The free agent starting pitching market isn’t great. After Trevor Bauer, things fall off pretty quickly. After the B-tier of Masahiro Tanaka, Jake Odorizzi and James Paxton, things really fall off. Having said that, there are some interesting diamonds in the rough, whether they be guys with high upside but mediocre results, maybe coming off an injury, looking to reestablish their market, or generally looking to bounce back with a new team.
Chris Archer checks all of these boxes.
Archer sat out the 2020 season after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery. His most recent results were the ones he posted in 2019 with the Pirates which... weren’t good. On the whole, he pitched to a 5.19 ERA/5.02 FIP/4.36 xFIP. Still, there were some encouraging metrics, such as his 27.2% K% (26th best in baseball, minimum 100 IP) as well as a 20.2% HR/FB% that would surely regress.
Before that, he was comfortably a top half of the rotation starter. From 2014 to 2018 with the Rays and Pirates, he pitched to a stellar 3.76 ERA/3.43 FIP/3.39 xFIP in 957.1 innings—good for a solid 18.0 fWAR. During this era, he was the 15th most valuable pitcher in baseball.
But after getting jettisoned from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh, things went awry for the hard throwing right-hander. In 33 starts in a Pirates uniform, Archer had an unsightly 4.92 ERA/4.71 FIP/4.11 xFIP in 172.0 innings. Had it been a standalone season, it would have been his worst by far.
What changed? Perhaps the main contributor of Archer’s struggles as a Buc was his forced adoption of the sinker. The Pirates, under then pitching coach Ray Searage, indoctrinated all of their arms into the religion of the two-seamer. Heck, Travis Sawchik wrote a whole book about it. And while it worked in rebuilding the careers of some—namely Charlie Morton, AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano, Archer wasn’t so lucky.
When Archer threw the sinker in ‘19, hitters torched it to a .522 xwOBA and an .803 xSLG. For context, he made every hitter peak Barry Bonds. It’s no wonder that on June 16, he almost completely ditched it. It’s also no wonder that after he did, he immediately produced better results.
After going back to his normal pitch mix of mostly four seamers and sliders with a few changeups peppered in, he had a 4.65 ERA/3.83 FIP/3.80 xFIP. Additionally, his K% shot up from 23.0% to 31.4% and his average fastball velocity increased from 93.7 mph to 94.4 mph. His slider was as deadly as ever as well. While losing a little bit in movement, hitters still whiffed 42.2% of the time; a career best for Archer.
Archer’s recovery from thoracic outlet surgery is the wild card here. Most recently, Matt Harvey had similar surgery and was never the same. The injury is somewhat rare, so the chance of pitchers bouncing back from it is not as well documented as that of, say, Tommy John surgery.
Even still, with a thin market and a lot of teams looking to compete, it could still be worth taking a flyer on a pitcher like Chris Archer. Steamer projections output a 1.9 fWAR for 2021, which would be a bargain for the 1 year, $7 million contract FanGraphs predicted for him to get this offseason.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.