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Is Chris Archer's slider the best pitch in baseball?

Chris Archer has left current and former teammates, opposing hitters and analysts nearly slack-jawed after witnessing his hard, wipeout slider.
Chris Archer has left current and former teammates, opposing hitters and analysts nearly slack-jawed after witnessing his hard, wipeout slider.
Published Jun. 14, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG —The night before facing the Angels a couple of weeks ago, Tigers ace David Price was hanging out in SoCal with Mike Trout when he decided to give the American League MVP a bit of a warning about former Rays teammate Chris Archer.

"I was like, 'Watch out, you get Archer in two days,' " Price said. "I told him, 'You get me tomorrow, but I'm not him. I don't have that stuff. He is going to be showcasing when he pitches.' "

"Showcasing," or just plain showing off. That was the night Archer, riding a staggering slider, struck out a Rays record-tying 15. Trout — after going down swinging three times — was quick to get back to Price.

"As soon as that game ended, Trout texted me, and he was like, 'Your boy is something else. He's throwing 92 mph sliders. Nobody had a chance,' " Price recalled. "He was like, 'That was so impressive.' If you get that guy saying that — and he loves the ball down — that's crazy. Just crazy."

Archer, 26, has been leaving good hitters looking bad much of this season, working a modern major-league record three straight starts with 10-plus strikeouts and no walks, then another seven-plus solid innings against the White Sox on Saturday, striking out five more to push his season total to a majors-most 113.

He not only is earning raves from opponents, scouts and analysts but increasing his credentials to be included on the American League All-Star squad (and even a potential start) as well as Cy Young Award discussion.

"He's really tough," said Nelson Cruz, whose Mariners struck out 23 times in two Archer starts.

"As good as you're going to see," added former Ray and now Angels outfielder Matt Joyce.

• • •

As with almost any pitcher, the foundation for Archer's success has been command of his fastball, the ability to throw the ball where he wants, especially since he throws it with such velocity, averaging nearly 95 mph.

But the focus — and the focal point — has been the slider, which, set up by that fastball, has become a devastating out-pitch as he throws it consistently harder and with more break, and later break, than anyone else.

"I don't think baseball has ever seen this pitch before," Price said. "It's the best pitch in baseball by far. Chris Sale has an unbelievable slider and changeup, and Felix (Hernandez's) changeup is phenomenal, and (Clayton) Kershaw's curveball is really good.

"But if anybody in baseball could have one pitch, it's got to be Archer's slider."

Price might be a bit biased, given his friendship and mentor-type relationship with Archer.

But Angels radio analyst Mark Langston, a four-time All-Star during a 19-year pitching career, has no reason to be, and he is equally effusive.

"His slider is as good a slider as I've seen, maybe ever," Langston said. "That night he pitched against us … it was an impressive performance, something I hadn't seen in a long time.

"I was there when Roger Clemens struck out 20 against us in Seattle, and it was that kind of stuff. In fact, his breaking ball was better than Roger's. … Archer's breaking ball, I don't know if I've ever seen one that hard with that much depth to it."

There are a few pitchers, based on PITCHf/x statistical data, throwing their slider faster than Archer, who is averaging 87.9 mph and has been clocked at 92 a half-dozen times. And there are pitchers throwing their slider with more break than Archer, who gets the ball to drop 8½ to 12 inches and move 6-8 inches across or off the plate, similar to some curveballs.

But that combination, along with the axis Archer creates in releasing the ball and an above-average spin rate (about 2,300 rpms) that increases the difficulty for hitters to see the seams and distinguish it from a fastball, is what sets Archer apart.

"A lot has to do with his hand position, how much he gets his hand turned because that, in essence, is what really creates the movement," Rays bullpen coach Stan Boroski said.

"The unique thing about his is that it has the same movement even at the harder velocities. Generally the harder you throw a pitch, the less it breaks."

• • •

Archer insists he isn't throwing the slider any harder or spinning it any differently this season, though he is throwing it more often (up 10 to 38.7 percent of his pitches) and getting better results, with a swing-and-miss rate of better than 43 percent (and 80 of his 113 strikeouts with it).

"I feel like it's the same, just that I can control it a little better," Archer said. "I think it's just like anything: The more you practice it, the better it gets. I think the difference is the conviction."

Actually, Archer said, he has been throwing the same way since first learning it serendipitously 10 years ago — then having it taken away by his first pitching coach in the Indians system (who thought his curveball was better), sneaking it back into his repertoire after being traded to the Cubs (figuring they wouldn't know the difference between the curve and slider), then being empowered by the Rays to use it as much as he wants after he was called up in June 2012.

Archer was headed into his junior season at North Carolina's Clayton High when a friend inquired if he wanted to throw with her older brother, who had been drafted by the Red Sox and was playing minor-league ball.

Davey Penny asked Archer what he threw, and he said mostly fastballs and curveballs. Penny suggested he try a few other pitches and showed Archer grips for a two-seam fastball and a slider.

"And it's the same slider I throw to this day," Archer said.

After being a 2006 fifth-round pick by Cleveland, Archer was developing slowly overall, and the progress he made in 2010 was wiped away by the trade to the Rays in the Matt Garza deal, as he was frustrated to be sent back to Double A in 2011. But an end-of-season promotion to Triple-A Durham helped, and the connection with Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen (now with the Twins) was promising. "He just simplified everything," Archer said. "And I was able to relax."

Encouraged by Price and James Shields the next spring ("They'd see me throw and they're like, 'How'd you have a 4-something ERA in Double A with what you have?' "), Archer got familiar with big-league pitching coach Jim Hickey, got to work more under Allen's tutelage in Durham and felt he finally got his game together — physically and mentally.

"It was more about trusting my stuff," he said, "and not trying to throw as hard as I could every single pitch."

When Archer was summoned for his big-league debut in June 2012, the Rays encouraged him to use that power slider early and often.

"They were like, 'Don't be afraid to use it in any count or any situation,' " Archer said. "I was like, 'Really?' They didn't really tell me why, but in my mind I was like, 'It's that good that I can throw it to lefties and righties, 3-0 and 0-0?' "

• • •

Technically it's an off-speed pitch, but that was, and very much still is, a relative term. Archer said ever since the day Penny showed him the slider, he threw it hard. It only follows that as his fastball velocity improved, the slider kept pace, the minimal separation between the two making it more effective as hitters have a harder time adjusting. Archer also has refined throwing a slower version for early strikes, then saving the wipeout hard one for the strikeouts.

"I don't know why, that's just the way it comes out," he said. "I was taught to throw it with the same aggressiveness as my fastball."

With all the success, accolades and attention, Archer maintains he is still working — and working hard — to get better. Price is even more impressed.

"He's starting to get it now on the mound," Price said. "And not only does he get it — not that he didn't believe in himself before — but he knows how good he is right now and how good he can be.

"He's not a finished product by any means. He can still get much better, and he knows that. And he still has the work ethic and the drive to do that.

"So I think Arch could take over the game for a while."

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.