While the Tampa Bay Rays may lack the firepower of their AL East rivals, they boast a very potent rotation that can go toe-to-toe with any team in the division. Ian York profiles Tampa Bay Rays starter Chris Archer to show what made him so successful in 2015, and why he could be even better in 2016.
The Tampa Bay Rays had a strong pitching rotation in 2015, but Chris Archer stepped up to show that he was the ace of that staff. In just his third full year in the majors, Archer placed fourth in baseball for strikeouts and K/9, and 11th in FIP. He does this without much fanfare, since he has a limited repertoire (just three or four pitch types) with no particularly spectacular or overwhelming pitch.
Archer throws mainly a four-seam fastball in the mid-90s and a high-80s slider (average speeds 96.1- and 88.6-mph respectively, according to Brooks Baseball). He also throws an occasional changeup, mainly to left-handed batters, and perhaps a sinker (or two-seam fastball). Although his sinker has been very effective in previous years, according to Brooks Baseball, Archer completely abandoned it in 2015:
PITCHf/x agrees with Brooks Baseball that Archer is throwing fewer sinkers, but does identify some, and in this case PITCHf/x may be correct; Archer does throw a cluster of pitches that have more movement than the bulk of his fastballs – similar in movement to his changeup, but much faster – and these are probably mostly two-seam fastballs (the blue cluster in the chart below):
However, while he may be still using some sinkers, he certainly reduced their use dramatically in 2015, making up for it with increased use of his slider:
All of his pitches are above average, and Fangraphs rates his slider 10th in baseball by linear weights, putting him slightly ahead of such pitchers as Jordan Zimmerman and Clayton Kershaw. In terms of hits and total bases allowed, his fastballs are exceptionally good:
It is important to keep in mind, though, that with rare exceptions pitches are not valuable on their own; their value depends on their context, meaning that the count and the sequence of pitches thrown also help determine how effective a pitch is.
Archer is not only effective when he pitches, but he pitches a lot – leading baseball with 34 starts in 2015. This may have affected him in 2015, since he had by far his worst game of the year near the end of the season:
Against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 26, Archer gave up 9 runs in just 3 ⅔ innings. That one game ran his season ERA up by 0.33 runs – without those innings, his season ERA would have been just 2.89 instead of a still solid 3.23.
Although Archer’s fastball and slider are very respectable major-league pitches, they are not extraordinary in their velocity or movement. Archer’s excellent location is what raises his game to ace level. Here are the distributions of his pitches in 2015. These charts are from the umpire’s viewpoint, so that batters would be standing in between the charts. The grey polygon outlines the de facto strike zone, as umpires called it in 2015:
Most of Archer’s pitches end up just barely inside the edge of the strike zone. Enough of his pitches are just outside the zone that batters can’t simply decide to swing at anything, but most are strikes, so that batters can’t safely take either. What’s more, his four-seam fastball targets the upper side of the zone, and his slider the bottom, making both pitches more effective as the batter’s eye plane is continuously disrupted. Taken together, it’s easy to understand how Archer obtains his high strikeout totals.
Archer has consistently been an effective pitcher, but 2015 may have been the first year when he clearly dominated, not relying on unsustainable BABIP and lucky fielding for his results. If he can remain healthy, he could easily be an even better pitcher in 2016.
Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.
Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.