If you happen to watch the Fox Sports Detroit broadcast on Wednesday evening, you will hear all about Chris Archer’s 19 losses in 2016. The Tigers’ broadcasters mentioned that statistic multiple times on Tuesday, and Archer wasn’t even pitching yet. This is yet another part of the narrative that Archer had a bad season last year, leading some to undervalue him heading into 2017.
Don’t believe them.
Archer’s 9-19 record doesn’t look good on the back of a baseball card, but a close look at the numbers suggests he was nearly the same pitcher we saw dominate the American League in 2015. His strikeout and walk rates were nearly identical, with the strikeout rate dipping ever so slightly. Opponents made the same quality of contact, and even managed a lower line drive rate off Archer in 2016 compared to the season prior. The main difference was Archer’s home run rate, which jumped to 1.34 per nine innings. Over 16 percent of the fly balls he allowed left the ballpark, a rate well above his career norms.
Already, he seems to have “regressed” back to those norms. He has yet to allow a home run through three regular season starts, allowing just five runs in 20 1⁄3 innings. The strikeouts are not there quite yet, but will return soon — perhaps after facing the occasionally swing-happy Tigers offense on Wednesday.
Can the Tigers solve Archer and even the series?
Detroit Tigers (8-5) at Tampa Bay Rays (7-8)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Tropicana Field
SB Nation blog: DRaysBay
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 5.06 ERA) vs. RHP Chris Archer (2-0, 2.21 ERA)
Game 14 Pitching Matchup
Jordan Zimmermann did not have a good day in his last outing, allowing five runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Minnesota Twins. Zimmermann walked five hitters in the outing, an uncharacteristically high total for a pitcher with a career walk rate of just 5.1 percent. Zimmermann told reporters that he did not have a good grip on the ball, resulting in the clear command problems that plagued him throughout his outing.
When it comes to walks, Zimmermann’s outing should not be cause for concern. Even last season, his walk rate only climbed to 5.8 percent, better than most pitchers on the Tigers staff (including that Justin Verlander guy). However, Zimmermann’s velocity, which was down throughout 2016, is still a bit of a red flag.
Much was made of Zimmermann’s velocity returning to pre-2016 levels in spring training. That does not appear to be the case.
Fortunately, his movement seems to have improved compared to last season.
It’s early, but Zimmermann’s fastball has more vertical movement than at any point in the past three seasons. This would allow him to attack the upper half of the strike zone more easily, as opponents are more likely whiff or get under fastballs with high vertical movement readings.
This all comes back to the command. Zimmermann needs to be able to locate his fastball to keep hitters off balance. If this part of his game returns, so can the pitcher we saw in the first six weeks of 2016.
Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. lots of swinging strikes
Archer may have had a “down” season in 2016, but he still generated over 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Opponents swung and missed at 12.2 percent of the pitches he threw, tied for the seventh-highest rate among qualified MLB starters last year. He has a 12.5 percent swinging strike rate over the past two seasons, the 10th-highest rate among qualified MLB starters. He has 38 strikeouts in 34 2⁄3 career innings against the Tigers, including 14 in two meetings last year.
This makes for a bad matchup against the Tigers. We looked at the Rays’ swing-and-miss tendencies on Tuesday, but the Tigers are not far behind. They have an 11.2 percent whiff rate as a team, the sixth-highest in baseball. This is only slightly higher than last season’s 10.2 percent whiff rate, and they are not likely to regress towards that number against an electric arm like Archer.
The Tigers were able to pull a fast one on the Cleveland Indians over the weekend, beating Carlos Carrasco in the rubber match of the series behind a strong outing from Matt Boyd. Any team can win or lose a baseball game on any given day, but starting pitching matchups as lopsided as this one will generally tilt towards the more talented pitcher. Archer has gotten off to a blazing start in 2017, and should be able to exploit a Tigers lineup with a bit of swing and miss to its game. The Tigers will need to drive up Archer’s pitch count early to get into the soft underbelly of Tampa’s pen. Otherwise, it could be a long night.
The Tigers strike out lots of times and lose.