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Many of the pitchers at the top of the scrap heap have fallen off track recently, but I noticed a few players this past week who were at the top of their games. One of them made a ton of money in the offseason, one of them has defied DIPS theory for years and one of them started the season in the game's upper atmosphere, but his continued tumbles have sent him far down the mountain.

Chris Archer
Archer has struggled all season long, piling up strikeouts but also giving away runs like they’re going out of style. He started the season by trading solid starts with clunkers, a pattern that continued through the end of May and gave the impression that he was on the verge of solving his issues, but June involved a steady stream of three-to-four-run outings. He had a streak of eight straight starts in which three or more runs crossed the plate and the occasional K spike could do little to stop his free fall from pitching’s Mt. Olympus.

He started June with 5.2 scoreless innings against the Tigers, including 10 strikeouts in the contest, before enduring a couple more rough ones against division powerhouses Boston and Baltimore. So when he visited Coors Field for some interleague action on July 20, the reasonable expectation was that the Rockies were going to have a field day, at least at the plate.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

July 20

6.0

2

4

0

2

11

105

July 15

7.1

4

7

2

1

6

105

One of the biggest knocks against Archer has been that he is basically a two-pitch pitcher, relying heavily on a fastball and slider due to an ineffective changeup, and such pitchers often have particular troubles in Coors because the bite is taken off the slider. So he naturally had one of his best games of the year while pitching at altitude. He basically ditched the change completely in this game, throwing just two cambios among his 104 pitches on the night, but leading the charge was his slider, with an astounding 52 breakers thrown. Go figure.

Of his 11 strikeouts against the Rockies, six were polished off by the slider and the other five were finished on fastballs. His slider lost small amounts of break compared to usual, as the PITCHf/x data via Brooks Baseball indicates that his vertical drop only suffered by about 0.3 inches and his lateral movement was about 0.8 inches less, on average. The visual impression as well as the heavy-winded result indicates that Archer’s slider was essentially altitude-proof, at least for a day, and the fact that it was working so well (perhaps better than expected) might explain why the right-hander threw so many sliders in the game. Both of his walks came on 3-2 sliders that didn’t invoke swings.

For the season, his 10.7 K/9 ties his rate from last year on a per-inning basis, but the fact that Archer is facing so many more hitters per inning has masked the fact that his strikeout percentage has actually gone down, from 29.0 percent in 2015 to 27.3 percent this season. Meanwhile, his walk rate has shot up nearly two percentage points and his homer rate has jumped from 2.2 percent last year to the 3.7 percent of this year.

Much was made about his velo loss early in the season, and though Archer’s 2016 average is still down a tick from last year, he’s cruising along at 95 mph and has had games in which his average pitch-speed matched the 96 mph standard of last season. Command has been the biggest issue, supported by the spikes in walks and homers in 2016, but he was able to locate for a day in Colorado.

Chris Tillman
The Orioles have lacked a true no. 1 starter in the traditional sense, but Tillman got the nod on Opening Day (for two innings) and has been the de facto ace of the Baltimore pitching staff this season. The offense has helped TiIlman to a Cy-tastic 14-2 record this season, but up until a few starts ago, his overall line was nothing special. He plays his home games in one of the toughest venues for pitchers and yet is a perfect 8-0 with a 3.23 ERA and almost a strikeout per inning (68 Ks in 69.2 IP) in his 12 starts at Camden Yards. That said, opponents have managed an OPS that is 99 points higher when Tillman pitches at home versus when he’s on the road.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

July 21

7.0

1

4

0

2

7

102

July 16

7.0

1

4

0

3

3

92

His last four starts have all been ridiculously similar, as he has given up one earned run over exactly 7.0 innings in each outing (three of which were on the road). He’s done so despite a low K count over that span (17 Ks in 28 innings) but with a low hit count to match, with just 16 base hits against him during those four contests of July. He hasn’t allowed a home run, either, and Tillman’s season-long roadblock on the basepaths has continued, as would-be base stealers are 0-for-2 this month and 0-for-3 on the season.

His performance on the season somewhat mirrors this four-game stretch, with a remarkable ability to keep runs off the scoreboard considering his unremarkable peripheral stats, including a K/BB ratio of just 2.25 that is actually a bit better than his career average.

So how does he do it?

He doesn’t get a ton of groundballs, as Tillman ranks 80th among 102 qualifying pitchers (90 or more IP) with a 42 percent groundball rate. That leaves him vulnerable to the homer-friendly confines of Camden Yards. He does get a lot of popups, though. Tillman ranked 17th in the same subset of pitchers with a popup rate of 9.2 percent, so that helps us to understand part of the equation. The median is 6.5 percent and Tillman recorded popouts on 8.2 percent of batters last season, so the extra popups account for a small portion of his stat line.

Tillman is throwing a half-tick harder this year and has gone to the fastball more often (from 52 percent to 57 percent), moving toward the positive side of the bell curve with his 93.25 mph average this season, so he uptick in velo is likely adding to his effectiveness, as well.

One key to his success has been a low BABiP that Tillman has been able to repeat through the years (and which is certainly helped by the extra popups). Tillman has a .264 BABiP, far below the league average of .300, but he also posted a .268 BABiP in 2014 and a .271 mark in ‘13, so it’s not completely out of line. Interestingly, his ERA also beat his FIP by a healthy margin in both of those seasons, including an ERA that was 0.65 runs lower than his FIP in ‘14 and 0.71 runs lower in ‘13. So the fact that his 2016 ERA cracks his FIP by 0.91 isn’t as shocking as it looks at first glance, and his rough 2015 season is starting to look like the outlier rather than the regression line.

Mike Leake
Leake was having an okay season, keeping free passes at a bare minimum but also lacking the strikeouts, and his relative consistency was more valuable in real life than on the fantasy battlefield. He hadn’t struck out more than six batters in any of his first 17 turns, a stretch that included seven starts of 7.0 innings or more, but then something happened.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

July 18

6.0

1

6

1

0

11

88

July 10

7.0

1

6

0

0

10

99

I was a bit surprised that Leake wasn’t allowed to pitch a bit longer, but the Cardinals were leading a 2-1 game with two on and one out, opting to try to plate some runs—the tactic worked, with the Cards scoring four times in the inning to take control of a game they would win 10-2. Leake had to be a little bit frustrated, though, as he hadn’t pitched in eight days and had more bullets in the tank, and he was one strikeout away from tying his personal high of 12 Ks in a ballgame (set in 2014).

The July 10 game can be blamed at least partially on his opponent, as the free-swinging Brewers lead the majors in batters Ks and have a tendency for handing opposing pitchers their personal season-best for strikeouts in a game. The most recent opponent was the Padres, a team that was handing out K candy for the first couple months of the season but has recently begun to wake up in the offensive sector. The two starts of double-digit Ks were also his lowest-run starts since mid-May, and his total of zero walks and just one home run over that stretch are continuations of excellent trends—Leake has given up just the one homer over his last five turns and has walked just three total batters over his last eight starts and 48.2 innings pitched.

The high-strikeout starts bookended the All-Star break, and there is one thing that ties those games and his strikeouts together: the slider.

Leake used the slider with a 6.8 percent frequency prior to the game against the Brewers on July 10. In the two games since, that frequency has spiked to 23 percent. Of his 21 strikeouts, at least 11 were finished by the slider (one strikeout was not registered by Brooks) and batters hit a collective .118 off the pitch. Against Milwaukee, Leake threw 29 sliders in the one game alone, more than double the numbers of slides that he had thrown in any other game this season, and the 14 sliders i his last start qualify as the second-most he has tossed in a single game. His fastball has still been getting tattooed and the only other real K threat has been the cutter (seven strikeouts in last two games).

Maybe sliders work particularly well against the Brewers so that was part of his game strategy, or maybe Leake has just developed a recent feel for the pitch and is incorporating it more often, but there’s a decent chance that this development will have a positive impact on his performance over the next several starts.