Chris Archer is indisputably the Rays ace. The 28 year old flamethrower strung together three straight stellar seasons from 2013-2015, but struggled amid ever-rising expectations and in 2016 watched his ERA climb above 4.00 for the first time since his cup of coffee in 2012.
The talent is still there. He struck out 233 batters, many with his nasty slider. He held opponents to a 0.235 batting average and stranded nearly three quarters of the baserunners he allowed.
Keeping the ball in the park
He did, however, struggle with the long ball, allowing a career-high 30 home runs this season for a rate of 1.34 per nine innings, nearly 0.3 HR/9 over his previous career high set three years ago.
What explains his susceptibility to dingers? Overall his fly ball rate was not up significantly and his line drive rate was down from every other season in his career. He even induced the highest ground ball rate in his career to date. While the percentage of his balls in play that are pulls went up over last year (generally indicative of power hitting), it was still lower than in 2014, the year he recorded a measly 0.55 HR/9. His quality-of-contact profile also remained similar to the rest of his career, per FanGraphs. The hard hit rate against him remained nearly constant. According to those numbers, not much changed about the way batters approached plate appearances against Archer but they were nonetheless seeing more pop in their bats. While there was a league-wide trend towards hitting more homers in 2016, it was much too small to explain away the entirety of the large increase against Archer.
The puzzle here is figuring out how more fly balls than usual cleared the fence despite even though they were not on average hit harder.
Spoiler Alert: It’s the Fastball
We need to drill down to the pitch-by-pitch level to understand Archer’s struggles. As mentioned, his slider was nasty as ever, inducing 275 swinging strikes and holding opponents to a measly 0.311 slugging percentage against it, the lowest of any of his pitches per Brooks Baseball. But opponents were all over his fastball. Although he threw fastballs about 6% less of the time compared to 2015, when he did throw it, opponents pounded it to the tune of a 0.527 slugging percentage.
Opponents didn’t hit for power notably better than the past against either his slider or changeup, but the large spike against his fastball is telling. The aggregate numbers back this up as well; he surrendered 17 homers against his fastball, just two less than he did on all pitches the entirety of 2015. While a higher slugging percentage can be buoyed by more hits, isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average, can take away those effects. Archer’s numbers remain similar:
Why was Archer’s once plus-four seamer suddenly a liability in 2016? As the four-seam fastball is generally not a movement-heavy pitch, a change in movement is likely not the culprit, and the numbers show that the minimal movement on that pitch has stayed relatively constant over the past 3 seasons. Velocity, however, could be key. His fastball velocity dipped in 2016 while those of his slider and changeup increased, which meant that the gap between his gas and off speed offerings was not as large as it had been in seasons past. With velocity being one of Archer’s marquee attributes, even a slight dip could cause a drop in effectiveness:
A final thing to examine would be pitch location. Leaving pitches where hitters can attack them can lead to more hits and more solid contact. This, it seems, is especially germane to Archer’s longball tendencies. Despite keeping his breaking pitches in about the same zone and even getting his changeup down lower than in seasons past, his fastball crept up in the zone far higher than it ever had:
With his fastball up in the zone twice as high as the the 0.22 above vertical center he posted in 2015, it’s likely that it was more frequently coming in at a better eye level for hitters to square up and put a good swing on. The eye test tells the same story. Archer consistently appeared to struggle commanding his fastball with many of his misses flying higher than planned. For a pitcher who typically induces a higher than average ground ball and lower than average fly ball rate for his career, keeping the ball down in the zone is key. When he fails to do that, Archer is prone to running into some of the problems he experienced in 2016.
Overall, Archer’s 2016 was not disastrous by any means, and it could have been much worse (looking at you, Dallas Keuchel). It seems that if Archer can get his fastball back on track, both regaining some of the velocity he’s had in the past and keeping it down in the zone more, he will revert to the successes of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. If the Rays return guys like Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi, having Archer back in peak form would make him the anchor of a very solid pitching staff. Flashing that nasty slider and backing it up with a powerful fastball, Archer could find himself as the ace leading his team into a fight for a playoff berth out of the difficult AL East.