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Piratesguide Excerpt: Chris Archer and Great Expectations

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates-Workouts Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The following is an excerpt from PIRATESGUIDE 2019, a PIttsburgh Pirates season preview book from myself and Alex Stumpf here at Bucs Dugout, among others. This week, the book is on sale for just $10.50 for Paperback / $5.99 for Ebook. See the link below for more details.

Where were you when Neal Huntington went all in?

What did you think when you heard that he had traded Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow for Chris Archer, to say nothing of Shane Baz who was later included?

Shocked, right? I mean….Neal Huntington…giving up top prospects…for a frontline starting pitcher with years of control?

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You didn’t dream it. It happened. But a dream realized sometimes carries a heavy price. In this case, the tab is heavy with great expectations.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, Archer did not get off to a good start in meeting those expectations that came with him to Pittsburgh. Over his first five Pirates starts, he posted a 6.45 ERA, striking out 24 in 22.1 innings but walking nine hitters as well. He showed flashes of the pre-2018 Archer as the season wound to a close before he was skipped in his last start. He eventually had groin surgery for address a problem that had lingered for him all season. That, plus the fact that the club dropped out of contention shortly after his arrival created quite the pillow for Archer to land on among Pirates fans. The pitchforks and torches are at bay. But the expectations aren’t going anywhere.

So how does Archer meet the expectations that come from being the lynchpin of Huntington’s biggest-ever fish hauled in at the deadline?

With his slider of course.

Make no mistake, the slider is still Archer’s best pitch, but ol reliable, she ain’t what it used to be. Here’s a baseline of how Archer’s pitches played in 2018 over the entire season:

On first blush, Archer’s slider seems sturdy enough. A .289 wOBA/.265 xwOBA can go a long way towards getting hitters out, as does a 20.15 swinging strike percentage. But the pitch has been trending down over the past three years, with a .243 wOBA against in 2016 and a .260 figure in 2018.

Perhaps this is why the Pirates deemed it necessary to bring back Archer’s sinker. Prior to 2018, Archer had not thrown a sinker in the three full seasons before last season; call it 3.5 seasons when noting that Archer did not throw one while with Tampa Bay.

I heard your audible groan from here, but let’s get one thing right: the sinker/two-seam has a place and a purpose. That purpose is to setup other pitches and induce soft contact. In this way, it actually makes sense that the Pittsburgh Pirates would have Archer resurrect his sinking fastball. The club is investing in Archer’s slider, so why not do everything they can to set it up properly?

There have certainly been studies in the past in which a sinker has been praised for setting up breaking pitches. As of late (i.e. in the “pitch tunneling” era), the pitch’s effectiveness as a “set up man” has been diminished. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that, but here’s mine: I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.

To help quantify this, I took a look at the right handers who threw sinkers the most. I then grabbed their pitch sequencing data from Baseball Prospectus to see how often those sinker-heavy pitchers paired the pitch with a slider.

Note: Hendricks does not throw a slider, according to Statcast. His most common pairing with a sinker is another sinker.

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From this table, we can see that of these top five sinkerballers, Corey Kluber pairs a slider the most, and it’s not wonder as his slider carries the best weighted on base average against of any of these folks seen.

While the data shown does not pick out wOBA or any other metric on just these pitch pairings, we can reasonably assume that Kluber’s slider gets a boost from the sinker, what with 20 percent of his sinkers followed by a slider and a sparkling WOBA against the pitch overall.

So, again, choose your own adventure on what to believe. Many would think it naive to think that throwing a sinker in front of a breaking pitch would not have some impact at the very least.

You can read the rest of this piece as well as 23 other insightful works, not to mention complete player previews for every significant player on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 40-man roster, in Piratesguide 2019, available at Amazon.