richie Ashburn, who was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee, never received more than 41.7% of the vote in his 15 years on the ballot. Ashburn played from 1948-1962, mostly with the Phillies, and hit .308/.396/.382. He walked 1,198 times and struck out 571 times. Ashburn led the National League in OBP four times, and putouts by an outfielder nine times. A worthy Hall-of-Famer? I can buy either argument.

A few days ago, Craig Edwards of vivaelbirdos.com Tweeted that Jim Edmonds is one of just ten players with more than 1,700 games in center field over the last 40 years. Is Edmonds, who will debut on next year’s ballot next, Hall-worthy? He hit 393 home runs and boasts the same adjusted OPS (132) as Tony Gwynn. His defense was exemplary. I doubt Edmonds gets in, but there are less-deserving players enshrined in Cooperstown.

Bill Freehan played 13 full seasons and was an all-star 11 times. He won five Gold Gloves at the catcher position. In 1968 – the year of the pitcher – he hit 25 home runs and earned a World Series ring. No, I’m not suggesting Freehan should be in the Hall of Fame. I’m simply giving props to someone who had an under-appreciated career.

In last week’s Notes column, I made a hilarious error. Doing final edits while riding a train from Boston to NYC, I decided to change “Like a lion pursuing a gazelle” to “Like a lion pursuing its prey.” My fingers (or perhaps my brain) had other ideas. Somehow, I instead changed it to “Like a gazelle pursing its prey.” Sheepishly, I have to admit that yes, gazelles graze on grass. As for my own meal, pass the crow.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Archer’s Innings, Boston’s Backstops, much more by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher

Thanks for another thoughtful, well-written piece. I especially enjoyed your mea culpa and how you handled it with grace and humor.