If there’s one thing Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow likes, it’s a big bargain on the margins.
If there’s one thing Pitching Coach Brent Strom likes, it’s reclaiming value or improving broken or aging pitchers.
If there’s one thing the Pittsburgh Pirates like, it’s dismantling any payroll escalation that they can even if some of the trades don’t end up making a lot of baseball sense.
Hi, I’m Jason Marbach. Welcome to my TED Talk.
Why It Will Fail
The first thing to recognize in this hypothetical trade targeting scenario is that the Pirates may simply not be interested. Chris Archer’s contract is honestly ridiculously cheap, all things considered - his guaranteed contract ends after 2019, and he has two options (for 2020 and 2021) that are valued at $8.25 million each. Pocket change, if we’re being honest. They are not a good baseball team this year, but they may not view themselves as terribly far away, and they certainly have been already raked over the coals (deservedly so) in the press and from the Pittsburgh Faithful for how much they gave up in the trade to acquire Chris Archer in the first place - Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Baz, all of whom have serious talent and two of whom are already producing at a high level in the Major Leagues.
Perhaps the incentive isn’t as strong as I’d like for them to sell low on Archer.
But then again...considering that Pitching Coach Ray Searage’s stubborn insistence on adhering to his outdated sinker/two seam fastball philosophy with the Pirates is rendering Archer damn near unplayable (a philosophy which Searage does not appear close to abandoning) this season...perhaps they might consider a trade to recoup a little value after all.
Why It Will Succeed
The reasons this trade might happen are fairly compelling. As noted in the introduction, Jeff Luhnow and Brent Strom are rightfully famous for their excitement for (and success in) reclaiming pitchers who need a tweak or three to elevate their game. The list of success stories is quite long at this point, and includes a range of players from former journeymen and diminished once-dominant pitchers (Collin McHugh, Will Harris, Charlie Morton, Hector Rondon) to unknown or unheralded established players (Ryan Pressly, Tony Sipp, Ken Giles) all the way to bonafide stars (Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole) who had another gear they could shift to with the proper tools at their disposal.
From the Pirates’ perspective, Ray Searage’s time as a guru on the forefront of the pitching revolution has long passed. While not every pitcher who comes through Pittsburgh these days founders and flails, enough in recent years have done just that and then gone on to have marked success elsewhere after a change in philosophy (Cole, Morton, Glasnow to name a few) that logically coincides with the change in bat path coaching over the last few years during the launch angle revolution as to render his ability to adapt and evolve suspect at best. Simply put, more and more players are elevating their swing trajectories, giving them greater leverage especially on pitches down in the zone...where Ray Searage’s sinkerball pitchers live.
How does this relate to Archer, exactly? Let’s take a look at...
As with most any pitcher who’s been in the league as long as Archer, who debuted in 2012, there have been ebbs and flows for him - both in terms of his repertoire and in terms of his results. He was consistently very good in Tampa Bay, however, despite his run prevention (ERA) not quite keeping up with his peripherals the last couple of seasons. He accrued 18.9 fWAR over the course of seven seasons (two of them shortened - his debut season, and the season he was traded, in 2018) and 1,063 innings (1,057.1 as a starter) pitched in Tampa, which averaged out to around 3 wins per full season. In that stretch, he notched a 9.70 K/9 and a 2.94 BB/9 - both of these are very good numbers, especially the K rate. He maintained a reasonable 12.0% HR/FB percentage and allowed less than a home run per nine innings while stranding around 72% of batters and maintaining an extremely normal, basically average .300 BABIP over that span.
In spite of pretty normal cluster luck and sequencing results, however, he still pitched to the tune of a (very good, but not quite elite) 3.69 ERA over his Rays career. If we look a little deeper than just the surface run prevention metric that has been used in baseball for decades upon endless decades, however, his career FIP and xFIP marks over the same time look quite a bit more like an excellent number two starter at worst: his 3.48 FIP and 3.45 xFIP in that time frame rated him roughly on par with (or even slightly better than, in some cases) names like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Johnny Cueto, and others.
The reasons for the discrepancy in actual run prevention versus deserved run prevention are likely complex - it may be a combination of ballpark factors (his road splits while in the AL East and playing in Boston, New York, and Baltimore several starts a year were not kind over the course of his Rays career - though he has maintained his road woes as a Pirate as well thus far) and defensive shortcomings of those Rays teams, and it could be something else. Whatever the reasons, he consistently pitched better than his baseline run prevention numbers showed while a Ray.
After the disastrous (for the Pirates) trade to acquire him at the deadline in 2018 and after giving him a full offseason to completely acclimate, a very predictable thing has been happening (insert the standard “beware of automated pitch recognition’s imperfections” warning here) with Archer’s pitch usage in Pittsburgh: he’s throwing the four-seam fastball less, and throwing the two-seam/sinking fastball more. Here’s an interesting (if not singular gospel on its own, I don’t mind acknowledging) correlative look I snagged last week when I started writing this piece, courtesy of FanGraphs:
While it certainly doesn’t imply causation by itself, the correlation is pretty stark, especially outside of that one weird season he had in 2014 (aided, no doubt, by a ridiculously low 6.9% HR/FB mark) where he threw the two seam/sinking fastball over 40% of the time. The very best season of his career was 2015 - that year, he posted a 5.1 fWAR mark to go with his 10.70 K/9 and 2.80 BB/9. In correlation, we see that that season wasn’t only his highest percentage of four-seam fastballs thrown, it was also the first season he eschewed the two-seam fastball entirely.
He kept the two-seamer removed from his repertoire entirely over the next two seasons as well, and continued to pound the four-seam fastball - albeit in percentage amounts that decrease shockingly near to the inverse curve of his ERA increase over that span. Basically, beginning in 2015, the less often he threw his four-seam fastball, the higher his ERA climbed. And then, in 2018 (the year he was traded to the Pirates), he began throwing the two-seamer again and cutting his four-seam usage even further. That trend has continued into 2019 even more starkly, and the principle has still held true: the more often Chris Archer has been throwing his two-seam fastball (either in addition to or at the expense of his four-seam fastball) the higher his ERA has climbed.
Now, it isn’t that simple. Of course it isn’t that simple. There’s quite a bit more to it, actually. But this seems an important data point - perhaps the most important data point - in understanding why Chris Archer is sinking into the morass at the moment: his two-seam fastball is bollocks. Sorry, but it is. If you didn’t click over to the FanGraphs article, here: before yet another stinker of a start yesterday (five innings, four earned runs, three walks, but eight strikeouts) Archer had allowed a .370/.485/.815 slash line on his two-seam pitch this season. StatCast has said the pitch is even worse than that - the pitch came into Sunday with a .403 xBA, a .761 xSLG, and a .522 xWOBA, which is...it’s really bad.
And (again, gotta give credit to the FanGraphs article that beat me to publication here - their dive into the data is just right, as one would expect) while the truth is that Archer is not throwing his two-seamer a huge percentage of the time, the real damage is coming because he’s pairing it with a fairly pedestrian four-seam fastball to offer hitters a very high percentage of extremely hittable fastballs, to the detriment of his (still-good) slider.
The FanGraphs piece (here’s the link again, if you missed it before) goes in-depth with a lot of the data I was hoping to use for this piece, so I’ll just link to it with a hearty recommendation (as always) to subscribe to FanGraphs and read everything they put out, all the time - it’s a must-read website for baseball fans. The data in this case is pretty clear about Archer’s two-seam fastball having several inches less vertical break than you’d like to see, and that he’s leaving the vast majority of his two seam fastballs right in the heart of the plate. It’s just an ugly pitch.
The real question is: can the Astros fix it?
I see no reason to expect the Astros to have difficulty reclaiming quite a lot of Archer’s value just by abandoning the bad two seam fastball entirely. This is to say nothing of perhaps using the Edgertronic cameras to pinpoint slightly better tunneling and maybe a mechanics tweak or two to help the four seam fastball achieve greater efficacy - or any (wink wink nudge nudge) possible gains to be had in spin rates.
(Yeah, I know, it’s a lame thing for opponents to make excuses about, but the team is bringing out the best in their pitchers’ abilities to spin the baseball, that has been fairly well established at this point)
No, we can set aside the possible additional gains the brain trust in the Astros management might extract from Chris Archer’s right arm - the trade has some serious silver lining even in solely considering what would surely be a rock bottom acquisition price (again, assuming the Pirates are even interested in selling him at this point) coupled with the obvious gains they’d achieve simply by coaching him to completely abandon the two-seam pitch. It’s easy to see an immediate number three caliber starter in Archer when coupled with Brent Strom and the Astros’ biomechanics geniuses, and likely for a much lower acquisition price than a guy like Marcus Stroman would cost. If the Pirates are interested in recouping a little of the disastrous losses they suffered in moving for Archer in the first place, the Astros would do very well to clear a little Triple-A logjam by moving talented-but-mostly-blocked Derek Fisher and a pair of lower-level prospects (think guys like Deury Carrasco and Nivaldo Rodriguez) to Fisher’s home state of Pennsylvania in exchange for Chris Archer.
Of course, one might want to swing even bigger and shoot for a larger deal including Felipe Vazquez as well...but yeah, that might be a whole different article, on second thought.