Morning Report: Will the Real Chris Archer Please Stand Up?

Chris Archer got off to a great start this year, looking like the ace the Pirates needed and traded for in his first three starts. Archer posted a 2.00 ERA and a 3.32 xFIP in 18 innings over those three outings, with a 24:7 K/BB ratio.

The Pirates had seen something similar out of Archer before. Last year in the month of September he had a 2.70 ERA and a 3.19 xFIP in 30 innings, with a 36:9 K/BB ratio.

His performance at the end of last year, and then the start of this year, was excellent. If you got that from him over the long-haul, it would make you forget about anything that Tyler Glasnow or Austin Meadows do with the Rays. The problem is that this performance has been far from consistent.

Archer struggled when he came over after the trade. In the month of August last year, he had a 6.45 ERA and a 3.98 xFIP in 22.1 innings, with a 24:9 K/BB ratio. He’s also struggled in his most recent three starts, with a 10.66 ERA and a 6.90 xFIP in 12.2 innings, along with a 10:9 K/BB ratio. Those starts have included a thumb injury, so it’s hard to say how much that impacts him.

Archer has seen three stages in his time in Pittsburgh. He struggled after the trade, then started looking like the ace he could be at the end of 2018 and the start of 2019. And in the last three outings, he has completely fallen apart, and dealt with an injury.

These are all small sample sizes, and we could pick and choose which is the real version of Archer. The reality is that we will inevitably find out which version of Archer is real, and no amount of predictions in either direction will impact the results. What we can do is figure out what was going right in the good times, and wrong in the bad times, in order to get an idea of what Archer needs to do going forward.

The biggest thing that stood out to me when comparing these different periods was the performance of Archer’s slider. Archer throws his slider more than any other pitch, using it around 40% of the time. So it makes sense that when the pitch is effective, he dominates, and when it struggles, he struggles.

Looking at Archer’s pitch values on FanGraphs, you can see a stark difference in his slider production during the three periods. In August last year, the slider was worth 0.49 runs per 100 pitches. In September, and during his first three starts this year, the slider was worth 3.55 runs per 100 pitches. And in his last three starts, the pitch has been worth -4.52 runs per 100 pitches.

It’s not as easy as “be more productive with the slider”. We don’t know what is leading to that issue, only that the slider is less effective. The reason for this could be due to a different pitch, or some other factor. For example, Archer’s control has been worse during the times he’s struggled. It would make sense that the slider would be less effective, as hitters don’t need to chase the pitch when they’re ahead in the count. Looking at his last three outings, Archer is getting fewer first pitch strikes, fewer swinging strikes, and fewer swings outside the zone, which are all areas that would be up if the slider was effective (and they were up during his good stretches).

His other pitch values tell different stories. The curveball was horrible last August, but has continued to get better, and has been his only positive value pitch the last three outings. The changeup was also horrible when he first arrived, then got to a point where it was slightly negative value, and now is at -2 runs per 100 pitches in his last three starts.

The big thing is that his fastball mirrors the trend with the slider. It was at -1.66 runs per 100 pitches last August, jumped to -0.54 from September through the first three outings this year, and went to -1.11 in his recent starts, and that’s worse if you remove the first start from that group.

The fastball has been worse this year in terms of control. If he’s not getting ahead with that pitch, then it would make sense that his slider is going to be less effective, leading to fewer chases and fewer swinging strikes. Meanwhile, the control of the slider has been relatively the same this year as in previous years.

Archer’s issues could be totally different than my theory above. But it would make sense that his issues boil down to the fastball being less effective, making his main pitch less effective in the process. The better control he has of the fastball, the more he can get ahead, and the more effective the slider will be.

One thing is for sure: The Pirates need the real Chris Archer to emerge, and they need that real version to be the guy that dominated in September last year, and in the first three starts this year.

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates were off yesterday, as they traveled home for a six-game homestand, starting with three against the Colorado Rockies. Chris Archer will get the ball tonight, making his second start since returning from a thumb injury. He went 3.2 innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday, allowing six earned runs on four hits and four walks. The Rockies will send out 24-year-old right-hander German Marquez, who has a 3.80 ERA in 64 innings, with 65 strikeouts and a 1.19 WHIP. He has given up ten hits in each of his last two outings, allowing five runs in 6.1 innings against the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday, and just two runs over 5.2 innings in his previous start against the San Diego Padres.

The minor league schedule includes Mitch Keller “LISTED” for Indianapolis tonight. Yes, I did put that in quotation marks, italics and caps. Keller is coming off of six strong innings, with two runs allowed on three hits, two walks and eight strikeouts. He was originally scheduled for Sunday and Pirates have no pitcher listed for Wednesday, so we will see if it all means anything. Altoona will send out Sean Brady for his third start since being signed as a minor league free agent. He has given up ten runs over 11 innings in his two starts. Greensboro will send out Colin Selby for his second start. He went four innings, giving up one run on two hits, with no walks and five strikeouts in his debut. Bradenton will send out Nicholas Economos for his High-A debut. He has 50 strikeouts in 32.2 innings this season. Bradenton will finish yesterday’s suspended game before playing today’s regularly scheduled game, which will now be seven innings.

The full 2019 Pirates Prospects Prospect Guide is now available, up to date as of April 3rd, with every player in the minor league system (NOTE: There have been just three players released and two added since then, so the book is still 99% up to date). Includes full reports on the top 50 prospects, reports on over 150 other players, as well as looks back at the recent drafts and international signing classes. Subscribers get 20% off the purchase of a book.

MLB: Pittsburgh (24-20) vs Rockies (20-25) 7:05 PM
Probable starter: Chris Archer (5.58 ERA, 34:16 SO/BB, 30.2 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (22-18) @ Louisville (18-25) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Mitch Keller (3.83 ERA, 50:19 SO/BB, 40.0 IP)

AA: Altoona (22-20) @ New Hampshire (19-22) 6:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Sean Brady (8.18 ERA, 8:4 SO/BB, 11.0 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (23-19) @ Ft Myers (25-17) 11:00 AM (season preview)
Probable starter: Nicholas Economos (NR)

Low-A: Greensboro (29-14) @ West Virginia (22-20) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Colin Selby (2.25 ERA, 5:0 SO/BB, 4.0 IP)

HIGHLIGHTS

From Greensboro, both of Mason Martin’s walk-off three-run homers from Sunday. Each of them hit with the Grasshoppers trailing by two runs. Unfortunately, no play-by-play call, but you still hear reactions.

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

5/20: Nicholas Economos promoted to Bradenton.

5/18: Justin Harrer added to Greensboro roster. Jonah Davis assigned to Extended Spring Training

5/17: Trevor Williams placed on injured list. Clay Holmes recalled from Indianapolis

5/17: Geoff Hartlieb added to 40-man roster and recalled by Pirates. Jacob Stalling assigned to Indianapolis (cleared waivers) and Richard Rodriguez optioned to Indianapolis

5/17: Luis Nova added to Bradenton roster. Oddy Nunez placed on injured list

5/16: Tate Scioneaux placed on injured list.

5/15: Chris Archer activated from injured list. Clay Holmes optioned to Indianapolis.

5/15: Colin Selby assigned to Greensboro.

5/15: Matt Eckelman assigned to Altoona from Indianapolis.

5/14: Pirates release Erich Weiss.

5/13: Jung Ho Kang placed on injured list. Jake Elmore added to Pirates roster.

5/12: Tyler Lyons sent outright to Indianapolis

5/12: Zack Kone placed on Greensboro injured list.

5/12: Chris Stratton added to Pirates roster. Dovydas Neverauskas optioned to Indianapolis.

5/11: Pirates acquire Chris Stratton from Angels for cash.

5/11: Pirates release Ronny Agustin

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

Four former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, including one of the best relievers in team history. Mace Brown played for the Pirates from 1935 until 1941. During that time, he was used as a long man out of the pen, occasionally starting and also closing out games before closers came in for just three outs at a time. He pitched 778.2 innings from 1936 until 1940 and posted a 3.67 ERA during his time with the Pirates. Brown was an All-Star in 1938 and he finished ninth in the MVP voting that year.

Others born on this date include:

Fred Dunlap, second baseman from 1888-90. He was a star player before he was acquired by Pittsburgh. He had his career cut short by two broken legs (at different times), but he played long enough to put together a solid 12-year career. During the only year of the Union Association (1884), Dunlap was the best player by far, hitting .412/.448/.621, leading the league in all three categories, as well as runs scored, hits and homers.

Steve Pegues, outfielder for the 1994-95 Pirates. He hit .264 in 89 games for the Pirates.

Catcher Ed Fitz Gerald, who played for the Pirates from 1948 until 1953, turns 95 today. He is the third oldest living former Pirates player behind Wally Westlake and Eddie Basinski.

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