From Clayton to Cincy: Chris Archer’s rise to All-Star

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer has developed one of the best sliders in baseball. He said he still throws the pitch as he learned it at Clayton High School. He’ll bring that slider to the All-Star Game Tuesday.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer has developed one of the best sliders in baseball. He said he still throws the pitch as he learned it at Clayton High School. He’ll bring that slider to the All-Star Game Tuesday. GETTY

The storyline set up so perfectly: A young, wide-eyed Chris Archer grew up 20 miles from once-in-a-generation-talent Josh Hamilton and watched the slugger hammer fastballs all the way from Athens Drive into All-Star Game lore. The young Archer, motivated by Hamilton’s heroics and proximity, worked relentlessly to develop what would become the best pitch in baseball, his efforts were rewarded when he joined Hamilton as the only major league All-Stars in Triangle high school history.

Josh and Junior. The Slugger and the Slider. Coming soon to a theater near you.

Though there certainly are Hollywood obstacles Archer overcame in order to take his place among the game’s best Tuesday night in Cincinnati – not the least of which was being traded twice as a minor-leaguer – that’s not exactly how it worked out.

“Nah, man, nothing like that,” Archer said recently. “I didn’t look around and say, ‘this other guy is from Raleigh, that I’ve never met, is an All-Star.’ ... Not in negative way. He was so much older, and he was like this person who was blessed beyond anybody I’ve ever met. He was more like a mythical legend, based off what they were saying he did in high school.

“So I couldn’t. ... Left-handed, hit bombs 500 feet, threw 97 off the mound. There’s nothing about that that I could relate to, so, maybe the kids from my hometown can relate to me a little more being, not necessarily average, but not being the legend that Josh Hamilton was.”

Those who saw Archer toss darts at Clayton High in the mid 2000s say he was closer to Hamilton than he is letting on.

Finding his pitch

It’s easy, if not entirely accurate, to include Archer in an out-of-nowhere narrative. As fertile scouting grounds go, Clayton is solid but it isn’t South Florida. Archer was recruited, but he wasn’t on Baseball America’s preseason high school watch lists, much less its cover. One-hundred and sixty players were selected before the Cleveland Indians took him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. He spent seven years in the minors before sticking with the Tampa Bay Rays.

In other words, he wasn’t Josh Hamilton.

But he always had that arm, and that right arm stood out to everybody who saw him pitch, from Little League on.

“We envisioned this,” said Stacey Houser, who coached Archer at Clayton High and whose son grew up playing ball with Archer. “I don’t know that you ever anticipate something like this, an All-Star Game, but we thought it was a very real possibility. The ability was always there. He’s always been able to light up a (radar) gun and he always had that hammer with the slider.”

Archer learned how to throw that pitch at Clayton High.

“And it’s the same slider I throw today,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.

That slider has grown into the most dangerous pitch in baseball. It’s the one pitch, former Cy Young Award winner David Price recently told the Times, that every pitcher would choose if they could. It’s the pitch that attracted the scouts and recruiters.

“When he’s ahead in the count, it’s impossible to hit, and it’s impossible to lay off,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said.

Avent has been an Archer admirer for more than a decade.

“I saw him his junior year (of high school),” Avent said. “Unbelievable. Nice loose arm. You knew there was a chance.”

Archer pitched on Clayton’s junior varsity team as a freshman and was part of the varsity rotation as a sophomore. He “blew up,” Houser said, after his junior year in showcase events, where tools are measured in miles per hour. By then, Avent was already sold. So was Archer.

He committed to the Wolfpack. Archer eventually de-committed and appeared to be headed to Miami, but that decision was made moot when he signed with the Indians a month after they selected him.

A few weeks later, Archer entered professional baseball and began a seven-year journey to The Show.

He was just 17, and Houser recalled telling him, as they discussed whether to sign with the Indians or go to college, that most high school pitchers spend six years enduring rocky roads in the minors. Prepare your mind for the challenges ahead.

He went 0-3 that first summer, 1-7 the next season. After going 4-8 with 84 walks in 115 innings as a 19-year-old in the low Class-A South Atlantic League, the Indians traded him to the Chicago Cubs.

Throwing 97 mph is useless if you can’t find the strike zone.

The next season brought improvement and a breakthrough in Double A, but the bottom line remained: Four years after being drafted, Archer had never thrown a pitch in Triple A. He was in danger of being on the wrong side of Baseball America’s research that shows two of three players drafted in rounds 3-5 never reach the major leagues.

But the other thing about being able to throw 97 is there’s usually somebody willing to take another chance on you. For Archer, that was the Rays, who traded for him in January 2011 and armed him with some simple advice: trust your stuff.

‘You knew there was a chance’

Always a strikeout pitcher, Archer fanned 130 in 147 innings at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham in 2011. He appeared on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list. He returned to Durham in 2012, and increased his strikeout ratio to more than one per inning. That rocky road was being repaved.

The Rays called up Archer that summer. He didn’t stick, but he came away convinced that he could unleash his slider, throw it as often as he wanted, regardless of count, situation or hitter.

When the Rays promoted him again in June 2013, it stuck. He began a steady climb into the role of staff ace. He started that climb on Opening Day this season, primarily because of Alex Cobb’s injury. And in the three months since, he has shown all of baseball the promise and potential that Avent and others saw in him so many years ago.

Tuesday night will bring more evidence that he has arrived, just the second Triangle high school product to play in an All-Star Game, the first to pitch. Houser and Avent will be watching, not terribly surprised that the strong-armed kid from Clayton defied the odds.

“Nobody ever dreams of making the All-Star team,” Avent said, “but Chris’ arm. He always had a live arm. You knew if he ever developed the command, he throws so hard, and he had that knockout pitch. You knew there was a chance.”