In Cincinnati last week, Chris Archer did something most starting pitchers don???t do: he had a second bullpen session between starts. In it, he threw nothing but fastballs. Afterwards, his catcher for the day, Jacob Stallings, told him to be aggressive with his heaters during his next start. Archer did just that, and he turned in his best outing in weeks, going seven innings. His two-seamer got plenty of outs, with Brewers batters going 0-8 against it.
It???s the type of start the Pirates were starved for, especially from Archer. Their biggest splash in decades has been a belly-flop to this point. He may not have been elite anymore at the time of the deal, posting ERAs a hair over 4 each season from 2016 to July 2018, but his FIP was consistently in the mid-3s. By getting him out of the AL East and letting him face a pitcher once out of every nine at-bats, that FIP seemed obtainable, even with the worries about his diminishing slider. 200+ innings of mid-3 ERA is not sexy, but incredibly valuable.
But what if could be better? Treat him not as a finished product, but a reclamation project lite. And what better pitch to spark that reclamation project with than a two-seamer? Travis Sawchik wrote a whole book about the Pirates’ love affair with the two-seam. They have moved away from it a bit in recent years, but it???s certainly still on the menu. ??Archer has certainly thrown it often since coming to Pittsburgh, with Baseball Savant categorizing 21.7% of his pitches this year as a two-seam. No Pirate has thrown a sinking fastball more times than him.
Unfortunately, the ???fix??? has been detrimental to Archer. Even with that 0-8 performance against the Brewers, his two-seamer has been hit harder than any of his other pitches in years. Based on wOBA, it’s irrefutable.
If you???re looking for some good news for Archer, his changeup has greatly improved this year. The four-seam is also trending in the right direction. Meanwhile, the slider continues to dwindle, but those concerns are secondary to the two-seamer. 91 pitchers across baseball have had at least 20 PAs end on a two-seam fastball. Archer???s .492 wOBA is the sixth worst of that group. His .706 slugging percentage allowed is fourth worst. Again, it???s worth remembering that includes the eight outs he got with it against the Brewers. When I started drafting this post last week, it was even worse.
Let???s talk about that 0-8 in the Brewers game. It could, theoretically, be a turning point game for the pitch. It also could be another red flag. Four two-seamers left the bat at over 98 MPH in that game. He???s allowed a lot of hard contact on his sinking fastball since coming off the IL. On Friday, they just happened to be hit right at fielders.
Let???s revisit the year by year chart for his pitches, this time examining expected wOBA.
This paints a more damning picture for Archer???s fastballs, especially the two-seamer. Again, among pitchers who have had at least 20 plate appearances end on a two-seamer, his .529 xwOBA is the second worst. As bad as his results with the pitch have been, they probably should be worse.
And that???s just results and expected results. All of his problems can???t be all blamed on one pitch, but the pros of the two-seamer are getting first pitch strikes and ground balls. Archer is not doing either one of those things well in 2019.
The irony is that, in a way, the Pirates are also right. Archer???s two-seamer may be a liability, but vertical movement turned out to be a great tool for sequencing pitches. Or at least it was for a time. Take his slider, for example. This is its pitch breakdown this year.
There were 26 instances in April where he followed a two-seamer with a slider in the same at-bat. That sequence was lethal.
11 whiffs on 15 swings. A 57% called strike-whiff rate. The slider was as good as it had ever been, but that changed once he came off the IL.
No called strikes and a huge drop in whiffs are not good signs. Now Archer???s slider hasn???t been as potent in May in general, so this might be a chicken-egg conundrum. We???re also dealing with some pretty small sample sizes, so perhaps it???s best to look at the averages instead. Either way, he???s still going to this combo multiple times per game, and it???s not working as well now.
Archer???s slider plays best when paired with a pitch that changes eye sight from up to down. The two-seamer did the job for a bit, but not anymore, not to mention it has been a damper. But when Archer came to Pittsburgh, the two-seamer wasn???t his only option to get vertical movement. He also brought a curveball.
Archer has only thrown a handful of curves this season, maxing out at four in a single game. That game happened to be his start against the Nationals where he went seven innings of one run ball. It was arguably his best performance as a Buc. Now it would take some pretty serious galaxy brain thinking to say he was excellent that start because he threw it four times rather than just once and twice, but there are two sequences from that game that are worth examining.
The first is against Matt Adams. In that first pitch of the AB, he drops a curve in for a strike.
He then offers Adams a handful of fastballs and changeups before going to the slider for the first time with two strikes. Adams is able to identify the pitch as the breaking ball, but this time it breaks horizontally instead of just vertically. As a result, he gets under it and pops out.
The second at-bat is against Wilmer Difo. He starts the at-bat with a whiff on the curve.
And he ends it with a whiff on a slider. Archer hangs this pitch, but he gets away with it because Difo doesn???t expect it to break that way.
Archer has thrown curves almost exclusively to left-handers so far. That could work, especially since Archer???s two-seamer is better against righties. It???s still not particularly good, but it more or less falls in line with what his four-seamer is expected to yield. That could work as a purpose pitch.
Vertical movement could be the answer for getting the best out of Archer, but so far, it has been the main reason why he???s been a replacement level pitcher for two months. Perhaps it would be best to abandon the two-seamer all together. After all, Archer might not have been reaching his potential from 2016-2018, but he was still worth 10 fWAR in that stretch. That sounds pretty nice right now. Huntington has already sunk a lot into Archer with the belief a two-seamer could help him reach another gear. Hopefully this isn’t a hill he’s willing to die on.