ST. LOUIS -- In the corner of the Rays’ clubhouse at Tropicana Field, there used to be a yellow sign hanging on the wall by James Shields’ locker. Written on that sign were words passed down from James Shields to David Price and Chris Archer to a generation of younger Tampa Bay pitchers: If you don’t like it, pitch better.
With his ERA approaching 6.00 last month, Archer decided he didn’t like the results he was getting. It was time to pitch better. But really, he said earlier this week, it was time to pitch more like himself.
“If you’re not happy with your results, there’s only one thing you can do: Be better,” Archer said. “I think I learned to be better within yourself and not try to be a different type of pitcher.”
The pitcher who has put together a pair of quality starts with 18 strikeouts in 12 innings since the All-Star break is much more reminiscent of the Archer who emerged as a front-of-the-rotation arm in Tampa Bay. His last two times out, Archer has held opponents to a .182/.245/.341 slash line.
He may not have been as dominant in the Pirates’ loss to the Cardinals on Wednesday as he was while racking up a season-high 10 strikeouts in six innings at Wrigley Field last Friday, but he was better than he’s often been in a Pirates uniform. What has changed?
Archer came to realize that, while trying to improve over the past 12 months, he got away from what made him most effective in Tampa Bay.
Around this time last year, he reintroduced a two-seam fastball that he hadn’t thrown since 2014 and added a curveball in an effort to become a more complete pitcher. Then the Rays traded him last July 31 to the Pirates, who rose to prominence from '13-'15 with pitching staffs built around pitching to contact and putting the ball on the ground.
That style didn’t suit Archer. Opponents are batting .391 with an .848 slugging percentage against his sinker this season, according to Statcast, compared to .213/.415 against his four-seamer, .205/.523 against his changeup and .226/.387 against his slider. His two-seamer was so ineffective that he decided last month to shelve the pitch entirely.
“I think I went a little too far,” Archer said. “The guys who need to sink it and need to be more crafty, they have a different arsenal than I do. I don’t have to be so crafty. My track record speaks for itself. I was determined to get better results, and I just went a little too far with it.
“Pitching to contact’s not my thing. It’s just not. I can be extremely efficient with what I have as long as I am consistent and harness what I have.”
In his last four starts, Archer has ditched his two-seamer and embraced his best pitches: his mid-90s four-seam fastball and a wipeout slider that he says is “one of the best pitches in the game.”
“It’s one of the best pitches in baseball because it has so much spin and it’s so hard,” said catcher Jacob Stallings, who has been paired with Archer for nine straight starts. “He can throw it down and away to a righty and get more depth on it. At times, they’re waiting for it to come down and it almost plays more like a cutter at 91 [mph]. It’s hard to hit.”
Archer has learned to trust his stuff and understand his identity, but he isn’t done searching for ways to evolve. He’s using his changeup more than he did with the Rays, and his curveball is turning into a legitimate weapon.
“I have pitches that I know get ground balls. I have pitches that get weak contact, weak fly balls, and I have pitches that make people miss,” Archer said. “I’m confident in all of those. I’m throwing something that I don’t have any doubt in right now.”
Archer has complete confidence in his delivery, too. After a rough first month with the Pirates, he junked his windup and pitched exclusively out of the stretch as he recorded a 2.70 ERA last September. That carried into this year, but there Archer was at Wrigley Field last Friday winding up before each offering. Where did that come from?
Archer wanted to feel more rhythm and tempo in his delivery, so he started experimenting during his final bullpen session before the All-Star break. He spent the break in Miami “just to get some sun and some beach” time, he said, but he wanted to get on the mound again before starting the second-half opener. Pirates strength coach Jim Malone had a contact at the University of Miami who let Archer use their facilities.
So Archer stepped on the mound in Miami’s bullpen, throwing to a man named Justin whom he met that day, and fired a few pitches out of the windup. It felt right, and it worked.
“His stuff’s playing really well right now,” Stallings said.
His first year in Pittsburgh hasn’t gone according to plan, but perhaps the Pirates will now get a good look at the real Chris Archer.
“He continues to get better,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s working hard to be the best he can be.”