Among 2015's breakout pitchers, one of the most exciting to watch was the Tampa Bay's 27 year old, Chris Archer. In his first season eclipsing 200 innings pitched at the Major League level, he posted a 3.23 ERA backed by a 1.14 WHIP en route to a 5th place finish in the American League Cy Young race.
Can he do it again?
As I dug deeper into his advanced pitching metrics, nothing immediately made me uneasy about his ability to repeat this stellar performance in 2016. For example...
- Great Lefty/Righty Splits - Lefties batted .222 against him while righties slightly lower at .218. He struck out 31% of lefties he faced and 32% of the righties he faced. Simply put, he can get hitters out from both sides of the plate. If a manager is preparing a lineup card to face Archer, stacking lefties against him won't make for a tougher matchup.
- Good Home/Road Splits - There's no comparison to the curious case of Julio Teheran (notoriously polar home v road splits in 2015). He's effective away from Tropicana as well as in his element, evidenced by an ERA only better by .24 in favor of his home park, and an average only 15 points higher on the road.
- Effective Repertoire - Archer's 4 pitch mix of a 4-seam fastball, 2-seam fastball, changeup, and his lights out slider were all better than average in 2015 (Above average meaning in the positives for Fangraph's standardized pitch weights, a useful formula that determines pitch effectiveness based off run expectancy for different counts and situations). It's often cited that once a pitcher develops a 'plus' third pitch he becomes a whole new animal to take on as a hitter. An extreme example of a starting pitcher on the other end of this theory is Archie Bradley, who threw his fastball-curveball combo 97.2% of the time. Not surprisingly, by the end of his 2015 campaign, both pitches were lower than average in effectiveness (both negative numbers for Fangraph's standardized pitch weights). Archer has 4 pitches he throws for strikes, consistently, and as a fan this has to make you confident in his ability.
So what exactly invited Archer to the proverbial table of elite pitchers in 2015 that he didn't do in his near 195 innings in 2014?
While I can't pinpoint exactly what caused hitters to strike out 252 times against him, awarding him the 4th best K/9 in baseball, what I can see is his jump from a two seam fastball being his primary weapon (47% usage in 2014, which falls to 10.6% in 2015) to a simple four seamer (44% usage, up about 24% in 2015).
He also used his devastating slider of his 10.5% more in 2015 than he did in 2014. For benchmarking, going back to Fangraph's standardized pitch weights, Archer was more effective with his slider (based off specifically this statistic) than two greats of the game in the National League, Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw. Archer's standardized slider pitch weight was 1.68, while Bumgarner and Kershaw lagged behind slightly at 1.63 and 1.62 respectively.
Did Archer get Tired?
With all this domination in mind, the one question I seek to find an answer to is what happened down the stretch to his performance...
With a consistent workload even into late September, Archer began to struggle. The scariest thing being the falloff in his control, or K/BB ratios, which sat at 5.32 for his first three months of work and then tanked to 1.45 in his 31 September and October innings. I would argue that a combination of his innings workload as well as hitters adjusting later in the year to his repertoire both contributed to his struggles.
I'm not saying Archer wasn't conditioned well, as to get to the major league level pique physical shape is assumed. Yet Archer never eclipsed 200 innings with this advanced a set of pitches, and after nearly a half a year of domination, I am in no way disappointed or surprised of this tail off. I actually believe that with the late struggles of 2015 behind him, he now has a much better idea of how to pace himself for innings 180 to 210+ going into 2016, while not sacrificing his performance in the first 5 months of the season.
On the hitters side of things, Archer wasn't able to get the same amount of swinging strikes when compared to his early months of the year. Most notably, he put together a 4 game stretch from September 11th to the 26th where his swinging strike % was below 10% in each start. For comparison, in his first 15 starts he only had a swinging strike % below 10% three times, and never more than twice in a row. Unfortunately, Archer lost his ability to deceive, specifically with the great slider of his that put him on the map early in 2015.
Yet even after acknowledging these minor negatives, I expect Archer to excel in 2016. There's no major reason to think his slider will lose its effectiveness, and I wouldn't be surprised if he put in more time this offseason polishing up his fastball and changeup.
I'll pin him for 215 IP with 255 strikeouts and 60 walks to go along with a nice 3.10 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. A slight improvement from last year that I think will come from his ability to execute later in the season and showcase his hopefully improved 4 seam fastball and changeup.