It has been a miserable month of Pirates baseball. Between the fight in Cincy, Josh Bell’s OPS going into free fall, barely getting anything back at the trade deadline, and, oh yeah, seven straight series losses, there’s been little to celebrate since the All-Star game. Starling Marte and Felipe Vazquez can keep their heads held high for how they have performed since the break, as can some of the younger kids. And, to a lesser extent, so can Chris Archer.
I did a little research on Archer and discovered he came to Pittsburgh about a year ago in some sort of trade. Interesting. I wonder if anyone has written anything about that trade. Regardless, he has some really ugly season stats. So ugly, in fact, that you might have missed he’s been pitching pretty well lately. All he had to do was take my advice and ditch his two-seam fastball. In the days leading up to his start against the San Diego Padres on June 22, Archer told Jacob Stallings he was not going to throw any two-seamers. He didn't, and he turned in five innings of two hit, one run ball. He has not thrown a two-seamer (or sinker) since.
Since June 22, Archer has pitched to a 4.60 ERA and 4.78 FIP over eight starts. That's a large enough sample size to get an idea of how he's performed over roughly a quarter of the season, but small enough where one bad start- or even one bad inning- can throw off the data. Archer had such an inning on July 28, allowing six runs- five earned- in the first. He muscled through to give the Pirates five innings that day, but it was a lost cause. If you omit that one inning, Archer has recorded a 3.64 ERA since June 22. If you throw away the start as a whole, he has a 4.03 ERA since then. It may be cheating to cherry pick one blemish, but even if you look at all the warts, the peripherals have been much better.
His strikeout rate is trending up, going from 23.9% when the two-seamer was in the repertoire to 28.5%. That is within a fraction of a percent of his career best 2017 and 2015 strikeout clips. His whiff rate these last eight starts has been 13.6%- putting him back in line with his previous season totals. More whiffs, more strikeouts and a slight decrease in walks means his xwOBA has dropped from .381 to a better than league average .312. He’s been good for a month and a half. Try to forget what it took to acquire him. Having a good pitcher in the rotation is better than having a replacement level one.
I’m not the first to talk about how Archer has been pitching better lately, but this isn’t the Chris Archer of old. He’s been getting his best results with his fastball. The improvement is undeniable. Compare his fastball results (both four and two-seam) before ditching the sinker vs. after.
It’s night and day. Not only was Archer’s two-seamer failing by itself, it seemed to have an effect on his four-seamer. He is benefiting from outpacing his expected stats, but his x-stats are still good across the board. It’s hard to argue with a 300 point drop in slugging percentage and a 170 point decrease in expected and actual wOBA.
To put some context for his fastball turnaround, let’s look at how he compares to other starters. Through June 21, 172 starting pitchers had at least 50 plate appearances end with a fastball. Archer had a .443 wOBA with his heaters at the time, putting him in 156th place. He was in the bottom 10% among major league starters. From June 22 through Aug. 3 (the last day available while I was writing), 176 starting pitchers have had at least 20 PA end with a fastball, and Archer’s .273 fastball wOBA is 18th best in that time frame. He’s gone from having a bottom 10% fastball to a top 10% fastball, at least in terms of results.
Of course, there are some caveats to his newfound fastball success. The most notable is location. He is going up in the zone more, which is good since he gets better whiff percentages there, but he also has hung more down the pipe.
On fastballs over the heart of the plate, Archer has gotten away with a .229 wOBA allowed. Going based on the quality of contact he has surrendered on pitches there, his estimated wOBA is nearly 100 points higher. That is unsustainable.
The other concern is while his fastball is arguably the best it has ever been, it has not elevated his other pitches. It’s been well documented that Archer’s slider has been diminishing for years. That continues to be the case in 2019, reaching the point of being downright average. I wrote in my first Archer piece that his sinker and slider played well off each other for a time. Losing the sinking fastball has not hurt his slider results, but it also has not helped (.304 xwOBA before, .305 since). How to get Archer’s slider back is the million dollar question. He got great results with it for years with a poor fastball. It seems logical that it should be doing better with an improved fastball to pair it with. The changeup has also regressed, but a few homers off hung pitches and small sample sizes may be the culprits.
I ended my first Archer piece by saying that while the 2015 Archer is most likely gone, the 2016-2018 Archer was not too far removed. Amazingly, all it took was for him to stop throwing the pitch he didn’t use from 2016-2018 to get back to his 2016-2018 form. The walks and home runs are alarming, but he’s getting weaker contact and more whiffs while letting fewer people touch home. He’s been a good pitcher since he went back to his old style of pitching. The Pirates may have given up an ace’s haul to get him, but after this season, having Archer be a good, not outstanding pitcher going forward sounds ok.