Young players are exciting. They’re fun to watch, fun to talk about, and especially fun to project, and young players that succeed early in their careers are even more exciting. If, over the next few weeks, you find yourself sitting in Progressive Field holding a $4 beer (yes, they’re that cheap) while watching the Indians play a meaningful late-season game for the first time since 2007, mention Danny Salazar to the fans in your section. About the worst thing you’ll hear someone say about him is, “Salazar? Potential front-line arm, but I dunno, maybe he throws too hard?”
I’m just as fascinated with young talent as those title-starved Indians fans drinking their reasonably priced beverages, and one player who’s caught my eye this year is Chris Archer, the 24-year-old, flame-throwing pitching prospect currently shutting down MLB lineups to the tune of a 2.95 ERA over 15 starts this season. When a pitcher with Archer’s level of raw talent shows flashes of that potential brilliance right out of the gate, it’s easy to get carried away and envision him turning into the next Max Scherzer (who Harold Reynolds thinks is the AL Cy Young, hands down), but is that a fair comparison? Are we putting too much emphasis on Archer’s string of early successes?
Unfortunately, we can’t really know the answer to that question until Archer himself is 29 years old and either anchoring the front end of an MLB rotation, filling in at the back end, contributing out of the bullpen, or worse. Fortunately, we can speculate. Even more fortunately, there’s a wealth of data and numbers from which we can speculate.
Using pitch data compiled by FanGraphs and readily available on player pages and custom leaderboards, I looked at every player-season from 2002-2012 for Archer’s closest pitching comparison. I considered factors such as pitcher age and experience, pitch usage rates, velocities, and effectiveness, batted ball distribution, strikeout and walk rates, and even non-pitching factors like height and handedness, which matter for release point and pitch trajectory.
After crunching the numbers, I am officially proclaiming Edwin Jackson the winner.
On the surface, this comparison makes some sense. Back in 2007, Jackson was a 23-year-old pitcher of the same height and weight as Archer is currently listed, and both were getting their first extended major league looks. Jackson was drafted out of high school in the sixth round of the 2001 amateur draft. Archer was drafted out of high school in the fifth round of the 2006 amateur draft.
Both paid their dues in the minors as Jackson compiled a 4.39 ERA over 556 innings in parts of six minor league seasons, whereas Archer was slightly better with a 3.77 ERA in 769.2 innings over parts of eight seasons. Both showed big-time velocity but struggled with control. Jackson’s strikeout rate in the minors was lower than Archer’s, but so was his walk rate. All told, Jackson posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.91. Archer’s was nearly identical at 1.80.
Pretty similar, huh? Well, it gets a little eerier.
The table above shows Archer’s pitch usage, velocity, and effectiveness over his first 15 starts of 2013 versus what Jackson did during his first full season back in 2007. Right off the bat, we see three-pitch pitchers who featured a fastball and slider prominently while occasionally mixing in a change-up. Both could dial up the heat, and both used the slider as their out pitch.
By now I think we’ve done a pretty good job of establishing just how similar these two pitchers are (though if you’d like, you can check out the deliveries of Jackson here and Archer here), but what does that mean for Archer’s future? Let’s pretend for a moment that he does in fact follow in Jackson’s footsteps. How good has Jackson been?
Well, Jackson’s been about as average as they come. His career ERA is 4.45, and he’s never finished with a single-season ERA better than 3.62. In six-plus seasons since Jackson became a full-time starter in 2007, there have been 50 pitchers that have logged over 1,000 innings (Jackson has tossed 1,295). Of those 50, Jackson’s 4.36 ERA ranks 44th, ahead of only Kevin Correia, Jason Marquis, Barry Zito, Roberto Hernandez/Fausto Carmona, Joe Blanton, and Livan Hernandez. Jackson’s 17.6 WAR over that span is good for 26th, but his WAR/IP drops him down to 35th. His most notable accomplishments are ranking 17th among that group in innings pitched and 11th in games started.
Jackson has been very durable, and there’s something to be said for durability, but if all Archer turns into is a league-average starter best known for taking the mound every fifth day, then Rays fans will long for the days when Archer unexpectedly bolstered Tampa’s rotation and when he showed filthy stuff, a fiery demeanor and, most importantly, promise.