It was easy to write off Chris Archer as having had a poor season in 2016, wasn't it? Yes, he lost 19 games, tied with James Shields for the most in baseball. Yes, Archer had a career-worst 4.02 ERA. And yes, he played on a last-place team that lost 94 games. It's easy to have not paid much attention to what Archer did in the second half of the year.
Perhaps it was too easy, though, because you may not have noticed that Archer was actually very good over the final months of the season, more or less back to his old self. His "old self," remember, finished fifth in the 2015 American League Cy Award Young voting, in one stretch striking out 38 over three games without a walk. That came on the heels of two very good seasons in '13-14.
Think about it that way, and you realize that if the Rays do decide to take advantage of a weak starter market this offseason to move Archer to a contender, they're not going to value him as a 9-19 starter. They're going to value him as an ace. They'll be right to do so.
Right? It's on us to explain, so let's do that. Now, we probably shouldn't have to spend any time on that record, because we know that we're well beyond pitcher wins and losses carrying weight. But if you're looking for an easy way to explain it away, note that the mere 3.48 runs per game of support that Archer received was the fifth lowest in baseball, barely half the 6.61 runs per game that Rick Porcello received from the Red Sox. It's a team mark, not an individual one -- as indicated by how much Arizona gave up for the 6-17 Shelby Miller last offseason.
Still, Archer did get off to that rough start, allowing a career-high 30 homers after having allowed only 19 in 10 2/3 more innings the previous year. Part of that, undoubtedly, is that everyone was allowing more homers, as 2015's unexpected sport-wide power surge continued into '16, but Archer was less effective early on, so let's show why.
The pitcher himself gave us some clues near the end of the season, as manager Kevin Cash reminded MLB.com that Archer had said "I need to be more efficient" at the All-Star break, and that seems a good place to start. Let's compare some basic stats from Archer's 2014, '15, and pre/post-break '16 seasons.
(wOBA, or Weighted On-Base Average, is similar to OBP, except that it gives increasingly more credit from walks to singles to doubles, triples, home runs, etc., rather than counting every time reached base equally. The 2016 Major League average wOBA was .318.)
What stands out there? ERA is an imperfect measure, but the Archer we saw after the break was just about identical to the one we'd seen in the previous two seasons. (Three, really, if you want to include his 3.22 in 2013). His Weighted On-Base Average mark was nearly identical, too. You can't simply look at one half of data and choose to ignore the other half as though it didn't happen, so the subpar first half counts, too. But given that we already had a baseline of what "good Archer" looks like, and that we saw a whole lot of it in the second half, it's understandable to lean in that direction.
So what caused that first-half issue, and how did he resolve it? Let's give you three reasons…
He started using the slider more.
You could make a strong case for Archer's slider being the best in baseball. There's a million different ways to show that, but a quick-and-dirty way would be FanGraphs' "Pitch Type Values," which have Archer's slider as baseball's best in 2016, and second behind only Clayton Kershaw from '14-16.
For his career, hitters have a .191 average against Archer's slider and an 18.3 percent swinging-strike rate -- easily the best of his three pitches. If you'd rather just see it, well, look at what it did to a hitter like Dustin Pedroia in September:
Compared to his four-seamer (career: .270/.367/.443) or changeup (career: .265/.274/.427), the slider (career: .191/.235/.294) is far more effective; 17 of the 30 homers Archer allowed this past season came on the four-seamer. Yet in the first half, he was only throwing his slider 37 percent of the time. In the second half, that jumped up to nearly 46 percent usage -- a big part of his success.
He got ahead in the count more.
Archer didn't really throw more strikes -- hitting the zone about 46 percent of the time in both halves. But he did throw more first-pitch strikes, going from 56 percent in the first half to 62 percent in the second.
That goes back to Archer's comment about needing to be more efficient, and as we showed above, Archer cut his walk rate by nearly 50 percent in the second half. Like most pitchers, he's far more dangerous when he's ahead in the count (.203/.206/.301 in 2016) than behind (.288/.456/.553).
He got hitters to chase more.
Obviously, the slider isn't always meant to go in the zone, as it's most effective when a hitter chases after it -- going after a pitch he's likely to either miss or make poor contact on. In Archer's very good 2015, hitters were going after 33.2 percent of the pitches he threw outside the zone. But in the first half of '16, they weren't doing that quite as much, going after just 27.9 percent; in the second half, that shot up to 34.9 percent, largely on the increased slider usage.
As you'd expect, that works in Archer's favor. Hitters batted .158 when making contact on one of his pitches outside the zone, and .288 inside the zone.
Now, why all the changes? Tampa Bay has remained tight-lipped on that, though there was some early evidence that it was largely the result of mechanical issues.
Either way, forget the 9-19. Archer looks like the second-tier ace (that's no insult; it just puts him a level below the Kershaw, Noah Syndergaards and Corey Klubers of the world) we thought he'd been, and he's on a very team-friendly contract, one that pays him $38.5 million over the next five years if all options are exercised.
Or the Rays could just hang on to Archer. After all, they're almost certainly a better team than their record showed, just like their ace. Maybe the best play is to simply go for it in 2017 and consider deals at the non-waiver Trade Deadline if things aren't working out. Whichever path they choose, they have an Archer who's worth the attention.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.