As the season wears on, Chris Archer’s struggles are becoming a legitimate concern for the Tampa Bay Rays. They sit in last place in an offense-heavy AL East, and have seen Archer both baffle hitters with his stuff, and baffle coaches with his execution. The strikeout totals are still there, although the K% isn’t quite as impressive.
Without a doubt, walks and home runs have been huge issues for Archer thus far. Archer’s current 4.23 BB/9 and 1.74 HR/9 are the worst of his career by large margins, and have contributed to an unsightly 4.73 ERA. His 3.57 xFIP paints a different picture, but lending Archer a league average home run rate would be, at this point, disingenuous.
Archer delivered on high expectations in 2015 with a new pitch mix, and perhaps hoping to take another step forward in 2016, he tinkered with his pitch mix again. 2015 saw Archer scrap his 2-seam fastball in favor of his 4-seam fastball, and this season, Archer has incorporated more changeups in every count.
From 6.3% last year, Archer has more than doubled his overall changeup usage to 13.1% in 2016. There isn’t anything special about Archer’s changeup, but he definitely could throw it for strikes (2014-2015 Zone%: 48.4%), and got good results as hitters rarely saw it. This year, Archer’s changeup is carrying a 37.3% Zone% and a 33.3% K% (13.9% career average), which suggests that Archer isn’t just giving hitters another look, he’s trying to get hitters out with it.
Archer has an impressive fastball/slider combo, but it couldn’t carry him through the last month or so of the 2015 season. The workload, the largest of his career, had Archer in a funk. Over September and October, Archer had a 5.81 ERA that could have been mitigated by leaning less on pure stuff. Prior to this season, by his own prerogative, Archer expressed a need for a legitimate third weapon to throw to all batters, and that’s where this season’s struggles set in.
In addition to throwing more changeups overall, Archer has also begun throwing changeups to RHBs, something he almost never did before. In 2015, of 217 changeups thrown by Archer, just 8 went to RHBs (3.69%). In 2016, already 62 of 161 changeups have gone to RHBs (38.51%), and overall, Archer’s changeup’s wRC+ has jumped 20 points to 118 this season.
From this heatmap, we see that while Archer is trying to keep his changeup low to RHB, he has a tendency to miss high and inside. If we check the ISO per pitch in these locations, we see he hasn’t gotten away with his mistakes.
Obviously, when Archer’s changeup misses its spot, it gets hit hard. But again, Archer has never consistently thrown this pitch to RHB. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think he’s just struggling to establish a feel for it in new situations.
The following tables include Archer’s pitch usage since the beginning of last year. (from Brooks Baseball)
The first things that pop out from Archer’s pitch usage are that he is throwing much fewer first-pitch fastballs to LHBs, and using less of his slider with the batter ahead in the count. By mixing in more fastballs and changeups when the batter is ahead, Archer is establishing a new approach that may rely more on inducing weak contact.
However, throwing fewer first-pitch fastballs may be contributing to his misfortunes, as first-pitch strikes were something Archer thrived on last year when his 4-seam fastball became his primary pitch.
Archer threw a first-pitch strike 64.1% of the time in 2015, but this season, that percentage is down to 55.9% (while the league average has been 60-61% since 2013). Since the beginning of 2015, through 0-1, Archer has a sub-2.00 FIP. Through 1-0 over the same span, his FIP is over 4.50. That isn’t an unusual gap, even for a pitcher of Archer’s talent, rather it precisely illustrates my point.
Though Archer’s changeup has never been a great pitch, it is flashing some increased potential this year, with nearly two more inches of drop compared to last year. Typically, changeups are used/developed to suppress neutralize LHB/RHB splits because of they way they break. Archer, however, seems to create good enough depth to get away with throwing it consistently.
Everything starts with the fastball though. Archer needs to re-tame his fastball, which, by falling around the middle of the zone, has been hit hard and has also limited the effectiveness of his secondary pitches.
When a pitcher comes into a season with a new game plan, you expect some growing pains, and Archer has experienced his fair share. Archer particularly has not pitched well out of the windup and could be in a bit of a mechanical funk, but likely, trying to incorporate the changeup has further compromised the effectiveness of his other pitches.
He turned in a great outing in his most recent appearance, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits, with 12 strikeouts, and 3 walks over 6 innings against the Diamondbacks, but he did give up 2 more home runs in the process, including one to the opposing starter, Robbie Ray.
There are both good and bad signs in each of Archer’s starts, and he is still one of the American League’s top starters on pure stuff alone. While he’s taking his lumps now, I’d expect a surge from Archer after the All-Star break, if not much sooner, as he starts to spot his fastball and find a comfort zone with his changeup.
Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com, Brooks Baseball
Images thanks to: Sportingnews, Getty Images, SB Nation, raysindex.com, Yahoo Sports