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What would it take for Chris Archer to be elite?

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He can flash dominance, but he’s given up too many runs.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Archer has been somewhat of an enigma for the past couple years. You think a few things of him instantly: He has ace stuff — but with ERAs over four the past two years, not the ace numbers to back it up — and he’s young.

Hold on, he’s almost 30?

He’s almost 30.

So, when should we expect Archer to prevent runs like an ace? To be honest with you, I really don’t know. But there are a couple places where every discussion of Archer has to start, so let’s start there.

How About That Change-up?

As a prospect, Archer had control issues. The Rays helped him iron those out, and then the big pitching development question with him became about adding a change-up. That’s been the conversation around Archer for about five years now. Yet, nothing has really happened. You’ve seen him throw his change-up here and there, but it’s never been fully integrated into his repertoire.

In 2017, he threw only 285 of them. That comes out to roughly 8% of his pitches. Hitters batted .340 against the changeup, and while they didn’t really display much power against it (.057 ISO), Archer and the Rays probably decided that it would serve him best if he just didn’t throw it much. There’s nothing wrong with that, considering Archer can hit 99 mph when he wants to, and his slider is as good as any slider in the game today. It’s his third best pitch by a wide margin.

The more interesting question is this: what’s wrong with the change-up?

If we want to be to very literal here, it just doesn’t really change-up. By that I mean, it looks like an 86-mph fastball that happens to have some vertical movement at the end. It’s like it happens by accident.

Using the Pitch F/X tool, over at Brooks Baseball, compare Archer’s change-up to that of several other pitchers with “good” change-ups:

Changeup Comparison

Name Velocity (mph) Vertical Movement (in.)
Name Velocity (mph) Vertical Movement (in.)
Chris Archer 86.19 4.63
Marco Estrada 78.35 9.64
Luis Castillo 87.79 2.04
Jharel Cotton 78.34 4.3
Brooks Baseball

We all know Estrada and Cotton have world-class changeups. Luis Castillo of the Reds also has a very good changeup himself. The profiles of Cotton/Estrada don’t quite match with Castillo’s, but both pitchers are able use the changeup to their advantage. Archer matches up with Cotton in vertical movement, and is closer to Castillo in terms of velocity. In fact, Castillo throws his changeup harder than Archer, but without the same vertical movement.

The point here is really that there isn’t *one* specific way that changeups are best thrown. Charcteristics and effectiveness depend on the arm, the spin, and the velocity. It’s something that differs from pitcher to pitcher.

However, being that there are some similarities between Archer and pitchers who throw very good changeups, one might assume that he could maybe throw a half-decent one himself.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Like I said earlier, it’s almost as if he’s accidentally throwing this thing. His entire body slows down, and it becomes obvious to the hitter that something hittable is coming. That’s supposed to be a change-up. It looks like a BP fastball.

Luis Castillo, on the other hand, gets some very good spin on the ball. He’s able to get his changeup to break, and that’s even without the usual “10-mph rule,” which states that a pitcher should try to throw his change-up 10 mph slower than his fastball. It’s just a really good change-up that’s able to catch hitters off balance.

The fact that Archer still doesn’t have a serviceable change-up is concerning, even though he’s found some success already with his current offerings. Starting pitchers usually thrive on three pitches. So, what will happen if one of Archer’s main pitches falter?

Given that he’s aging with every pitch he throws, should he put more effort into developing and working in his change-up, to give himself more room for error? I think so, but that’s almost a philosophical question around how you approach decline, and hopefully one that Archer won’t have to face for some time yet.

But a warning.

The Fastball Is Getting Hit

I’m not done yet though; there’s one more thing I want to bring your attention to: .285/.365/.517.

Opposing hitters triple slashed that line against Archer’s fastball in 2017.

That is not good at all. If Archer is so dependent on two pitches, how can he continue to maintain success, or hope to improve, when one of them is getting hit this hard? And why is it being hit?

I don’t actually think it has much to do with any sort of performance decline. In fact, his velocity didn’t have any noticeable downturns in 2017 other than a one game dip in Chicago late in the season (where he was pulled in the 1st).

Most of Archer’s problems had to do with what seem like random lapses in fastball command, and perhaps with an inability to adjust to the swings of each individual hitter.

Take this GIF as an example.

Why is Jacoby Ellsbury getting a 2-0 cookie? He’s not the Ellsbury of 2011 anymore, but any hitter with a flat and leveled swing has a good chancce to rope that somewhere. You’d expect Archer to work someone like Ellsbury a little higher in the zone, or in on his hands. Make it harder for these guys to get to you. Use their swing to your advantage.

Let’s try one more.

Lonnie Chisenhall is a notorious upper-cut swinger. Why is he getting a 2-1 pitch right in his wheelhouse? Down-and-in to lefties is most likely to result in one of two things:

  1. A 450 foot foul ball
  2. A 450 foot dinger

Not ideal. This is where you want your pitcher to go up, up and up. Pound him up, man. Archer throws hard enough that he can get away with a mistake up in the zone.

I do want to point out that Archer wasn’t intending to go there. Norris was set up low and away. That’s lower risk than down and in, but I still don’t think it’s playing to Archer’s strength and to the hitter’s weakness.

Conclusion

This isn’t a shot at Archer or Norris, but rather a question about the plan they were following, both on the level of the season and the career, and on the level of the individual game. Pitching is an odd combination of a certain overall level of ability and pitch quality expressed through singular, discreet events.

On the macro level, Archer, working with two plus-plus pitches, can perform at a very high level but he doesn’t have a lot of room for error. Finally developing his much-discussed changeup would give him more.

On the micro level, one of his two “plus-plus” pitches isn’t working consistently enough, and that’s leading to some bad results. Better execution and location would help with this, although there’s also an argument for Archer pulling a Lance McCullers, and throwing his best pitch, the slider, more.

For all of his Rays career, Chris Archer has been the charge of pitching coach Jim Hickey, but he is now gone, and it’s Kyle Snyder’s job to help Archer reach his full potential as an ace (or to remain a viable starting pitcher, depending on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist).

It should be an interesting 2018.