Back in April, after Tampa Bay Rays starter Chris Archer’s first four starts of the season, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs tried to figure out what was wrong with the right hander. Sullivan looked at Archer’s mechanics and concluded that there was a difference, albeit very subtle, between where Archer planted his front foot, or plant foot, in early 2015 and in early 2016. Sullivan looked at this because Archer had started 2015 off strong but had run into some trouble by the end of the season. And when Archer began 2016 the way he left off in 2015, Sullivan wanted to try and figure out what was plaguing Archer.
Now it’s the end of June, and Chris Archer lost his 11th game of the season on Tuesday night against the Red Sox. He is 4-11 with a bloated 4.76 ERA and a 3.63 xFIP in 98 1/3 innings. That xFIP ranks him 24th in the majors, and even puts him just ahead of the White Sox’s Chris Sale, who sports a 3.64. But when sorting stats by ERA, Archer drops down to 73rd in the majors and is sandwiched between Gio Gonzalez of the Nationals (4.73) and Kendall Graveman of the A’s (4.84).
Archer’s main problems this season seem to be length and consistency. I looked at his game logs and noticed that he has pitched more than seven innings only twice this season, and there have been a number of times when he’s gone into only the fifth or sixth inning having thrown over 90 pitches. His worst start of the year occurred on May 22 against Detroit when he gave up six runs on eight hits in only three innings. He threw 77 pitches that game.
His Velocity and The Pitches He Throws
The next thing I examined was his velocity. Archer's four-seam fastball velocity, at least according to Brooks Baseball, has actually increased since the beginning of the season. At the end of 2015 and beginning of this season, it was averaging 94.8 mph, which was down from the 96 mph it had been averaging at the beginning of 2015 and throughout most of last season. And it’s gone up a tick in June, averaging 95.3 mph. So while there has been a drop in velocity between the beginning of last season and the beginning of this season, it wasn't a big drop off, and it’s a very good sign that his four-seam velocity has changed direction and is on the upswing again.
Another intriguing note about Archer's four seamer is that batters are hitting .295 against it and slugging .564. He’s also thrown it 822 times in 2016 (1,817 in 2015) and has given up nine home runs and 22 doubles. It seems opposing batters know when to expect it now. Last season they batted .263 against it and slugged only .405.
In Tuesday’s loss to Boston, Archer pitched one out into the seventh and gave up four runs on seven hits with four walks and nine strikeouts. He also gave up a home run to Travis Shaw in the second inning. It was on a first pitch, 95.7 mph fastball that was high in the zone.
The last batter Archer faced in that night's game was Mookie Betts. Archer started off Betts with an 88.4 mph slider that was called for strike one. Archer then went to his four seamer, and while Betts hit the 96.5 mph offering hard, it was caught for the first out of the inning. It was Archer's 109th and last pitch of the game. He finished the game throwing 51 four seamers, 50 sliders, and eight change ups.
Archer’s slider, which he’s thrown 572 times so far, has been a bit better for him this season. Hitters are batting only .218 against it, and he has struck out 66 batters with it. But, on the other hand, when that slider isn’t sliding enough and is getting too much of the plate, Archer’s been victimized a bit by the long ball, giving up five so far.
But you will also notice that when Archer's slider is working (bottom right of the graph) and is running away from right hander batters, it's difficult to hit.
The third pitch in Archer's 2016 arsenal is his changeup. He has thrown it 226 times this season, and while hitters are averaging .265 against it, he’s also struck out 16 in 49 at bats with it. It's interesting to note that Archer threw his changeup only 221 times in all of 2015, and in July of last season he threw it only two percent of the time while relying on his four-seam fastball 57 percent of the time.
Where Did His Sinker Go?
Another interesting, yet somewhat puzzling note with regards to Archer's pitching arsenal is that he used to throw a sinker, or what was categorized as a two seam fastball with sinking tendencies, but abandoned it completely after the 2014 season. He has ramped up the usage of his four seamer and slider since then.
When I was looking up those numbers, I wondered why would Archer give up on his sinker? It seems it's because he has developed more confidence in his four seam fastball and in his slider, but it's still a little odd to me that he would give up on it completely when he used that pitch the most in 2014 (1,294 compared to 781 four seamers and 911 sliders) and had pretty good success with it. It definitely wasn't as strong as his slider, which was his best pitch in 2014, but to just stop throwing it altogether seems a bit extreme.
Consistent Batted Ball Profile
I then looked at his batted ball profile to see if there was a shift in those numbers because maybe that could have an effect on Archer's performance, but what I found was that the numbers so far in 2016 are consistent with his career averages. Archer's line drive rate is 21 percent, his ground ball rate is 45.4 percent, and his fly ball rate is 33.6 percent. His averages are 20.6, 46.2, and 33.2 percent respectively, so that's not a reason why 2016 has been less successful for him. If there was an uptick in his fly ball rate and a dramatic decrease in his ground ball rate, we could possibly point to that as a reason why Archer has been struggling this season, but that's not the case.
How He Delivers His Pitches
Next I looked at his release points and compared 2014, 2015 and 2016 to see if there were any obvious differences.
There don't seem to be. In early 2015, it looked as if he were throwing the ball a little more over the top than in 2014, but Archer seems to have corrected that problem this season.
I also wanted to go back to how hitters are performing against Archer in certain counts. As I said, Shaw hit his home run on the first pitch of his bat in the second inning on Tuesday night against Archer, but how does Archer do when he's ahead in the count? Very well.
As you can see, when Archer starts off the at bat with a strike, he does a lot better than when he starts off with a ball—which is usually the case for most pitchers. Starting an at bat up 0-1 increases the chances of getting an out than starting behind 1-0. And not only does Archer give up a lot of hits when he falls behind, but his walks increase, naturally.
Batters have a better chance of hitting against Archer when the bases are empty, .264/.350/.472 with 11 home runs, compared to when there are runners in scoring position, .196/.248/.270 and one home run.
Archer is also having some trouble pitching away from Tropicana Field. In 47 1/3 innings on the road this year, hitters are batting .298/.373/.546 with a .390 wOBA and 11 home runs. At home, those numbers drop to .211/.286/.354 with a .282 wOBA and six home runs.
So why is Chris Archer struggling in 2016? It could be as a simple as what Jeff Sullivan saw with Archer's plant foot because when you scrutinize his numbers, aside from his home and away splits, which happens to a lot of pitchers, nothing really jumps out as something that should be cause for alarm.
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Stacey Gotsulias is a contributing writer of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter at @StaceGots.
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