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Rays ace Chris Archer continued to struggle in 2017

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What led to him being “not quite right” these past two seasons

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With a full 162-game season to look back on now, it’s clear that 2017 was another strange year for Chris Archer.

The definitive number one starter of the Rays certainly looked like an ace at times, but he ended the season with a very un-ace-like 4.07 ERA. It was the second straight season his ERA topped 4.00, and although one can point to his FIP (3.40) and xFIP (3.35) as signs that he deserved better results than he got, there’s no magical Time Turner that will go back and shave off eight to ten of the runs Archer actually allowed that hurt the Rays during the season.

On the positive side, it was the third straight season Archer reached 200 innings pitched, and his 11.15 K/9 was the highest of his career. But again, something just felt lacking from Archer being a quote-unquote ace. Let’s look at a few reasons why.

Late-game woes

For my money, this goes first on this list because I believe it is a massive factor, and also because it’s so dang easy to fix. Take a look at this chart, via Baseball-Reference:

Archer ERA by inning

Split IP ERA
Split IP ERA
Innings 1-3 99.0 3.91
Innings 4-6 87.2 3.29
Innings 7-9 14.1 10.05

For anyone who has watched Archer this season, the above chart is no surprise. Archer tends to struggle to find his groove early in the game, then gets locked in during the middle innings, only to have Cash leave him in too long, and he gives up a couple runs in the seventh to ruin what would be an otherwise strong outing.

The worst case scenario was the Orioles game on April 24, when Archer gave up homers to three of five batters and Cash still left him in the game, but it seemed to happen every other time out there. Here’s another chart that says almost the same thing:

Archer ERA by times through the order

Split IP ERA
Split IP ERA
1st time through order 71.1 4.04
2nd time through order 75.1 2.75
3rd time through order 50.2 4.97
4th time through order 3.2 19.64

Sure, the historical baseball thought is that you want your “ace” to being able to give you at least seven innings each time out — and the Rays bullpen struggles hamstrung Cash’s ability to remove starters as early as he might have wanted at times this season — but at some point you need to look at the numbers and realize a decision has to be made. If Archer had simply never appeared in a seventh inning this season, his ERA would have been a far more palatable 3.62 this season.

This is far from a one-season phenomenon. If Archer had exited every game in the sixth or earlier last season, his ERA would have dropped from 4.02 to 3.68.

Now, this is clearly a loaded proposition. It strains the bullpen more, and it can often be difficult talking a pitcher into coming out of a game in which he is cruising after six innings, but Archer is a smart guy. Sit him down, show him the numbers, and he should be on board. If you need to add an extra bullpen arm, or if you need to start abusing the 10-day DL like the Dodgers do, that’s fine with me. Put your ace in a position to help the team as well as he can.

Road woes

Here’s another issue that has bugged Archer for each of the past two seasons:

Archer home/road splits

Year Home IP Home ERA Road IP Road ERA
Year Home IP Home ERA Road IP Road ERA
2016 102.0 2.65 99.1 5.44
2017 105.0 3.26 96.0 4.97

Archer’s road woes were actually slightly mitigated in 2017, but he still had a far bigger gap than the average pitcher in baseball (in 2017, pitchers had a 4.14 ERA at home and 4.59 ERA on the road). Of course, this is a far more difficult issue to solve.

The Rays could try to set up Archer more times at home than on the road when looking at the 2018 schedule, and maybe they could bring in some sleep specialists or something to look at what is throwing off Archer on the road, but there’s likely not going to be a silver bullet to solve the issue of Archer’s struggles away from the Trop.

This is going to have to be one Archer solves on his own.

Slight velo drop

This is may be reaching a bit since Archer still averaged nearly 96 miles per hour on his four-seamer in 2017, but over the past four seasons, his highest fastball velocity came in the same season he allowed the lowest slugging percentage off his fastball. His lowest fastball velocity came the season he allowed the highest slugging percentage off his fastball, per Brooks Baseball:

Still, Archer’s fastball had the sixth-fastest speed in 2017, according to FanGraphs, so it’s hard to nitpick much here.

The FIP gap

So far all of this analysis has centered around Archer’s actual run prevention. However, if we zoom back for a second and take the Voros McCracken sabermetric approach to analyzing a pitcher, 2017 actually doesn’t look that bad. If we remove batted-ball and home-run-to-fly-ball luck, in 2017, Archer was as strong as any non-2015 season of his career:

Archer xFIP by season

Year xFIP
Year xFIP
2013 3.91
2014 3.70
2015 3.01
2016 3.41
2017 3.35

Many smart baseball fans weigh xFIP much heavier than ERA, and with good reason. The stat has been proven to be more predictive of future seasons than ERA, and it takes a lot of noise out of the equation. At the same time, Archer has run an ERA notably higher than his xFIP each of the past three seasons (basically since the potentially juiced baseball came into play), and while xFIP is great in theory, they still don’t give wins and losses in the real MLB standings on xFIP and the like.

Is it possible that Archer’s higher velocity makes him potentially more of a victim of the juiced ball than other pitchers? The results are split for the rest of the flame-throwers in baseball, and given that teams are still looking to load their pen with harder and harder throwers, this doesn’t seem the most logical conclusion.

One thing is clear: Rays fans will be looking for a bit more from Archer in 2018. Whether that comes as the result of Cash tempering his late-game use, Archer figuring out his struggles away from the Trop, or MLB going back to a less-juiced baseball, another season with an ERA over 4.00 would be disappointing for the Rays ace.