The Tampa Bay Rays have reportedly been shopping their starting pitching, a move that I called for back in May. The Rays have more than enough pitching, but lack the position players to compete in the very difficult AL East. Their team just doesn’t quite all fit together. I guess that’s what happens when you’re poor and are constantly collecting items that other people have seemingly failed to value properly.
Think about it: does a homeless man ever seem to have a full wardrobe or ensemble? No, his shiny new shoes might look fly, but they’ll be paired with socks that have seen better days. The Rays have always had Evan Longoria as their shiny new shoes, and they seem to constantly pair that with a supa-fly button-down shirt of a rotation, but lack the run-scoring pant’s, socks, and underwear necessary to support it. That the approach has led to a last place standing here in 2016.
With news that they’re shopping Archer, it would appear that their thinking evolving: they’re trying to swap that swanky button-down for a nice T-shirt, and set themselves up with a decent pair of pants that will score some runs. It makes sense to me (and I hope you followed that analogy).
Analogies aside, the bigger issue Chris Archer, his 2016 season, and what he might command on the market.
Archer currently sports a 4.42 ERA and leads the league in losses. That’s the type of guy who wouldn’t fetch much in return. But those two basic stats fail to highlight Archer’s overall package. The guy currently leads the league in strikeouts, with 155 in 130 innings. He’s 27 now, and coming off of a 5th place Cy Young performance last year. He’s signed through 2021 on a very reasonable contract, and is still chucking his fastball in there at an average of 94.1 mph.
When the rumors cropped up that Archer was being shopped, plenty of teams started doing their homework. They were, and likely still are, trying to determine if he’s the pitcher that had the baseball world abuzz last year, or if he’s like a really nice and likable AJ Burnett. Let’s do our homework along with those other teams.
The first thing to understand about Archer is that he’s simply been wildly inconsistent. Below are his single game ERA’s for the season (thanks Fangraphs!). You’ll notice that good performances are followed by bad ones, or vice versa. He’s been all over the place. That’s way more frustrating for fans, Archer, and evaluators than if he were simply good/bad.
OK, we’ve established that he’s been inconsistent, but I really wanted to find out why. I went to Statcast and started playing around, looking for anything that could help explain these fluctuations. I looked at all kinds of stuff: Velocity differences, straight velocity, perceived velocity, spin rate, spin rate differences across pitches, pitch selection. None of them correlated very well with Archer’s Game Scores. I used game scores, because that combines his ERA with other predictors of success, like walks, strikeouts, and hits allowed into a single metric.
The one thing that I found that appears to predict success? Well, it’s seen below:
When Archer’s fastball moves less, he has higher game score. Higher game scores are better. It’s not a huge correlation, and it’s a sample size that would give statisticians fits, but it’s not nothing. And it’s carried out in his starts from last year, too. The correlation coefficient for the fastball movement and game score last year was 0.15.
Now this flies in the face of what we typically think about pitching. Pitchers usually find more success when they find ways to make their ball move more. Jake Arrieta‘s that way, and surely Jared Weaver would nod his head at that sentence. Not Archer. Archer’s success is found with a straight fastball. (And it’s not that his straight fastball sinks more; I looked.) It’s also not that it’s harder. My theory is that he’s able to control it a bit better and cut down on the walks. Maybe the straight fastball is the result of proper mechanics that see a proper release on his pitches. Maybe it’s that hitters have a harder time discerning between his straight fastball and his slider.
I’m really not sure what this means, but I have to think that Archer is cerebral enough to figure something out. Whatever team acquires him might want to assist in correcting his mechanics by showing him this graph. Maybe the Rays would be wise to ensure their new shiny shoes’ fastball stays straight, before it gets all scuffed up and loses its luster. Maybe a team like the Dodgers has a theory on Archer that I did not uncover here. But from the looks of it, whatever team is employing Archer’s services for the rest of the year best hope he heads to the mound with his straightest fastball.