by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—Chris Archer has come home. The Tampa Bay Rays just promoted the Raleigh-born pitcher to the Class AAA Durham Bulls from the Class AA Montgomery Biscuits. He will make his Triple-A debut this Saturday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Archer turns 23 in almost exactly a month. In media years, though, he's a lot older. He is poised, bright and articulate, with a faint but unmistakable central-N.C. accent; quick and deft with answers; handsome and engaging and polished, ready for the cameras that were turned on him Wednesday afternoon as he stood in his workout t-shirt and shorts after throwing some pitches in the bullpen. He is Southern-mannered and courteous. Ask Archer a yes-or-no question and he answers, "Yes, sir."
Archer talked about the home-cooked meals he's going to get now that he's pitching 40 minutes from Mom and Dad. He talked about the excitement of pitching at the DBAP, which he'd only been in once before. He talked about how comfortable the transition was from the Biscuits to the Bulls, because six of his teammates had already made that leap this year and because he played with Russ Canzler, Robinson Chirinos and Brandon Guyer in 2010, when they were all with the Chicago Cubs' Class AA affiliate in Tennessee.
He even handled an unexpectedly geeky question about pitching mechanics. Archer has struggled with his control this season, allowing 80 walks in 134 1/3 innings pitched. How is he attacking the problem, he was asked?
"Where it starts is balance over the rubber," Archer answered. "That's more of a baseball term. Normal people at home probably wouldn't understand, but balance over the rubber is where everything starts for me."
Lacking that consistent balance this year, Archer said he's rushing his delivery and "just getting going too soon."
And that seemed to get right at the heart of every matter.
Given Archer's season so far, as rough-edged on the mound as he is polished off of it, his promotion to Durham struck some people as a bit hasty. Was he "getting going too soon" up here? The first question Archer was asked yesterday was: "Were you surprised when you got called up to Durham?"
"A little bit," Archer responded, "just because it's been an up-and-down season." People often use that phrase, "up-and-down," as a general gloss on "average," "so-so," etc., but in Archer's case it really is the right choice of words, especially these days. Archer's ERA is 4.42, which is probably somewhere around league-average, but it has actually been falling steadily since June 1, when it was a badly inflated 5.98.
Since then, Archer has tended to throw a few good games, then throw a bad one, throw another good one, then a bad one again; and so on in jagged fashion. His ERA not only started the season way up and then came down; it has come down in up-and-down fashion. A recent and emblematic example: On Monday, Archer was named the Southern League Pitcher of the Week after a seven-inning, one-hit domination of Birmingham; that night, he coughed up six hits, five walks and five runs over four innings in a loss to Mississippi.
Archer's walk and strikeout rates have remained about the same throughout the season; he has had yearlong trouble hitting not just the bull's-eye but the entire target. Yet the issue is not consistency of balls-to-strikes but actually inconsistency on a game-to-game basis. There are signs of a very good, even stellar pitcher in the runes of Archer's stats. Surely that is not lost on the Rays.
Discussing that "balance over the rubber" notion, Archer explained, "If you get out of whack for ten or twelve games, that can make your numbers for the whole season look bad. The second half of the season, I've been pretty strong. I feel like I'm on track now."
So maybe he isn't getting going too soon. Maybe the Rays saw not Archer's habitual errancy but the potency of his straight arrows—which after all he can fire at 95 mph, with a slider rated as the best in the Cubs organization last season. And maybe "getting going too soon" sometimes means not prematurity but prescience and precocity.
The genius of youth is its wildness. I've just been reading John Ashbery's new translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations, which the groundbreaking French poet wrote when he was even younger than Chris Archer. The prose-poems career between incantatory exaltation and rampant incomprehensibility. The first Illumination, "Après le déluge," is as good as any prelude I've ever encountered in literature; Ashbery calls the last, "Génie," one of the greatest poems ever written.
Some of the other Illuminations, however, are totally mystifying to me, youthful ebullience gone haywire. Yet Rimbaud himself warns the reader against dismissing him; he seems to understand his paradoxical place as a young poet. "Ma sagesse est aussi dédaignée que le chaos": "My wisdom is as spurned as chaos," as Ashbery translates it.
Archer's arrival in Durham is the latest in a somewhat surprising youth movement courtesy of the Rays, who tend to let their best specimens ripen on the vine a while before harvesting them (or attaching them to a higher branch, perhaps it's better to say). In the last month alone, they've moved up to the Bull City from Montgomery not only the young Archer but also 22-year-old Matt Moore and 21-year-old Tim Beckham. Incumbent Bulls pitcher Alex Torres is 23. Russ Canzler and Brandon Guyer are both 25, as are recent Double-A additions Daniel Mayora and John Matulia, who spent a productive month with Durham before being sent back down to Montgomery. The oldest players on the team are J. J. Furmaniak and Dan Johnson, who both turned 32 within the last month. Compare that to last year's team, which by late August had 35-year-old Joe Dillon, 36-year-old Chris Richard, 37-year-old Ramon Ortiz, and 41-year-old (!) Brian Shouse. Three of those players are now retired.
In other words, to borrow some verse of an era much more recent than Rimbaud's, the kids are alright—or at least, they're alright by me. Archer is not only the right kid at the right time, he's got the right name, too. Some of the arrows Archer and his young-lion teammates will shoot from here on through the end of the season, which is nigh upon us, will go wide of the mark. But they're going to travel fast, and it's going to be a thrill to watch them fly—you could even say the excitement will make fans quiver.
After our interview with Archer was finished, Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen, who had watched Archer's bullpen session, walked toward the home dugout. A month ago, Allen was gifted with Matt Moore, who like Archer was promoted from Montgomery, and has pitched superbly since his arrival in Durham. "I've got another pheee-nom!" Allen crowed, his nest studded with bright prospects to take under his wing.
This is what the illumination of minor-league baseball is all about. When Archer makes his Triple-A debut this Saturday night at the DBAP, he may have to buy up a whole section for all of his hometown family and friends. Unless Hurricane Irene hits, of course, in which case he'll take the mound après le déluge. Whenever it happens, you'll want to be on hand to welcome him home.