Rays Spotlight: Or Whatever Farm Animal Of War

The Rays front office is probably hoping for a deep playoff run from the Red Sox, though that might sound completely farcical to a team that’s had its fair few scraps with the Hub Nine. More importantly, they’re probably hoping for a brilliant October run from Chris Sale. Every league is a copycat league, and if Sale can dominate in his first foray into the playoffs, more teams are going to go perusing for a cost-controlled, youngish starter to lead their rotation next year to compete. If they don’t already have one, that is (hi there, Yankees. If Sonny Gray doesn’t count). And that would only drive up the market on Chris Archer. Because like all good things and Tampa, there comes a time when they need to part.

The problems is that Archer might not be all that he seems.

The value of Archer, when viewed through his talent and contract combined, is undeniable. Archer has already piled up 12 bWAR, or 17.8 fWAR if you go that way, and he signed through 2019 with two option years after that. Even with the option years, he’s owed $24 million for the next four years, which is probably a third of what you’d pay even a top-end #2 starter. Teams would salivate over that, especially teams that are going to owe big money in a lot of other spots and are looking to save anywhere they can. Like, oh I don’t know, the Cubs?

Archer is having one of his best seasons, even with an ERA over 4.00. But his FIP of 3.36 suggests he’s been a touch unlucky, and a BABIP rise of 30 points from last year would suggest it further. Archer has raised his K-rate, just like just about everyone else has, and lowered his walk-rate to the second-best mark of his career. He’ll be 29 next year, so he’s probably still in the middle of his peak. And durability is actually a plus, as with two starts left he should complete his third-straight 200+ inning season. And the one before that he threw 194, so that’s basically four. That’s pretty rare these days.

But there are a couple of red flags. Or half-red flags. So “red fl’s.” Or something. And they have to do with his repertoire.

Archer only throws two pitches basically, a fastball and slider. He does mix in a change occasionally but it’s hardly a weapon and he throws it less than 8% of the time. No starter in baseball throws his slider more than his 44%, and it’s not even close. Patrick Corbin is next at 37%. It was basically the same last year, where only Michael Pineda threw anywhere near as many sliders. And he was second the year before that. It is one of the better sliders in the game, but you wonder about the discrepancy, or lack thereof.

The names of pitchers who go over 90% on four-seam fastballs and sliders isn’t bad, but it’s hardly glittering. This year it’s Luis Perdomo, Lance Lynn, Archer, Patrick Corbin. Lists in previous years have been no more impressive. This only matters if you think that hitters will catch up one day to his tactics, or if you worry about any loss of velocity whatsoever. Archer has actually gained velocity this year, so the latter concern may be a little ways off.

As far as what hitters have adjusted to, Archer’s line-drive rate against has shot up from 17% last year to 22%. But that second figure isn’t out of line with previous years, though it would be a career high. And with the Titleist that pitchers are throwing this season, this might be a normal spike. In addition, his hard-contact rate overall has also shot up to 39.3% (which might explain the BABIP spike), by far a career-high. Again, it’s up to teams to decide if this is a one-year thing or a trend-starter. But as we’ve seen with Lackey here, two-pitch pitchers did have some trouble this year dealing with the new atmosphere.

Hitters are also going the opposite-way more on Archer, which if you wanted to squint and say they’re waiting back more for that slider and just accepting putting the fastball the other way to compensate, you probably could. His slider whiff rate has held steady the past two years, as has his fastball whiff-rate. So it’s not a total adjustment, and probably needs more study.

Archer isn’t the ace that Sale is, and won’t save a rotation by himself. He’s probably one of the league’s better rhythm guitarists, though if you have to have him play lead you can get away with it. But one has to wonder as he creeps closer to 30 if that limited arsenal is going to be a problem. The fastball remains overpowering for now, and with the slider that’s enough. But you can bet some other pitching coach is aching to show him a cutter or change-up that he trusts more than the one he has now.

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