LOS ANGELES -- It's not an audition. It's not a try-out. It's just another pitcher. That was the line Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts towed when asked about his opponent: Tampa Bay Rays righty Chris Archer.
Archer has been one of the most coveted arms as the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, and since the Dodgers are a bit light in the arm department lately -- going with a four-man rotation since Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu went down -- Archer would seem to be a natural fit.
In fact, against the Dodgers on Tuesday, he went 7.0 innings, needing 84 pitches (60 strikes) and gave up just one earned run -- a solo shot to Yasmani Grandal in the seventh, on a 1-2 count (a situation in which Archer holds opposing hitters to a .128 average).
Archer did allow two unearned runs, but the way in which the Dodgers scored those runs perfectly encapsulates Archer's season thus far, and perhaps the reason why there's so much handwringing about him as the deadline draws near.
"Archer was good, very good," Roberts said. "You can see that. There were a couple errors behind him, and the pitch count was still low, there was a lot of swing and miss, and he's a kid that just repeats his delivery, he's got a plus-plus slider, punches a lot of guys out, obviously, and now, that's the first time I've gotten to see him, personally, and it really makes sense. It really, really makes sense. Talking to our guys, the ball has true life, pitches at both the top and bottom of the zone. He's a one."
In the bottom of the third, with one out and two men on via a pair of errors, shortstop Corey Seager ripped an 88-mph 0-1 Archer change up into center to drive in Joc Pederson. One batter later, Justin Turner likewise turned around an 0-1 slider up (this one at 90 mph) and sent an RBI single to left. Grandal's home run in the seventh proved to be just the insurance that the Dodgers needed in a 3-2 win.
"He was good, good slider, good change," Seager said of Archer. "He threw off the heater from there. He was good. He was good."
Archer, while fifth in the Major Leagues with 147 strikeouts, has a career-worst 5-13 record and a 4.60 ERA that he hasn't seen since his six-game debut with the Rays in 2012. In fact, until this season, Archer's highest full-season ERA has been 3.33 (2014).
Before the season, he was 32-32 with a 3.33 ERA, 562 strikeouts to 189 walks, 1.188 WHIP and 9 Ks pr 9 IP. What's different this season? Archer's BABIP is a tick higher (.316) than last year (.296), but within league norms.
Looking at the raw data, Archer is getting hurt -- badly -- early in games, and early in counts, and that's exactly what the Dodgers did on Tuesday.
"I think that a guy like that, you try not to run too deep of a count, because he has such a wipe-out slider," Roberts said. "So, we were aggressive. The pitch to Seager I think was a change, and the breaking ball, a slider, to JT. Those are two big hits for us, right there, because that guy's tough."
This year, in the first plate appearance of a game, opponents are hitting .403 against Archer, with nine doubles, one triple and six home runs. His strikeout-to-walk ratio that first time through the order is 1.89.
"It's tough to explain, other than you know that he's a good pitcher," said Turner. "You've got to bear down and make sure you don't miss the mistakes that he makes."
What about the second and third time through the order? We take a look at some of the peripherals, including strikeouts per walk (SO/W) and batting average on balls in play (BAbip).
|1st PA in G, as SP||.299||.414||.403||.484||.887||9||1||6||1.89||188|
|2nd PA in G, as SP||.216||.267||.273||.380||.653||10||0||6||3.64||188|
|3rd PA in G, as SP||.236||.287||.287||.407||.694||6||0||6||4.44||150|
What about for his career?
|1st PA in G, as SP||.214||.285||.289||.311||.600||34||1||17||2.96||1022|
|2nd PA in G, as SP||.248||.307||.313||.383||.696||45||0||25||2.94||1005|
|3rd PA in G, as SP||.233||.279||.298||.365||.663||21||0||22||3.03||765|
52 of the 177 extra-base hits Archer has given up in his career have come during the first time through a lineup (29.4%). This season, 16 of the 46 extra-base hits he's allowed have come in the first plate appearances of opposing hitters (34.7%).
In the first 2 pitches of all plate appearances this year, Archer has given up 13 home runs and 14 doubles. He's allowed 20 home runs and 25 doubles, total, on the year, with five home runs and three doubles coming on the first pitches of plate appearances. When batters swing in 1-0 counts, they're 21-for-38 (.553), and are slugging 1.132, with seven doubles and five home runs.
When hitters swing 0-1 -- as Turner and Seager did -- Archer is still being tattooed, with opposing hitters batting .361 in that count, with four doubles and three home runs, and a 1.083 OPS.
"He's got good stuff," Turner said. "Most guys with good stuff want to get ahead early, so you try to be aggressive early in the count, and then once you get later in the count, he goes to pitching, and he likes to hunt strikeouts, so he'll throw a lot of marginal pitches, chase pitches, trying to get you to swing out of the zone later in the count."
There can be any number of causes for Archer's numbers jump this season. His velocity could be down. His pitch mix could have changed. He could be losing command because of some injury or change in his mechanics. Or, he could not be adjusting as the league adjusts to him.
His career fastball velocity average is 94.5 mph, and this year, he's averaging 94.1 -- not a statistically significant drop. In his career, his slider has averaged 86.8. This year, it's 87.9. Could he be throwing through his break? It's possible, but with 147 strikeouts, I don't think that's so much an issue, since he's thrown his slider 34.4% of the time throughout his career, and has relied on it more in the last two seasons (39.1% in 2015 and 38.3% in 2016), when he's posted his best strikeout numbers (10.70 strikeouts per nine innings in 2015 and 10.73 in 2016).
What about his pitch mix? For his career, Archer has thrown a fastball (two- and four-seam variety) on 37.1% of his pitches. In 2015, that number jumped to 44.0%. In 2016, that's leaped up to 50%. The slider is about as prevalent as it was last season, but the change up has nearly doubled. In 2015, Archer threw his change up just 6.3% of the time -- a show-me pitch. In 2016, he's thrown that change up 11.7% of the time.
So, could it be the change up that's the wrench in the works? His change up runs above average (negative numbers mean the pitch has been below average, positive scores indicate an above-average pitch effectiveness) has gone from 0.8 to -2.3 from last season to this. His slider runs above average has gone from 22.7 to 8.8 from 2015 to 2016. His fastball has gone from hovering around league average (0.0 in 2014 and 0.5 in 2015) to -13.3 this year -- a huge drop off.
In the at-bat which resulted in Grandal's home run, Archer missed with a fastball away on the first pitch, got a swinging strike on an 87 mph slider on the second pitch, saw Grandal foul off a 95 mph fastball and then came back again, with the same pitch, which Grandal deposited into the right field bleachers.
Since his velocities have not changed appreciably, it's very likely that Archer is becoming predictable early in counts, and early in games, and especially with his fastball and slider -- which were plus pitches for him in 2015. Turner said that Archer is in the zone early with both fastballs and sliders, hence the aggressive plate approach by the Dodgers.
"He likes to get ahead, wants to get ahead, and he's got good feel for his fastball and slider, so it's not, 'I've got to get ahead with a fastball,' or, 'If I'm 1-0, I've got to throw a fastball to get back in it.' He gets back in it with sliders, too."
That wipe-out, advanced-feel slider that's seen the biggest decline. Sliders should be around 10 or 12 in the pitch effectiveness/runs above average metric. Archer's in 2015 was truly exceptional. Now, it's a good pitch, but much more in line with other above-average sliders in the league, instead of that plus-plus pitch Roberts described.
That said, on Tuesday, Archer's slider was very much in 2015 form, perhaps indicating that there is something not just merely salvageable in Archer, despite the dismal numbers.
Archer struck out eight on Tuesday, and after allowing that home run to Grandal, struck out the side to finish the seventh. Of his eight strikeouts, five came on sliders, including all three in the seventh. Of his strikeouts on sliders, all but one were swinging. Yet, this season, he's throwing his slider less than he did last season, dropping from 39.1% of his pitches to 38.3%.
So, what do all of these numbers mean for teams that want Archer, for the Dodgers (or whoever acquires him) or for the Rays, should they decide to keep him?
First, his contract situation is a big draw: At age 27, Archer will be under contract until 2021. He's scheduled to make over $4.9m in 2017, just over $6.4m in 2018 and almost $7.7m in 2019. He has two team option years in 2020 and 2021, during which he'd make $8.25m per year, with a 2020 buyout for $1.75m. There's no reason the Rays need to trade Archer. At the end of the day, he's having a year very out-of-line with his career peripherals, and at his age, you could very well count on him snapping back next season.
Those contract numbers (and his age) definitely make him a very attractive option for a team like the Dodgers, who are armed with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who's survived through three managers in Los Angeles for a reason: He's good at fixing pitchers, and Archer showed with outing on Tuesday that there's plenty to work with left in that 27-year old arm.
Pitch selection and approach are functions of game planning, catchers and pitching coaches, but for a pitcher as talented and as accomplished as Archer, he's generally going to be making his own decisions on the mound. That said, a new pitching coach could offer a new way of doing things, a new thought process, a new approach, a new way of looking at an at-bat. Pair that with a veteran receivers like A.J. Ellis and, yes, Grandal (who's known for his ability to frame pitches), could be a recipe for success in Los Angeles. All that said, Archer would still have to listen to those suggestions.