Chris Archer May Not Be Using His Best Out Pitch

In my piece on Jordan Zimmermann, I referenced Harry Pavlidis’ wonderful research into changeups. One of the primary findings of his research was that a bigger gap between fastball and changeup velocity generally leads to more whiffs, and you can trade whiffs for a few more grounders if you reduce the gap in velocity. Pavlidis specifically mentioned Chris Archer when detailing his findings, noting that Archer has the big fastball/change velocity gap (11 mph), but he doesn’t have the the big whiff/swing rate that other guys with a big velocity gap have. The explanation was that Archer wasn’t using his change in swinging counts very often, using it early in the count instead.

Pavlidis’ findings were published back in May, so I wanted to see if Archer changed his approach at any point in the 2013 season. Unfortunately, as the chart below will show, Archer continued to use his changeup more early in the count. The chart only shows his usage against left-handers because Archer almost never throws the change to right-handers.

Archer Change

I was hoping to find that maybe Archer started to go to the change more as his out pitch later in the year, but he actually used it less in two strike counts later in the year. In fact, he used his change a lot less in all counts in the last two months of the season. He’s still young, and it is possible he’ll develop the pitch and feel more comfortable using in swinging counts. If he does, look out. His already average strikeout rate and swinging strike rate could quickly become well above average. But for now there’s no reason to think such a change in his usage is going to happen.

Even though Archer isn’t using his changeup to what might be its full potential, he still has his slider as a pretty decent out pitch. As you can see in the chart above, his slider is his go-to two out pitch against left-handers, and it’s also his preferred pitch with two strikes when facing right-handers. As you can see below, he throws the pitch similarly to hitters on both sides of the plates. It’s always down and just a little more away to right-handers. He has a 17% whiff rate with his slider in two strike counts against hitters on both sides of the plate.

archer slider LHH

vs. LHH

archer slider rhh

vs. RHH

I bring all this up to sort of illustrate that I don’t see an obvious sign that Archer is going to improve his strikeout and swinging strike rates. He could do it with the changeup but doesn’t seem inclined to do so, and it would be hard for him to use the slider much more in swinging counts as he’s already using it close to half the time in those situations. And I think Archer needs to improve his “skill” numbers if you will to fight off a little regression that may be coming.

In his first 158 big league innings Archer has a .259 BABIP. I know that citing a low BABIP and automatically assuming regression is a mistake. But Archer is well outside the accepted BABIP range (roughly .270-.310). Over the last five years, only two of 179 qualified pitchers have a BABIP below .260. And typically the guys with repeatedly low BABIPs are either fly ball pitchers or studs like Clayton Kershaw. Archer has a ground ball rate that is higher than league average, and he certainly isn’t Kershaw. So his BABIP is going to regress. It’s possible that his BABIP continues to be better than league average because the Rays defense seems to help out the pitching staff in that department. Tampa had the fourth lowest staff BABIP last year and have the lowest BABIP over the last three years. That may help mitigate the regression, but some is coming nonetheless.

Unless Archer can figure out a way to improve his strikeout rate (cough changeups cough), I think it’s going to be hard for him to fight off the regression. I think his ERA is likely to tend towards his SIERA from last year (3.95) unless his skills improve. Or I should say, unless he chooses to deploy his skills differently. I think he may have the skill, I’m just not sure he is confident enough to use it yet. So over a full season, I expect Archer to win 12-13 games with an ERA in the high-threes, an average WHIP and an average strikeout rate. Those aren’t the numbers of a top 60-70 pitcher, so I’m not targeting him in mixed leagues. He’s a spot starter in mixed leagues and fourth or fifth starter in AL-only leagues.

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Pitchers like Verlander and more recently, Cole, seem like reasonable comps in that they had high velocity with plus breaking pitches, but only had mediocre K rates early on. I haven’t looked at the data, but it does seem like Velrander’s turning point came when his changeup developed into more of an out pitch, while Cole started using his slider with a higher frequency.