Heading in to the 2013 season, Chris Archer has all the tools to be a really good major-league starter. That did not always look to be the case. Despite a golden arm and high-quality slider, many prospect analysts felt Archer was destined for the bullpen because he lacked a usable third pitch. Archer’s mental game had also come into question in the past. A bright, articulate individual, Archer has been accused of overthinking on the mound and tripping himself up in the process. Then he received the call…
After briefly reaching Triple-A in his first season with the Rays, Archer returned to Durham to further his development in 2012. The funny thing about player development is it does not always go according to plan. A player is supposed to hone his craft in the minor leagues before becoming a fully-functional major leaguer. In Archer’s case, however, it took a brief appearance in the majors to make his biggest developmental strides.
Already using their sixth starter, Alex Cobb, to replace an injured member of the rotation, the Rays recalled Archer in mid-June to take the place of a sore Jeremy Hellickson. Archer’s first taste of big-league life was short (just two starts) but his takeaway from those starts may have a long-term impact.
There is a lot of noise in an 11-inning sample, but there was one undeniable fact: Chris Archer had major-league stuff. Working almost exclusively off his fastball/slider combination, he induced a whiff on 20 percent of the swings against him. In just six days’ time, Archer went from thinking he could pitch at the major-league level to knowing he could. Rays manager Joe Maddon said Archer felt like he belonged, setting up his arrival to the all important third stage of his career.
Following Hellickson’s return, Archer was sent back to Durham. Once a minor-leaguer hoping for a shot at the majors, he was now a major-league pitcher working to get back to the top. With his newfound confidence, the 23-year-old was dominant upon his return to the International League. In the 51.1 innings after he was sent back down, he struck out 49 batters while walking 17. He allowed 11 runs in 11 starts.
In September, Archer was once again summoned from Durham to work as a spot starter. This time filling in for Rays’ ace David Price. The rookie’s first task? Hold down the mighty Texas Rangers with his team just two games out of a postseason spot. The Rays ultimately lost to Texas in 10 innings; however, Archer was masterful in locking horns with Process Report favorite Yu Darvish. While Tampa Bay had to prepare for assortment of pitches from Darvish, the Rangers entered the game looking for a fastball feast with a sprinkling of sliders from Archer. They received a steady diet of both, but the youngster introduced a third ingredient: a changeup.
Aside from the increased confidence, Archer returned from Durham with a serviceable off-speed pitch. It is not the quality of James Shields‘ or Jeremy Hellickson‘s, but it does not need to be either. With two plus pitches already to his credit, Archer needed a third pitch to provide more sustenance than substance.
Archer worked seven innings against the Rangers, allowing two runs on four hits and two walks. He struck out 11 batters, generating 16 swings and misses along the way. With the fastball and slider working in unison, the changeup served as a necessary disruption. Archer did not overuse his third option, going to the changeup just 11 times (99 pitches total), but it did the job. The off-speed pitch was credited with eight strikes – including two outs. The Rangers also whiffed on one, took another for a called strike, and fouled the pitch off four times. The four changeups that were hit foul all followed a mid-90s fastball in sequence. In his final start of the season against the Boston Red Sox, he continued to integrated the off-speed pitch—even throwing a handful in two-strike counts.
Despite strong performances as a starter, Archer’s true arrival to stage three, according to Maddon, came in a relief appearance against the Baltimore Orioles. Though Archer would later take the loss, he worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the bottom of the 13th inning. Left with no margin for error, Archer coaxed a force out at home plate before striking out the final two batters to end the inning—including working his way out of a 3-0 jam to Matt Wieters with one out.
With mental advancements to match his growth as a pitcher, Archer is in many ways the prototype for a long-term commitment from the Rays. His blend of youth, talent, and makeup—along with Tampa Bay’s history of targeted investments in the future—make him a prime target for a pre-arbitration extension. Archer and Matt Moore could be a dream pairing for Rays’ executives and the nightmare of rival ones. Also consider that Archer was not a bonus baby (he received just over $160,000 out of high school), meaning both sides may be eager to get a deal done sooner rather than later.