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Chris Archer, a Two Pitch Pitcher

Are there other examples or pitchers relying heavily on two pitches?

Al Messerschmidt

On August 2nd, as the San Fransisco Giants took on the Rays at the Trop, Chris Archer pounded the zone with his fastball and slider in the early innings. For the first 4.2 innings, he allowed only two base-runners; one came on a walk while the other reached on a single. With both his fastball and his slider working, Archer was finding success. But since batters were coming up for their second time (or soon to be third), Archer began to do what many pitchers would do in the same situation: break out another pitch. So with Brandon Belt at the plate, Chris Archer threw his first change-up of the day. With one swing of the bat, the pitch was deposited into the seats, tying the game at one run apiece. Archer did not throw another change-up in the game. In five starts since that game, Archer has only thrown his change-up nine times.

While both his fastball and slider are devastating pitches, Archer's change-up lags behind. Though it has made progress since the days when it was referred to as a "show me" pitch, it is not better than an average pitch at this point. Archer has previously made a concentrated effort to use the pitch more in games to progress its development, but he has recently shelved the pitch in favor of his fastball/slider combination. Though the move may hurt him in the long haul, for now, Chris Archer is finding success with his fastball and slider heavy approach. For the year, he is throwing his change-up only 7.6% of the time.

In the minor leagues, pitchers are billed future starters or future relievers for a variety of different reasons. For some, it has to do with height or their physical build. For others, it comes down to command. Some are destined for the bullpen because of a funky delivery. And many are tabbed as relievers due to the lack of a third pitch. At one point, some viewed Archer as a future closer because they were not confident in his changeup (nor his command for that matter).

The idea is that in order to get through a line-up several times, a pitcher needs to have at least three average pitches that he can command and use at his leisure. Pitchers can dominate in shorter stints in which they are only facing the hitter once, but when the hitters get multiple appearances against them in the game and the pitcher is only using two pitches, the batter can adjust and expose the weakness. Having a third pitch also helps when it comes to splits. A right handed pitcher who throws only a fastball and a breaking ball will normally struggle against a line-up stacked with lefties while a right handed pitcher with a fastball and a change-up may struggle to put away right handed hitters.

After seeing the success Archer has had while only throwing two pitches, I decided to test the old adage. Are there good pitchers who get away with primarily throwing just two pitches? To test this, I looked at all 3 WAR or higher seasons by starting pitchers from 2008-2012. From there, I looked at the pitch usage numbers, singling out the ones who have thrown a fastball and one offspeed pitch 90% of the time or more. So, for example, if a pitcher throws his fastball 60% of the time and his slider (or curve, or changeup) 31% of the time, he qualifies. In other words, I am looking for a two-pitch combination that accounts for 90% of more of the pitches. Chris Archer, this year, has throw his fastball and slider a combined 92.2% of the time.

It should be noted that all fastballs (four seamers, two seamers, sinkers, etc..) were grouped together as fastballs, except for cutters. My reasoning is that cutters tend to play the role of an offspeed pitch (think David Price) rather than a bread-and-butter pitch like a sinker or a four seamer.

Here are all the pitchers that met the qualifications:

Player Season Percentage Type
Ryan Dempster 2012 100% FB/SL
Justin Masterson 2011 99.4% FB/SL
Josh Beckett 2008 97.8% FB/CU
Hiroki Kuroda 2008 96.7% FB/SL
AJ Burnett 2009 96.5% FB/CU
Alexi Ogando 2011 95.7% FB/SL
Hiroki Kuroda 2010 95.4% FB/SL
Aaron Cook 2008 95.1% FB/SL
Brandon McCarthy 2011 95.0% FB/SL
AJ Burnett 2008 94.9% FB/CU
Ervin Santana 2008 94.6% FB/SL
Josh Johnson 2009 93.8% FB/SL
Johan Santana 2008 93.7% FB/CH
Gio Gonzalez 2011 92.8% FB/CU
Gio Gonzalez 2012 92.5% FB/CU
Hiroki Kuroda 2012 92.4% FB/SL
Gio Gonzalez 2010 92.3% FB/CU
Michael Pineda 2011 92.3% FB/SL
Chris Archer 2013 92.2% FB/SL
Ben Sheets 2008 92.2% FB/CU
Josh Beckett 2009 92.0% FB/CU
Derek Lowe 2008 91.8% FB/SL
John Danks 2008 91.4% FB/CH
Clayton Kershaw 2011 90.8% FB/SL
Edwin Jackson 2009 90.7% FB/SL
Clayton Kershaw 2010 90.6% FB/SL
Edwin Jackson 2011 90.5% FB/SL
Johan Santana 2009 90.4% FB/CH
Randy Johnson 2008 90.2% FB/SL
Josh Johnson 2010 90.0% FB/SL

There is plenty of evidence here that not only can pitchers succeed with two pitches, but they can thrive. For Chris Archer, this is excellent news. Of course, this information isn't without its limitations.

First of all, most of the pitchers on the list have a few common qualities. For the most part, these pitchers have very good stuff (Ryan Dempster and Aaron Cook stand out as exceptions). Also, a majority of the players worked with a fastball/slider combination.

In conclusion, Chris Archer doesn't need to throw a third pitch frequently to have success. Plenty of pitchers in the past several years have done very well while relying primarily on two main pitches. It may not benefit Archer to completely shelve his change-up, but it is encouraging to know that plenty of other pitchers have gotten away with throwing their third pitch only a handful of times per game.