Game 57, Rays at Mariners
Mike Montgomery vs. Chris Archer, 1:10pm
How does a pitcher go from “great prospect” to legitimate MLB ace? It seems there are a few paths, from the Roy Halladay style early implosion, followed by regrouping, followed by dominance; to the King Felix style early dominance, then a long period where the results don’t match the royal stuff, followed by figuring stuff out and ascending to the throne; to the Corey Kluber/Carlos Carrasco thing, with a period of “possible 4th starter” and then suddenly, like flipping a switch, “Cy Young candidate.” Baseball itself is unpredictable, but the deeper you look it, the deeper the weirdness goes. What the hell got into Kluber, and can anyone replicate that? This year, we’ve seen Chris Archer ascend to the ranks of baseball’s elite, and he’s done a modified version of Felix’s path – Archer was never the elite prospect that Felix (or even Mike Montgomery) was, but he had impressive stuff – great velocity and the makings of a good slider. After a so-so debut in 2012, Archer’s been an above average starter since 2013, and that seemed like a clear success for the Rays development staff. In his mid-20s, Archer was a good #3 on a good rotation, and while the velo was impressive, I’m just not sure anyone saw a great deal more development in him.
After a great start to the year, Archer ran into some trouble in early May. He walked four in back-to-back games, and wasn’t as unhittable as he’d been through much of April. And then, suddenly, the switch flipped. We all remember what happened the last time he faced the M’s on May 25th: 8IP, 2H, 0R, 0BB, 12Ks. He followed that up with another dominant effort against the Angels – another 8 innings, 1R, 0BB and a career-best 15Ks. Sure, it’s early, and sure, small sample size and all of that. But Archer’s FIP is 3rd best in baseball, and his command seems to be improving. You don’t luck your way into a 15K, no walk game, and looking at the list of players who’ve had games like that shows Archer is in some illustrious company and..wait, what? How did Sterling Hitchcock get into this club?
Archer was originally drafted by the Indians in 2006, and was included as part of the deal that sent Mark DeRosa from the Cubs to Cleveland. At the time, he was essentially a lottery ticket – great arm, but couldn’t find the plate at all, and thus a guy who struggled with his consistency. With the Cubs, the raw runs-allowed results were much improved, but the walk rate was still pretty ugly. Then, in 2011, he was traded again, this time as a secondary part of the deal that sent Matt Garza to Chicago. That deal netted Tampa several starters. In addition to Archer, they got Brandon Guyer, who’s starting today, as well as Sam Fuld and C Robinson Chirinos. But the big piece in that deal wasn’t Archer, it was SS Hak-Ju Lee, who would be ranked as baseball’s 44th best prospect in 2012. Archer was way down at #89. Incidentally, Mike Montgomery was way up at #23 back then.
So, for Archer to improve his command to the point where he could be a solid #3, or #2 if everything was going right, was something of an upset and an impressive transformation in its own right. From there, a few things seem to have changed. First, he ditched the sinker that had been his most-used fastball in 2014. Now, like most of his teammates, he’s sticking with a hard 4-seamer with 10+” of rise. Then, he’s tweaked his slider – a pitch he throws a *ton* of to righties and lefties alike. It’s successful against lefties/righties in part because it has so much drop. It moves horizontally a bit, but it’s the drop – about a foot lower than his FB – that helps explain Archer’s lack of platoon splits. This year, he’s added about 1-2mph on the pitch; it’s not a cutter-ish 89mph on average. That’s sacrificed a bit of that vertical drop, but it’s made it harder to hit. His whiff rate on the slider is over 40%, and he can throw it in the zone at will. We talked about the splitter’s effectiveness at generating out-of-zone swings, but Archer demonstrates another way to get to the same place: with splitter-ish drop and great command, batters swing at over 53% of his sliders (vs. about 40% of his fastballs), and still come up empty all the time. As with the splitter, when they DO make contact, a ground ball’s the most likely outcome, and thus Archer has a better-than-50% GB rate despite a fastball that looks like Chris Tillman’s.
One potential red flag, and something Eno Sarris mentioned here, is that Archer throws the slider a lot. I mean, a *lot*. Only Tyson Ross has thrown it more often this year, and a look back at high-slider usage hurlers in recent years shows a hell of a lot of injured pitchers. Of course, literally any list of pitchers will include plenty of injured pitchers – it’s what pitchers *do*. The list also includes Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw, so it may be worth the risk…if sliders actually are more of a risk than any other type of pitch.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cruz, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Trumbo, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Miller, SS
8: Bloomquist, 2B
9: Sucre, C
Cano gets a day off today, with Bloomquist replacing him at 2B.
Danny Farquhar makes his 2nd start for Tacoma today, opposite Nik Turley of Sacramento. [EDIT – as reader Jake points out, Farquhar pitched 2 IP in last night’s game, so perhaps that’s another experiment that the M’s have quietly abandoned. Anyway, Justin Germano is the actual starter of today’s game, no matter what MiLB.com says. Curto has the real scoop.] The RiverCats beat Tacoma 4-2, scoring all four of their runs in the 6th. Franklin Gutierrez homered off of Jake Peavy to account for the Rainiers 2 runs. Gutierrez now has an OBP of .417, and it is still a cosmic injustice that he can’t stay healthy.
Chattanooga topped Jackson 4-1, despite a solid start from Edwin Diaz. Scott DeCecco starts today against Twins prospect/2010 first-rounder Alex Wimmers.
Visalia and Bakersfield went to extras yet again, with Visalia pushing the winning run across in the 13th last night. The Blaze tied it at 2 in the bottom of the 9th on a Guillermo Pimentel HR, but Visalia’s Fidel Pena hit a solo HR in the 13th to win it. Bakersfield’s best performer was reliever Paul Fry, who threw 3 scoreless innings, giving up 1 hit, no walks and 8 strikeouts. Eddie Campbell takes the mound for Bakersfield against Anthony Banda, a D-Backs prospect who came to the Arizona org as part of the Gerardo Parra trade.
Clinton lost to Bowling Green 4-2. Zack Littell got the loss for the Lumberkings, despite striking out 10 (against no walks) in 6 IP. Today’s pitching match-up features Jefferson Medina of Clinton opposite what-a-name righty Hyrum Formo. That’s… that’s just outstanding.