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A Suggestion for Chris Archer

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Chris Archer is drawing a lot of vitriol this season and it certainly isn’t misguided. Archer has an ERA- of 134 with his FIP right in line with his ERA (5.55 vs. 5.75). Archer’s line drive rate has plummeted and gave way to the highest fly ball rate in his career (46% of contact), which isn’t always a bad thing unless 15.4% of that type of contact turn into home runs.

Archer is effectively a mess that someone needs to clean up, although its not completely clear what the cause is. I don’t necessarily have the cure but I do have a theory that, if followed, could be a step in the right direction. A change that could help bring Archer back to his earlier career form, where he averaged a 4.2 WAR between 2015 and 2017.

Before we look forward, let’s step back and recap how Archer got to where he’s at. Was it already a lost cause before he set foot in PNC Park? Its hard to say, but its necessary to look at how he went from a top-flight pitcher to a borderline liability.

Last season, Archer was dealt from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh in what now looks like a pretty lopsided deal that favors the Rays. The heart of the package contained Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows (both top-100 prospects at the time), both of whom seem to be highway robbery for the Rays at this point.

Archer wasn’t pitching that great for the Rays at the time and the move up north did little to effect that. His SLG% increased by .38 points while the majority of his other stats stayed the same for the most part during the rest of the 2018 season.

One of the more interesting stats for Archer is that his hard hit rate increase from around 31% (2012-2016) to almost 40% the last three seasons. Keep in mind that from 2016-2017, Archer’s hard hit rate went from 32.8% to 39.4% but his WAR increased by 1.5 (3.0-4.5). Its important to note that if a pitcher is giving up a lot of hard contact, it doesn’t always correlate with struggles or failures.

However, it is a significant jump (Archer was fourth-worst in Hard%) with a couple of minor (if not significant) changes to his pitching profile.

One adjustment Archer did make was he started throwing his slider a bit more at the expense of his changeup. In terms of Pitch Info Pitch Value, his fastball improved a lot while his changeup took a dive and the slider lost a bit of its effectiveness.

We also see a bit of change in terms of spin axis from ‘16-’17, which can have a big impact on the performance and behavior of a pitch.

The chart above does show some change. His slider axis changed by 7-degrees toward the glove side and his four-seam fastball was altered by about 11-degrees, with the tilt favoring the arm side.

The results in the chart below show that with Archer’s axis change, he lost about an inch of glove-side run on the slider (the reason his slider lost some of its gloss?) but little to no movement change on his fastball, despite the larger axis adjustment.

His lack of fastball movement with the axis change could be explained by Archer’s four-seam spin rate increasing by a bit over 50 RPMs (2190-2249) on average. His slider’s spin rate increased by over 200 RPMs from 2016 to 2017.

So what the heck is going on in 2019? From last season to now, his proclivities have shown little change. Can we point to injuries? Well, the hernia surgery in late winter last year might still be having some residual effects. The thumb inflammation from earlier this season is more likely but there haven’t been reports of it being an issue since his return to the mound on May 15th.

Let’s dig into some numbers to see if there is something occurring below the surface.

First and foremost, according to the latest Command+ data (generously provided by Eno Sarris), Archer is league-average in terms of his command; Archer is able to hit his intended locations with passable accuracy. Note that Command+ relies on assumed intent and isn’t always a 100% accurate assessment.

Another way to judge command is how often a pitcher can hit the edges of the strike zone. Archer tags the edges with 41.1% of his pitches, which is just a few tenths of a percentage less than league-average. Archer’s ability to get called strikes and whiffs lies at about 50% of his edge pitch count (league average is 53%). Overall, his called strike plus whiff rate (CSW) is 34.1%, which is a little less than the league average of 36.9%.

His control is another story.

Archer’s walk rate is 13%, which puts him 4th overall (minimum 40 IP). The problem is Archer is in a hitter’s (or an even) count 74.2% of the time. That’s some serious imbalance.

Archer’s key moment is when the count reaches 1-1. About 53% of his opening pitches during an at-bat end up strikes. More often than not, the next pitch ends up the opposite of the first. He seems to do a pretty good job of keeping out of heavy hitters counts (3-0, 3-1).

One problem could be due to his drop in first pitch strikes. His previous two seasons (‘17-’18) Archer’s first pitch strike rate was at 62%. That’s a pretty significant drop that gets Archer into a lot of unfavorable situations.

If the count turns full, Archer has 13 strikeouts and 10 walks. When the ball is put into play, hitters have a .227 batting average. That’s pretty favorable.

When Archer is ahead, hitters produce a .241 average. When the count is even, he yields a .204 average. When the hitter is ahead, Archer gets beat to the tune of .326.

This brings us to what I believe is a big issue for Archer in 2019.

When hitters get ahead of Archer, he’s been more apt to throw his two-seam fastball, which is actually his worst pitch this season.

Some background— Archer abandoned the pitch in 2015, which happened to be his best season (coincidence?). It returned to his arsenal last year at a usage rate of ~9%, and this year, its increased to 11%.

For some further context, let’s break down his 2019 pitches using CSW along with plate discipline and value metrics. Look over the chart below.

Its clear that Archer’s slider is far and away his best pitch. His worst? It should be no question that its the two-seam fastball. A 12% chase rate implys that when Archer misses with the pitch, he misses badly.

Hitters making zone contact on the two-seam at a rate of 96% is pretty awful. What’s more, when they do make contact, hitters post a .478 batting average with a monstrous .576 wOBA.

The two-seam fastball is also part of his hard-hit rate issues. Take a look at his two-seam heat map for this season

Is it happenstance that the pitch is being located where Archer’s exit velocities are the highest?

Removing the two seam fastball isn’t going to suddenly reinvent Archer, but its certainly a step in the right direction. The pitch is doing him no good whatsoever. 35% of his two-seamers are called balls and just 21% are called or swinging strikes. That’s pretty unbalanced while also considering that almost 50% of swings on the pitch go for hits.

Archer typically avoids the two-seam when he’s ahead but tends to rely on it more when he needs strikes. When hitters are ahead and Archer uses his two-seamer, they produce an incredible .667 batting average (.705 wOBA). That’s two hits for every three pitches swung at! Essentially, if you fall behind Archer, you have a really good shot to make something positive happen at the plate.

While Archer should ditch the two-seam, he needs to be more aggressive in the zone with his four-seam fastball while playing it off his slider, which typically falls out of the zone. Almost 66% of total called strikes for Archer are from the four-seam and slider. Have a look at how well the two pitches can play off each other.

In this case, it will probably be more effective to right-handed hitters (45% of batters faced) but it could work on lefties, too.

The two-seamer was a great pitch for Archer his rookie year but it was never the same after. It was removed from his repertoire for several seasons and it hasn’t been good since he brought it back.

Of course, its obvious that Archer needs to get into more favorable counts. All pitchers are faced with that at some point during their careers. There are a myriad of ways to fix that (mechanics, etc), none of which are really simple.

What is that simple is removing the pitch that he’s turning to when he gets in those situations.

It may sound like I’m implying that Archer’s mound ills will be cured by removing that variety of fastball, but that certainly isn’t the case. However, considering the data I’ve accumulated here, its clear its doing him no favors and the first step to getting back to a 2-3 WAR season is dropping it entirely. Then the rest can hopefully be figured out.