Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer lived up to expectations in 2014. While Archer’s performance during his rookie season was strong, there were still some questions about his ability moving forward. His 3.22 ERA was strong, but his 4.07 FIP indicated things weren’t as rosy as they appeared. On top of that, there were questions about Archer’s ability to retain a manageable walk rate. There was also the issue of Archer relying on mostly two pitches, which led to some unfavorable numbers against left-handers.
Archer put most of those concerns to bed in 2014. There was no regression due to luck. In fact, Archer’s ERA and FIP nearly matched. While his walk rate did jump slightly, it remained at an acceptable level. And lefties, well, they were hardly an issue the second time around.
Left-handers really were a problem for Archer during his rookie season. That year, Archer allowed a .211 wOBA against righties, but a .346 wOBA against lefties. Southpaws were able to tee off on Archer frequently, with 13 of his 15 home runs coming against left-handed hitters. In 2013, lefties slugged .471 against Archer. If Archer was going to see any improvement during his sophomore season, he would have to figure out a way to at least limit left-handers.
Like a number of recent pitchers, Archer was able to succeed by showing an increased reliance in his sinker. Archer relied primarily on his four-seam fastball in 2013, throwing it 42.67% of the time, according to BrooksBaseball.net. That number fell to 24.79% in 2014. The sinker was the main beneficiary. Archer went from using the pitch 17.60% of the time in 2013 to throwing the sinker 41.07% of the time in 2014. Pitchers have different reasons for utilizing the sinker, but most of the time, the player is looking for either more movement, or more grounders. Archer was able to get both. His four-seam fastball doesn’t get a ton of movement, so opting to go with a sinker helped in that regard. On top of that, the pitch did get more grounders than his four-seamer.
The pitch made a huge difference against southpaws. Left-handers teed up Archer’s four seam fastball in 2013, hitting .299 against it, with a .525 slugging percentage. The sinker limited lefties to a .259 average and a .344 slugging percentage in 2014. The pitch didn’t produce mind-blowing ground ball numbers, but it was an improvement over his four-seam fastball in that regard. This doesn’t really show up when looking at Archer’s stat page, as his ground ball rate remained the same. It’s worth noting that he actually posted a career-low fly ball rate last season, though that came at the expense of more line drives.
Overall, the sinker worked in a number of ways for Archer. Archer isn’t known for having the greatest changeup, so finding another weapon against lefties is a significant development. On top of that, the pitch’s ground ball tendencies may have helped Archer cut his home run rate by nearly five percent.
There are still some concerns moving forward. Archer’s walk rate doesn’t leave a big margin for error, and any decline there could sink his promise. That said, Archer’s ability to adjust can’t be discounted. If 2014 is any indication, Archer will find ways to improve on his weaknesses. Neutralizing lefties was just the start.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.