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Chris Archer’s Luck Turns

Heading into the season, Chris Archer was a pretty popular starting pitcher target in fantasy leagues. He was one of those non-sleeper sleepers, if such a term exists. You know, the guy everyone is hyping as a sleeper, which jacks up his price to “he has to enjoy a full season breakout just to break even” territory. It was easy to see why he was so appealing to many. He averaged 95 mph with his fastball, struck out a high rate of hitters in the minors and posted an impressive 3.22 ERA over more than half a season’s worth of starts with the Rays. But over his first nine starts of this year, things haven’t gone exactly the way his fantasy owners had hoped and expected.

Let’s begin by discussing the obvious. Archer was quite fortunate to have posted that low-3.00 ERA last year. His SIERA sat at a much less impressive 3.88, and his xFIP was almost exactly league average, with an xFIP- of 99. Archer outperformed his SIERA primarily by limiting hits on balls in play. His .253 BABIP was in no way sustainable and hard to explain when looking at his batted ball distribution. Guys who have consistently posted below average BABIP marks like Jered Weaver generally do it with an extreme fly ball tendency and ability to induce pop-ups. Archer did neither of those last year.

In fact, his batted ball distribution was almost identical to the starter’s league average. Yet those same starters posted a .295 BABIP. Hmmm. It’s true that the Rays as a team prevented hits on balls in play at a very good clip. But their team BABIP was .284, still well above Archer’s. That low BABIP led to a higher rate of stranded runners than you might have expected as well. Some pitches do possess a runner-stranding skill, but with such a limited history of work, we have no idea if Archer will prove to be one of them. So the bottom line is that it was silly to have expected Archer to enjoy similar success this year, without improved peripherals. We’ll get to the possibility of that improvement shortly.

But this year has been a tale of essentially the same pitcher whose luck has completely reversed. While he’s allowed a couple of more walks , he’s offset that by inducing more grounders and allowing fewer fly balls. It all adds up to a SIERA just barely above last year at 3.99. The difference now is that his BABIP has shot up to .327 and LOB% sunk below the 70% plateau.

One might point out that his line drive rate has jumped to nearly 23%, which would surely cause an increase in BABIP. This is true, but then check out his IFFB%, which has more than doubled since last year and actually leads all starting pitchers in baseball. What the luck dragons giveth, the luck dragons taketh away. This is the very definition of the vagaries of luck, the randomness of the ball in play and why I continually stress focusing on SIERA over ERA.

So what we can conclude is that Archer is basically the same pitcher he was last year. He’s not nearly as good as his outward results from last year, and not nearly as bad as his results this year. But with one of the fastest fastballs in the league, the hope is that he improves, especially that strikeout rate.

The first problem is that he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher. That second pitch is the slider, and we all know what the risks of relying on a slider as your only secondary pitch is — an inability to get lefties out. Depending on how you interpret the results, Archer has either handled lefties well or struggled against them. Throughout his short career, he has allowed a .330 wOBA to them, compared to just a .256 mark against right-handed batters. But if you look at his xFIP, his skills package is almost identical regardless of the handedness of the opposing hitter — a 3.88 mark versus lefties and 3.72 mark versus righties.

The explanation here is that he has allowed about a league average BABIP versus lefties, but suppressed hits on balls in play versus righties, while his HR/FB rate has nearly doubled against lefties. I typically look at the xFIP splits, especially in a rather small sample size, but when dealing with a pitch we know has platoon issues, the wOBA might tell us the truth.

This year, Archer is throwing his two-seamer much more frequently in place of his four-seamer. That is what has driven up his ground ball rate. The four-seamer has been fine for him in the past, but hasn’t typically induced swinging strikes any better than the league average. This year, it has been absolutely horrid at inducing swinging strikes, with a pathetic 1.1% SwStk%. Archer has induced swinging strikes at a better than average clip with his two-seamer, plus it generates lots of ground balls. So it looks like a good move to make the swap.

The slider hasn’t been anything special either at first glance, also inducing swinging strikes at about a league average clip. But the pitch has induced ground balls more frequently than the typical slider, so it does appear to be better than average when looking at the whole package of results. He barely throws his changeup, which makes sense given its awful SwStk% and inability to induce ground balls.

I’m not sure where the upside is here. He’s either going to have to somehow improve his slider so it’s well above average in terms of generating swinging strikes or develop a reliable third pitch. He doesn’t have quite the control to enjoy a major skills-supported breakout without any real strikeout rate upside. He’s certainly solid enough overall to remain a fantasy team’s last active starter or matchup play in 12-team mixed leagues, but as of now, I don’t see him becoming much more than that.