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Chris Archer, Matt Garza, and the slider revolution in Tampa Bay

Trailblazing a new “Rays Way”

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

How do you measure a pitcher’s impact on a team? Is his impact equal to his WAR total? Is it about performance in big moments—should we look to Win Probability Added? Or do some pitchers do more for an organization than can be captured in the numbers, coming in and altering their team in a basic way, and leaving it better than it was when they arrived?

To measure Chris Archer’s impact on the Rays, you have to go back to the man the Rays traded away to get him.

Free Matt Garza

Matt Garza was a complete pitcher.

Matt Garza, 2010

He threw both four-seam and two-seam fastballs that sat in the low 90s but could easily reach into the mid-90s (fastballs were slower then, this meant Garza threw HARD). He threw a straight changeup that was ten miles per hour slower than his fastball. He threw a mid-to-high 80s slider with two-plane break, and he topped it all off with a mid-70s 11-5 curve.

Garza was a solid three-WAR player in 2008 and 2009, and a two-WAR player in 2010. He threw the first and so far only no-hitter in team history. Before the 2011 season he was traded to the Cubs, along with Fernando Perez, for Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer, Sam Fuld, and Robinson Chirinos.

Then in 2011, with his new team, Matt Garza pitched 198 innings with a 3.32 ERA, a 2.95 FIP, and a 3.19 xFIP, good for a full five WAR, well better than anything he had done with the Rays. He accomplished that by doing something different.

I don’t know why the Rays had Garza throw fewer sliders than the Cubs did. There was some rumblings at the time that sliders were bad for arms, and that the Rays were trying to prevent pitcher injuries. I also remember Joe Maddon talking a lot, with relation to Garza as well as for other Rays pitchers, about the importance of a well-located fastball. I’m not in a position to say that the Rays were wrong and that the Cubs were right—that’s a complex question, and we don’t get to compare Garza’s sample 2011 season to a control 2011 season with the Rays—but what I can say is that the slider was Garza’s best pitch (easily tops by whiff rate), he left the Rays in 2011 and immediately threw more of them, and while doing so he put up a career season.

Replace Matt Garza

Garza was a good pitcher. So far, Chris Archer has been a better one. Here they are with their best years stacked against each other (keep in mind that Archer’s career is not done).

And here they are compared by age (keep in mind that Archer’s age-29 season is not done).

While the Rays missed out on Garza’s peak, they got a player with a higher (and just counting his time with the Rays, already longer) peak in return.

Now Chris Archer’s changeup is better than you think it is, but he is not “a complete pitcher” in the way that Garza was.

Chris Archer, 2015

Rather, he is someone who challenges the platonic ideal of what a frontline starter looks like. There’s really only one way to handle a pitcher like Archer.

“Does your slider sit in the high 80s and reach 90 mph with sharp two-plane break? Yes? Okay throw that. A lot.”

Rinse, Wash, Repeat

Once upon a time, James Shields, Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, and a collection of other less obvious (David Price) and less noteworthy (Wesley Wright) pitchers made the Rays A Changeup Team.

“The Rays Way is to develop a good changeup and then throw it to batters of both handedness, on both sides of the plate,” we said.

Once upon a time, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Jake McGee, and a collection of other less obvious (Matt Moore) and less noteworthy (Steve Geltz) pitchers made the Rays A Four-Seam Fastball Team.

“The Rays Way is to take a high-spin rising four-seam fastball and then throw it up in the zone,” we said.

If you clicked on those links, you will have figured out one of my approaches as a baseball observer, which is that organizational philosophy is most apparent on the margins.

Yes, if you have Chris Archer, you’re going to have him throw his slider. Yes, if you have Sergio Romo, you’re going to have him throw his slider. Yes, if you have Chaz Roe, you’re going to have him throw his slider. But at some point you should step back and wonder why all of a sudden you have Romo and Roe. Then maybe you’ll wonder why, of all the pitches he threw as a starter, Alex Colome came to rely on his hard cutter (90 mph with two-plane break, sometimes mistaken for a slider) once he transitioned to the bullpen. And then maybe you’ll look to the margins, where you find guys like Andrew Kittredge and Vidal Nuno.

Vidal Nuno is a complete pitcher.

Vidal Nuno, 2018

He’s just not a very good one.

Nuno has always been on the margins of major league baseball, but his mid-80s slider is a legitimate major league pitch. The Rays signed him to a minor league contract this offseason, and then promoted him to the majors when they needed someone to soak up a few innings. His 4.11 career ERA and 4.50 2018 FIP suggests that his 1.50 ERA in 2018 is a small sample size mirage of smoke and mirrors, but the observation here is not that Vidal Nuno is the next big thing—rather, it’s that the Rays had him pitch in a particular way.

They took him from being a slider-heavy pitcher to being an EXTREMELY slider-heavy pitcher.

Chris Archer’s Rays Legacy

I’m inventing a narrative here, and I admit it’s possible that I have it wrong, but I think that if a young Matt Garza was promoted from Triple-A Durham tomorrow, he would have his career year in Tampa Bay. The league is in a different place than it was ten years ago, and the Rays, whose pitching program has often been on the cutting edge, have changed along with it.

Rays pitchers still throw inside changeups and high four-seam fastballs. They also throw lots and lots of sliders. The lesson Chris Archer, a pitcher with a very unique and specific set of gifts, taught the Rays is that there are many correct ways to pitch.

Nowadays, that Chris Archer slider is baked into the DNA of the Rays pitching program, even if Archer himself is gone and no one else can actually throw it. And putting pitch types aside, every time the Rays get the best out of a pitcher by meeting him where he is, rather than forcing him into a specific Rays mold, that might have something to do with Archer as well.