How Can Chris Archer Improve Upon His Strong Start?

Archer's 2017 season has gotten off to a solid start, but there are a couple areas in which he can get better in order to sustain it.

The 2016 season was a roller coaster ride of sorts for Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer.

After a disappointing first half in which he posted a 4.66 ERA and 4.25 FIP to go with a 9.9% walk rate and 1.47 homers allowed per nine innings (all worse than his career numbers), he saved his season following the All-Star break by dropping those numbers to a 3.25 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 5.2% walk rare and 1.18 homer per nine.

Like they have been for years, the Rays are built around their young starting pitching, which needs to lead the way if they want a chance at making the postseason in 2017. That starts with Archer, who is the ace of this staff and must set the tone with his performance on the mound.

He's done just that through his first 53 1/3 innings of work (eight starts), as he owns a 3-1 record with a 3.04 ERA, 2.80 FIP and a 27.3% strikeout rate to go along with a 7.4% walk rate and just 0.68 homers allowed per nine innings.

But as it is with most hurlers, there are areas to improve upon so this productive start can be sustained for the long haul.

Generating More Ground Balls

One of Archer's best qualities on the mound is his ability to rack up strikeouts with his mid-90s fastball -- his 25.7% strikeout rate from last season ranked as one of the top 15 among qualified starters. However, he's also been effective by keeping batted balls against him on the ground nearly half the time hitters put one of his offerings in play.

Archer has a career 46.2% ground-ball rate, and the 47.2% mark he posted last year was a single-season career high, while also being one of the top 25 in the game. So far in 2017, though, his 39.1% ground-ball rate is among one of the 30 lowest among qualified pitchers, and it doesn't at all match up with his second-half dominance from last year.

The below chart compares his batted-ball data between both halves of 2016 and this year. We'll be focusing on BABIP, line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%) and fly-ball rate (FB%).

Time Period BABIP LD% GB% FB%
2016 - 1st Half .321 21.3% 45.8% 32.9%
2016 - 2nd Half .265 13.2% 50.2% 36.6%
2017 .296 20.3% 39.1% 40.6%

When looking at this data, one can conclude that he's encountered some good fortune en route to his strong start. His 3.42 Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) tells us such, but it's not as if he didn't earn the numbers he's produced.

However, when we combine the above portion of his batted-ball profile with his quality of contact numbers, he may be getting a little more fortunate than we're realizing.

Limiting Hard Contact

Similar to the numbers we just looked at, there is a clear difference between Archer's rough first half, second-half resurgence and this season's strong start. Using these three different periods of time, the below table will compare the soft-hit rate (Soft%), medium-hit rate (Med%) and hard-hit rate (Hard%).

Time Period Soft% Med% Hard%
2016 - 1st Half 17.8% 47.7% 34.5%
2016 - 2nd Half 18.2% 51.2% 30.6%
2017 15.8% 48.2% 36.0%

If sustained over a full season, that 15.8% soft-hit rate would actually be the second worst in Archer's career (15.1% in 2013), and it'd only be the second time it's been below 17.0% since debuting in 2012.

That's already not the best news, but what makes it worse is that what's getting subtracted from his soft-hit rate is basically being added to his hard-hit rate, which would be a single-season career high.

How it Can Be Accomplished

Knowing all of these concerning trends are great, but how can Archer go about fixing them so he can have sustained success?

One area the right-hander can concentrate on is where he's locating his pitches. We've seen how successful Dallas Keuchel has been this season by keeping the ball low in the zone, and that's something Archer should take note of.

The below graph (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) displays the vertical location of Archer's fastball, slider and changeup since the start of the 2015 season.

It shouldn't be shocking to find out his ground-ball rate is as low as it's ever been after looking at how the location of his offerings have changed during this timeframe.

All of his pitches were being located higher in 2016 than in 2015, but we can see the location going down throughout the second half of last season. When looking at where things have been landing so far this year, most are pretty close to being in line with what Archer has recently been doing, but the current rise needs to be corrected.

Once it is, we can expect his ground-ball rate to creep back up to levels we're more accustomed to seeing from the right-hander.

Archer's 2017 has gotten off to a great start -- and much better than his start from last year -- but for it to continue, locating his pitches (especially his secondary offerings) will be very important moving forward.