Just How Dominant Has Chris Archer Been in 2015?

Chris Archer‘s surgical decimation of the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday afternoon was remarkable in more ways than one. Archer dazzled over eight nearly flawless frames, allowing just two hits while walking none and striking out 12. But this latest outing is only a microcosm of the immense success Archer has enjoyed over the first two months of this 2015 season, leading a Rays staff that has been riddled with injuries to an absurd degree.

Following his first Opening Day start, in which he struggled with his composure and surrendered a pair of back-breaking home runs in a losing effort, Archer didn’t allow an earned run for the rest of the month — a period of 26.2 innings — while generating more whiffs and walking fewer batters. Archer sustained stellar fastball command, making his marvelous slider even more effective, and the results were astounding.

The beginning of the month of May didn’t favor Archer in the same way, however. In back-to-back home starts — the first of which was the middle game of that strange series in which Baltimore was the home team at Tropicana Field — Archer’s command eluded him in a big way, leading to walks, hard contact on pitches in the strike zone, and a pair of extremely frustrating outings. But it was Archer’s outstanding conclusion of the month, including that masterful performance against Seattle, that cemented his position among the best in the game in the early going of this 2015 campaign.

Archer’s brilliant numbers across the board are a convincing indicator of his greatness. Already a two-win player according to FanGraphs, Archer rivals even the most premier starters in Major League Baseball regardless of what stat, metric, or algorithm you choose to scrutinize. Archer has excelled in the area of run prevention, as indicated by his fabulous 2.12 ERA, but it’s his expected ERA of 2.42, which ranks fifth best in MLB among qualified starters, that suggests sustainability.

Utilizing an overpowering mid-90s fastball and a tight slider — which has been his best offering at 10.8 slider runs above average, according to PITCHf/x values — Archer has reached another level of effectiveness on the mound in 2015. His success stems from improved and more consistent command, which is an especially critical aspect for a pitcher like Archer, who works with a limited, albeit electric, repertoire. Archer has enjoyed an uptick in ground ball percentage while preserving a tremendous strikeout rate (10.85 K/9). He’s also throwing more first pitch strikes and getting swings-and-misses at a career-best rate (12.2 swinging strike percentage).

In other words, Archer is getting ahead in the count with regularity, putting himself in position to put hitters away quicker, typically with his slider, and therefore becoming more efficient. The next step in the now 26-year-old’s development should be the inclusion of a changeup. To be fair, Archer does throw a changeup but so infrequently that it’s essentially irrelevant in his mix. I’ve written on this subject before, last season in fact, when Archer showed such potential but struggled mightily with command at times.

To clarify, when Archer harnesses his command, which he has for the majority of the 2015 season, he can be absolutely dominant just fastball/slider. The prevalence of a changeup would simply give Archer a formidable out-pitch for those starts in which a feel for the strike zone escapes him. Furthermore, that pitch would become even more important toward the back-end of Archer’s career when he most likely won’t be able to reach back and overwhelm hitters at 97 mph.

The fact that Archer has worked so proficiently with primarily a two-pitch arsenal is a demonstration of unbelievable talent and first-class development. Regardless of any tweaks/additions, the sky is the limit for Archer, who has established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the early stages of a competitive American League Cy Young race. But first things first; at this pace, Archer might as well plan a mid-July trip to Cincinnati for the 2015 MLB All-Star game.

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