By now the secret is out: Chris Archer’s sinker (or two-seam fastball if you prefer that term) was getting crushed... Hard... And often.
It’s also become pretty evident of late (at least among our online Pirates community) that he’s having more success since ditching that pitch completely. So, I wanted to put something together that more specifically detailed that change and why it’s working. Then, we can more effectively decide what to expect moving forward and if he is, in fact, “fixed.”
*Note: All pitch count and usage numbers in this piece come from Brooks Baseball.*
How Did We Get Here?
In his first two starts of 2019, Archer didn’t throw a single sinker, and the results were fine (11 innings, three earned runs, five walks, and 15 strikeouts). His major trouble was allowing counts to get deep, losing a few hitters, and running up his pitch count too early. In starts three and four, we saw marginal use of the sinker (six and eight thrown respectively), and the results were still pretty good outside of a few more walks and a weird game against the Giants that lacked strikeouts.
Then, for the next six starts (a three-week injury occurred in that span as well) we saw a major uptick in the usage of the sinker. Whether you want to believe the change in usage was the work of pitching coach Ray Searage or not, the trend is undeniable. In that six-game span, Arch let up eight home runs and 24 earned runs. His use of the sinker in those six games is listed as follows: 19%, 15%, 17%, 22%, 39%, 34%.
In the first two of those contests, at the Dodgers and at the Diamondbacks, the home runs came mostly off of sliders in the zone and once off of a changeup. Perhaps that helps explain the desire to continue using the pitch despite a lack of success overall. The three-week thumb injury was also between these two outings, so that can factor in to pitch selection and reluctance to change a pitching approach as well.
However, in game three (17% usage) at home against the Rockies, the Trevor Story solo shot was off a two-seam fastball thrown belt high on the inside edge of the plate.
Corey Seager followed up Story in the next outing (22% usage) by belting a sinker in a similar location (lefty batter this time) to deep right-center field. Oddly enough, both fastballs hit for homers were by hitters leading off an inning.
The fifth outing of that sample size against Milwaukee also contained two home runs, but one was off a first pitch four-seamer while one was off a first-pitch slider. Oddly enough that was in the outing in which Archer used the sinker the most of 2019. Even still, none of the seven strikeouts in that win came from the sinker, so it was solely being used as a weak contact and/or “get ahead” pitch.
In the final outing in which Archer featured the sinker considerably, it was once again taken out of the park early, this time in the first inning by Freddie Freeman. Arch was behind 2-1 in the count, trying to steal another strike and/or get a weak hit on an edge pitch, and Freeman unloaded on it to deep center field. It turned out to be the only run Archer would allow, and he was able to produce a good amount of ground ball outs with the sinker, but the four-seam fastball and the slider combination was dominant when used correctly.
The next game on June 11th in Atlanta seemed to be a hiccup in the plan, but I think we’re all glad Archer stuck to his guns on his (or Searage’s) decision to ditch the two-seamer. He threw just two sinkers all game, and one was walloped for a homer by Brain McCann in the second inning for a solo home run. Unfortunately, the Braves also hit three other solo homers in that inning, two off four-seamers and one off a changeup. McCann followed up with a three-run bomb off another four-seamer for good measure in the sixth. The whole outing was one to forget, but here’s a link to the Archer sinker getting crushed for (hopefully) the last time this season.
Archer has not thrown a sinker in a game since that day, and the results have been mostly positive. He has still allowed six home runs in six games (compared to his eight home runs in the six starts before the blow-up at SunTrust park), but he’s also racked up 45 strikeouts in the most recent six-game span (31 innings pitched). That’s compared to just 27 strikeouts in the six games in which he featured the sinker considerably (30.2 innings pitched).
Looking back on his 17 starts as a whole, we’d still love for Archer to stop walking so many batters (he’s walked at least two batter in every outing) and be a little more efficient with his pitch count (he’s gone seven innings just twice this year). With that being said, the slight drop in homers lately and the noticeable increase in strikeouts has made the five to six inning outings with two to three earned runs a little more palatable.
So, what should we expect moving forward?
Where are we going?
If we analyze the two six-game stretches a little bit more as splits, we may be able to start to see where Archer is trending with this new approach. So, for the sake of clarity, keep in mind for the rest of this article that I’m referring to the six-game stretch (4/26 - 6/6) in which Archer used the sinker at least 15% of the time as “Split 1”. Therefore, I’m using the six-game stretch (6/16 to 7/22) in which he didn’t use the sinker at all as “Split 2”. You can follow along on FanGraphs if you’d like. I can understand if you want to include the seven-run catastrophe on 6/11 in your analysis, but personally I think we’ll get a clearer picture if we leave that extreme circumstance out of the numbers (and yes, I’m aware that this is still a very small sample size we’re working with).
So, in Split 1 we’re looking at a 5.50 xFIP that stems from a few important metrics. The hard hit rate during that stretch was 42.4% and it led to a BABIP of just .275. In theory, that number should hover around .300, although a lot of home runs will skew that a bit since they are not logged as “balls in play”. Even still, it seems like things could’ve been even worse for Archer. Not to mention BABIP should typically be higher for ground ball and sinker pitchers as there are more chances for infield singles that way. Archer also had a crazy high 23.5% home run to fly ball rate during that stretch. So although balls were being hit in the air less (36.2% fly ball rate), they were getting crushed more often when Arch did allow them to get up in the air.
Split 2 looks a little more like something the Pirates can work with moving forward. The xFIP is 3.96, and the hard hit rate has dropped just a little to 40.9%. The BABIP looks much more like something that can be sustained, sitting at .292 in this time frame. Line drives have ticked up just a bit, but where we see the big difference is in fly balls versus ground balls. In the last six games, Archer’s fly ball rate is at 47.1%. However, he’s done a better job at keeping those fly balls in the yard, dropping his HR/FB rate more than five percentage points to 18.2%. In a big pitcher’s park like PNC, I’d like to see Archer continue using this tactic if it means less men on base when he does eventually let up that homer (which has come to feel inevitable at some point in the outing). An added bonus is the increase in left on base percentage, which has jumped from 63.7% to 76.7%. This almost certainly has a direct correlation to Archer’s increased ability to strike men out when there are runners on base, especially when they’re in scoring position.
Ultimately I don’t think Archer will prove to be a 13.09 K/9 player moving forward like he showed us glimpses of in Split 2. However, throwing a rising four-seamer and his best pitch, the diving slider, more often will definitely have him higher than the 7.92 K/9 we saw in Split 1. And we need him to be a strikeout pitcher if he’s going to be letting up home runs and walking a few batters every outing. You can’t afford too many cheap singles when there’s dangerous things like walks and homers lurking around every corner. But if Archer can sit between 11 and 12 K’s per nine innings moving forward, really work to avoid walking more than two batters in any outing (which is definitely more doable throwing a four-seamer instead of a sinker), and avoid letting up more than one homer each game, I think we’ll be pretty happy with the results.
It’s tough to stomach that Archer may never be the “Ace” that we all hoped for when Neil Huntington traded Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz for him this time last season. However, he’s what we have now for the next two years, so let’s try to at least get the most out of him. If we can get consistent baseline quality starts (six innings and three earned runs) with the occasional gem once a month (seven to eight innings with zero or one earned run) he can be a perfectly good second or third option behind Jameson Taillon in 2020 and 2021. Match those two with what should be fairly consistent arms in Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams, and we’re looking at a rotation that should keep this young offense in a lot of ballgames. Mitch Keller and Dario Agrazal will have the chance to duke it out for the fifth rotation spot next year (barring any trades, injuries, and/or signings), and both look to be exciting prospects with loads of potential right now. Keep in mind that Chad Kuhl is on the mend and should be a factor next year as well.
Things are certainly bleak for Pirates fans right now, as the team has seemingly lost sight of whatever it was that propelled them to being 2.5 games out of first place at the All-Star break. But even if 2019 isn’t meant to be, let’s try to enjoy that Chris Archer may not be a complete dud after all. And in case he goes out and gets shelled against the Cardinals on Tuesday night, let me leave you with one more clip, this time of Arch’s 10-strikeout game at Wrigley Field featuring a nasty slider and that touch of swagger that I’ve come to love from #24.
Let’s go Arch, and Let’s go Bucs!