For a few hours on Monday, Chris Archer looked like an ace again. Now the only question is whether he can stay that way.

It’s a fair question in light of how Archer had previously been pitching. The Tampa Bay Rays right-hander ended 2015 with a 5.81 ERA over his last six starts, and he began 2016 with a 7.32 ERA in his first four starts. For a guy who was making a spirited run at the American League Cy Young with a 2.78 ERA through the end of last August, this is quite the fall.

This brings us to Monday’s welcome sight, in which Archer silenced the Baltimore Orioles with 6.2 innings of shutout ball to lead the Rays to a 2-0 win at Tropicana Field. He struck out 10, allowed five hits and walked not a soul.

The effort dropped Archer’s 2016 ERA to 5.47. And in the process of getting it there, he did look like his usual self in some key areas.

One thing Archer hasn’t had dating back to the end of 2015 is his best fastball velocity. As Brooks Baseball can show, his average release speed went from comfortably above 95 miles per hour to below 95 by last October, and opened right there again at 94.7 mph in his first four outings this year.

But against the Orioles, the average release speed on Archer’s fastball was up to 95.4 mph, and got as high as 98.2. His margin for error will go way up if he sustains that, and his history and his relative youth (he’s still only 27) allow for optimism that he will.

Although, how Archer was throwing his fastball wasn’t his biggest problem in his first four outings. As you can see from looking at the percentage of his fastballs in the strike zone compared to 2015, the bigger problem was where he was throwing it:

  • 2015: 51.7
  • 2016: 43.9

In a very much related story, Archer’s first-pitch strike percentage dropped from 64.1 last season to 51.0 in his first four starts of 2016.

Archer improved on both fronts against the Orioles. He threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 25 hitters he faced and, as Matt Synder also noticed at CBS Sports, “rarely missed [his] spots.” From looking at the graph of Archer’s pitches, he did indeed hit the zone with the majority of his heaters:

Cue a sigh of relief. After going into Monday with a rate of 5.5 walks per nine innings over his last 10 outings, Archer’s ongoing control problems have taken at least a one-game break.

The tricky part is it’s hard to tell how Archer accomplished this. His release point wasn’t entirely consistent throughout the game, but his history goes to show that inconsistency is generally the name of the game with his release point. That suggests something else must have clicked for him on Monday evening, in which case Archer and Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey must make sure it stays clicked.

If it does, that will solve one of his big problems. As for the other big one, well, let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth.

“I look back and I haven’t had my A slider yet,” Archer said last week, via Maureen Mullen of USA TODAY. “I’ve still had some pretty decent results, and I’m thinking that I can definitely use my changeup a little more. My fastball’s been OK, but I think at the end of the day the sharpness of my slider has been the difference maker with the balls that I’ve had damage on. They’re not-executed sliders, maybe some decent action but not in the right location.”

This is a slider former Rays ace David Price tweeted was “BY FAR” the best in baseball last year, but it has indeed been missing. After allowing just a .175 average on his slider in the first five months of 2015, hitters upped their average against it to .295 in his 10 starts since last September.

And against the Orioles, Archer’s best slider still wasn’t quite there. Its average release speed of 88.2 mph is short of the roughly 90 mph he was averaging at his peak in 2015, and he was up in the zone with it too much. Not surprisingly, the Orioles put more sliders in play (six) than they swung and missed at (five). 

The bright side, though, is Archer made good on his bright idea to throw his changeup more often.

He balanced his 26 sliders with 20 changeups, which is a lot for a guy who generally disregards his changeup. Even better, his changeups drew six whiffs thanks to action that got a seal of approval from Rays catcher Curt Casali. He spoke to Joey Knight of the Tampa Bay Times after the game:

Whether Archer even needs his best slider is a good question to begin with, as he was able to open the season with 29 strikeouts in 19.2 innings anyway. But if he’s now going to start working more changeups into his pitch mix, it’s an even better question. 

Archer’s changeup will likely never be as nasty as his slider was at its peak, but that won’t matter if he forces hitters into keeping an eye out for both pitches. As he teased on Monday, simply mixing and matching the two pitches could lead to just as many whiffs as his best slider ever could. 

In all, there would be a more gloomy tune to sing if Archer’s domination of the Orioles had consisted of him skating by on good luck amidst flat stuff and poor control. But that’s not what happened. His best slider’s ongoing absence means we still can’t welcome back the old Chris Archer, but better fastball velocity and command combined with new-found faith in his changeup means we can say hello to a new Chris Archer who may be just as good as the old one.

He’ll need a few more starts in his new skin before he’s out of the woods. But at the very least, Archer just took a big step in the right direction. 


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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