Yesterday I put my life on the line, shredding Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik’s misguided winter effort to deflect attention from front office dysfunction by improving the product on the field. All very well and good, except he didn’t. I’m sure Seattle fans will let me live when I visit Safeco in May (on what’s effectively a Mike Trout pilgrimage) though – they still have the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks after all. Anyhow, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series today rolls on to perhaps the most well-managed team of all 30 – the Tampa Bay Rays. From GM Andrew Friedman on down, year after year it seems, the Rays somehow get the most out of the least. Continually they unearth talent from the unlikeliest sources, RHP Chris Archer being a prime example.
It’s easy to love Chris Archer. Beyond his excellent Twitter feed and commendable off-field work, he’s a treat to watch play baseball – something perhaps ESPN’s Michael Baumann put best in creating his All–MLB Network Team for Grantland last summer:
What makes Archer so fun to watch is not what he does but how he does it. Archer paces around the mound like a leopard in a cage that’s too small to be comfortable. He isn’t the only pitcher who points up whenever he gives up a fly ball, but nobody does it with such enthusiasm. On a ground ball, Archer not only turns around to see the result of the play, but he turns his body to face whichever fielder is handling the ball at the moment. With his socks and stirrups pulled all the way up (a style that looks excellent in Tampa’s striped socks) and his hat slightly crooked, Archer looks and moves like the oldest kid on the Little League team.
He’s basically the anti-John Lackey on the mound; his theatrics indicative of raw enthusiasm rather than anything malicious. Pay another attention though, and you’ll notice something else about the 25 year old beyond his remarkable affectations – he’s actually pretty darn good.
Unlike his first experience of The Show, Archer’s road to the majors was hardly smooth sailing. Raised by his grandparents after being abandoned by his biological parents, Archer failed to make the baseball team in middle school. Instead of quitting however, the North Carolina native improved enough via recreation ball to make the high school squad, and would sign a letter of intent to attend the University of Miami. Things changed suddenly in the summer of 2006 though, when the young righty was selected in the fifth round of the draft by the Cleveland Indians. Traded to the Cubs in 2008 as part of a package for Mark DeRosa, he was named the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2010 and installed on the 40 man roster only to be again packaged off – this time to Tampa – in exchange for Matt Garza. It would be another relatively rocky couple of years in the minors – mixed with flashes of brilliance and too many walks – but when David Price went down last year, Archer would finally get an extended chance to stick in the big leagues.
After compiling a bored-looking 3.96 ERA in 10 starts with Triple A affiliate the Durham Bulls, the excitable righty was called up on June 1, and would start out brilliantly. Predominantly riding his fastball (which topped out at 97mph) and sharp-breaking slider combination, Archer proceeded to give up no more than 3 runs in any of his first 10 starts, including a ridiculous four game stretch in which he gave up just one run and threw two complete-game shutouts. Though he faded down the stretch, Archer eventually compiled a ERA of 3.22 and 1.13 WHIP (with opposing batters hitting just .223 against him) across his 23 starts – good for third in AL ROY voting, and a 2.2 WAR value.
His impactful success can be mostly attributed to improved command (though slightly lucky peripheral numbers such as a .253 BABIP and a 78.8 LOB% certainly didn’t hurt). Sacrificing strikeouts slightly, Archer posted a career low 2.7 BB/9, his previously wild ways disappearing from his pitching if not his actions on the mound. Throwing 59.8% fastballs, 33% sliders, and 7.2% changeups according to Fangraphs, there’s certainly room for Archer to now expand his repertoire too in order to counter the inevitable adjustments of hitters in his sophomore campaign; Brett Talley actually rates his changeup as his best ‘out’ pitch, and its continued development will be key to Archer’s avoiding regression towards his 2013 SIERA (3.95).
Don’t count on the 25 year old’s performance falling off though; the competitive fire that fuels his mound manners has similarly pushed the former fifth-rounder to ramp up his offseason training in a determined attempt to follow up his strong rookie showing. And if Archer has made any additional improvements, then placing him alongside David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Jake Odorizzi in a once again loaded Rays rotation will be just plain unfair on the rest of the AL East in 2014.
At the very least, Chris Archer will be must watch TV.