The Braves need an ace!
This is complicated because there is no universal idea of what an “ace” actually is. Is it the game’s absolute elite pitchers? Is it the top thirty starters (one for each team)? What is it? Is it like pornography and you just know what you see it? Whatever it is, according to many fans, the Braves need one because what they have isn’t quite satisfying. Julio Teheran is coming off a down year while many, myself included, believe Mike Foltynewicz is a better fit in the pen. Youngsters like Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara provide hope and the next wave of super prospects (Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard) could be in the mix by next summer. Nevertheless, what the Braves do not have is one of the game’s better pitchers.
Enter Chris Archer. If your definition of an ace is an elite pitcher or one of the best 30 starters, Archer seems like your guy. Over the last three years, only seven pitchers have a higher fWAR than Archer. He’s durable, a strikeout machine, and has a 3.36 FIP and 3.25 xFIP since 2015.
Oh, and the Rays are at least considering dealing Archer, who is controlled through 2021 via two cheap options. He’ll earn $6.2 million next season and another $27.5 million over the three seasons that follow. Naturally, such a team friendly deal and an ace-caliber pitcher makes the Rays hesitant to part with their star. It also drives up the cost of acquiring a cost-controlled righty heading into his Age-29 season.
Atlanta is one of the few organizations that could potentially pry away Archer. Unlike many potential trade targets being thrown around (Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado), Archer won’t be a free agent before the Braves are truly competitive. It seems like a perfect match, right?
Hold on for a second, though. The cost of acquiring Archer will be very significant. Any prospect not named Ronald Acuna would be in play. Even if you can accept that – prospects are fickle, right? – there could be some concerns related to Archer that need to be brought into the discussion.
Let me be clear – I don’t care that Archer lost 19 games in 2016. I have little use for the win-loss statistic for pitchers. Chris Archer having a career record of 51-63 means about as much to me as Carlos Zambrano having a career record of 132-91. These marks don’t really tell me much that can’t be better explained via more accurate metrics of a pitcher’s performance.
What does concern me with Archer is something my friend and former Tomahawk Take contributor Benjamin Chase pointed out recently in regards to Archer. Chase explained to me on twitter that acquiring Archer could be a disaster for another team and he directed me to an article he wrote at his new home (Puckett’s Pond). Here’s a taste.
One of the things I think that you would notice if you took a look at Archer’s profile of batted ball. He doesn’t have any specific out of line numbers in ground balls, fly balls, or line drives, or even fly ball rate. However, what you see is that of all types of hits, Archer allows only 16.6% career soft contact. He has seen that number go down from his rookie year (the only season he was above 20% weak contact) down to 13.2% in 2017.
Let’s look deeper into those numbers.
Let’s add some context. In 2017, major league hitters had a .142 wOBA and -23 wRC+ when contact was graded as “soft.” Makes sense, right? Conversely, hitters had a wOBA of .696 and a 348 wRC+ when the contact was “hard.” Ouch. Medium isn’t too shabby with a wOBA of .252 and a wRC+ of 51. The goal here is to get as little hard contact as possible according to what the data says.
However, that’s not Archer. He finished second behind Robbie Ray last season in Hard% and ranks 6th since 2012 among pitchers with at least 500 innings. While his Soft% is outside the bottom 30 over the last five years, nobody matched his Soft% in 2017. Clearly, Archer isn’t doing things the easy way.
Now, let’s add a “but” to the discussion. Are there underlying factors leading to these rates which often are associated with weak production, but don’t seem to affect Archer? Some would argue pitch selection. Archer’s always been a fastball/slider guy at his core with the occasional changeup. Over the last three years, he’s scrapped his sinker and thrown almost exclusively a four-seam fastball. The Crawfish Boxes looked at the quality of contact in relation to pitches back in 2015 and did find a stronger-than-normal relationship between Hard% and a four-seam fastball, which is Archer’s go-to pitch. His other favorite pitch, a slider, shows a smaller inverse correlation with hard contact, though.
If you are about to argue that Archer’s velocity leads to a harder-hit rate, it’s worth knowing that the data doesn’t support that. For more on that, read Joe Lemire’s article from USA Today two years ago when Statcast was new.
In his article, Chase also argued potential arm health issues related to Archer’s extreme use of a slider. It’s a rarity to see a starter throw a slider as frequently as Archer does. He’s one of two qualified starters to throw the pitch at least 40% over the last two years. The other is Michael Pineda. He would miss the second half of the 2017 season with Tommy John surgery, the latest in a slew of pitching-related injuries that have limited Pineda to just 509 innings in the majors over the last six years. Could an abundance of sliders lead to health concerns later for Archer?
Certainly, it would be foolish to ignore that possibility, but let’s also not ignore that Archer has been remarkably durable while throwing a lot of sliders during his career. It’s difficult to use innings in the minors as a sign of durability because of pitch counts, but after two years mostly in rookie ball, Archer made 25+ starts five consecutive seasons from ’08 to ’12. Since his first full season in 2014, only five pitchers have thrown more innings, yet only two pitchers have thrown more sliders as a percentage (min. 400 innings). Is he a ticking time bomb or is he a freak of nature?
One other thing – Chase mentioned that he heard someone compare Archer to Javier Vazquez and found the comparison appropriate. Vazquez, like Archer, had underlying numbers that showed that he should have been better than his results, but for whatever reason, he wasn’t. Between 1998 and 2011, Vazquez ranked fourth behind Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, and Pedro Martinez in fWAR. Yes, he only had a 165-160 record during that, but he was a durable innings-eater with a higher level of performance than a guy like Livan Hernandez. If Archer is Vazquez, I’m quite happy.
But Vazquez is hardly considered an ace. Should Archer be? And should Atlanta put up the kind of prospects needed to acquire him? Let’s look at one more split.
Close your eyes and name an ace. Wait, you closed your eyes and can’t read the second part of that sentence. Did you open them back up? Good. Think about an ace and say his name loud and proud.
Clayton Kershaw? .252 wOBA
Chris Sale? .278 wOBA
Max Scherzer? .276 wOBA
Corey Kluber? .248 wOBA
Jake Arrieta? .289 wOBA
Jose Quintana? .323 wOBA
Zack Greinke? .291 wOBA
What does that mark refer to? Hitters’ production when facing a pitcher for the third time through the order over the last three years. Data tells us pitchers hold the edge as a general rule the first and second time through the order, but the third time is when the pendulum swings. How fiercely it swings is a sign of a pitcher’s ability to pitch deeply into games and generally be the “ace” people desperately want. The seven I used are the only seven pitchers with a better fWAR over the last three years than Archer.
Before I forget, Archer’s wOBA in that ultra-important third time through the order? .321. Let’s provide context to that number. One hundred and 12 pitchers have faced enough hitters through the third time in the order the last three years to reach 75 innings. Kluber ranks second. Kershaw is third. Scherzer is seventh. And Sale ranks 8th. Arrieta is a little lower at 15th and Greinke a bit behind him. Archer? 42nd.
That makes sense, right? If you depend on just two pitches, hitters will eventually time them and recognize them no matter how good they are. Over the last four years, Kluber has thrown 15 complete games. Kershaw has tossed 14. Sale has completed ten. They can do that because they have something to keep a hitter off-balanced in the seventh and eighth innings. Archer has thrown one complete game in that time frame. His FIP after the fifth inning is 4.78.
To Sum Up…
I realize this article has been a little all over the place. I’d apologize, but for me, this has been a thinking exercise. I entered believing that Archer is one of the greatest pitchers in today’s game. Now, I’m not so sure about that.
To be clear, that’s not to argue that Archer isn’t a good option to target. He’s still eighth in fWAR over the last three years and that’s an accomplishment. He would still make the Braves 2-4 wins better than with an average replacement. But should Atlanta go down that route, they need to do so with the idea that the young righty may not be quite as good as we have been trained to believe. They need to understand that he’s not your typical ace. Archer’s probably not going to throw eight big innings in a playoff game. He’ll likely need to be replaced in the fifth or sixth inning instead.
They also need to understand that to this point, Archer’s been remarkably healthy, but he’ll turn 30 next September. How long can he remain healthy despite throwing more sliders than just about any other starter?
None of this should completely kill Atlanta’s interest in Archer, but it probably should limit their willingness to give Tampa a package full of B+ and higher prospects. In a vacuum, Archer is a great fit, but the kind of package needed to get him should be considered. Trades are rarely black-and-white. You have to evaluate the player’s performance, projected performance, and how much he would help you if you added him to your team. You then try to adjust what you may offer for that player (money and/or prospects) with all of the data available. Archer is a very good pitcher – possibly one of the best ten pitchers in baseball. But he is the difference maker Atlanta needs? Is his arm a time-bomb ready to explode? That’s what Alex Anthopoulos and the Braves will have to decide before crafting a potential package to offer Tampa Bay.