BRADENTON, Fla. -- Chris Archer's the Pirates' elder statesman in more ways than being oldest on the roster at 31. He's among the few with experience in contention. He's among the brightest in any context. He brings an unparalleled work ethic. He's also the highest-paid. And as all of that and more, he commands universal respect in this little world.
Put it this way: When the Felipe Vazquez news broke late last summer, Archer was the clubhouse's choice to speak for the players on the matter. And he did so artfully and authoritatively.
So it didn't fully feel as if the pitchers and catchers had reported for the opening of spring training -- that took place Monday, with physicals Tuesday -- until Archer held court with the media on hand here.
The session didn't disappoint, even if it opened with the most frivolous topic that'd be tackled — that, of course, being his highly visible chopping of the trademark dreadlocks he'd been sporting for half a decade.
"During the offseason, I was thinking about it a lot, more than I ever have," he explained of his hair. "I woke up one morning, texted the barber I use and was, like, 'Hey, I need you to come over. And bring the shears.' And it feels good."
There was nothing symbolic to it, he'd add. Nothing cosmic.
"When you have locks, you can't shower that often because that's part of the locking process. So to be able to put my hair under the shower head and let it hit my scalp, put my hands through it, it feels good. And like, my head feels so much lighter. True definition of light-headed. In a good way!"
He burst into laughter.
With that, I broached his strange 2019 season, one in which he went 3-9 with a 5.19 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, but also one in which he visibly found confidence and stronger form in the second half, thanks largely to a resuscitated slider. The swing-and-miss was back in his arsenal, as was some of his old swagger.
"I definitely did some things well," he replied. "We talked about this a lot last season, but I went back to just being myself. I went back to the windup. I went back to predominantly four-seam fastballs and sliders. My changeup's come a long way, too. But just really getting back to myself and pitching like me. And the new staff has been great about encouraging that."
Meaning new manager Derek Shelton and new pitching coach Oscar Marin.
"Obviously, they had a great run, the staff that was here before," he'd add, referring to Clint Hurdle, Ray Searage and the rest, "but this is very refreshing and adds a lot of excitement coming into camp."
The slider, as I'd reported last summer, was brought back only after the previous management had attempted to bury it in favor of the changeup. And it was brought back, primarily, by Archer himself.
So I pressed on that count.
"Honestly, looking back, whenever I use that pitch more, I have better results. In my opinion, it's one of the better pitches in the league. Not throwing it too much. Just throwing it when the time's right instead of trying to supplement it with something else."
On Marin, the 37-year-old fresh face hired away from the Rangers after just one year in Arlington: "I like him a lot. He's young, he's open-minded, he seems like a good person, he has an old-school mind but a new-school brain. So he knows what it means to go out there and take the ball, but he also knows how to help people utilize their stuff to get the most out of them. And his background is in biomechanics. That's what he got his degree in."
That was at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
"So to be able to talk to a guy, about, you know, pitch types, but also mechanics from a movement standpoint, as opposed to, like, lift your leg, separate your arms and throat ... we're talking about it more as a movement."
"It's just really cool, and it's something that I haven't been a part of yet in my career."
Read into that what one will, whether that's praise for Marin, criticism of Searage or anywhere in between. The one certainty is that Archer, speaking as artfully and authoritatively as ever, won't be bugged by it, judging by how he handled every other fastball sent his way here:
• On the Pirates' $50.1 million payroll, when I brought that up: "Yeah, so I've talked to Ben Cherington and Shelty a lot about that. And, you know, I think everybody here understands where we're at. There's advantages and there's some disadvantages. But baseball is a special game where, if you execute at a high level like we all know we're capable of, anything can happen. You know, teams with low payrolls win."
• On his Rays, which were one of those teams, as I reminded: "Yeah, exactly. In 2013, I mean, we had the lowest attendance in the league and we had the lowest payroll that made the playoffs. So I know it's possible. But really, we're just taking it day by day. Not trying to sound too cliched, but we know where we're at, as an organization, and we know that it's going to take time. But that doesn't mean there's going to be any lack of effort, and that doesn't mean that our standards have lowered. When we set foot out there, especially with some of the pitchers we have, we expect to win. Period."
• On Shelton's arrival, after having known each other during Shelton's time as the Rays' hitting coach: "As soon as they made that hire, I knew what direction the organization was going. And just from what I've seen, I think it's ... it was time for something fresh, something different. And, you know, Sheltie, it's, it's going to be not scripted. It's going to be very sincere. We're going to have a lot of fun, but we're going to get a lot of work in. He's been a part of a lot of successful teams. Pretty much everything he's been a part of has been successful. We're obviously going to have the same hard-nosed mentality that Pittsburghers have, but we might just do it in a little bit different way."
• On whether Shelton's approached him for such advice: "Yeah, as soon as he got hired, he was picking a lot of people's brains: 'What would you think about this?' 'How would the guys respond if we did it this way?' So it wasn't just about him, like, 'This is what we're going to do.' It was open dialogue. Yeah, it's gonna be different direction."
• On what he meant by a different direction, as I had to ask after he'd mentioned it that often: "We're all big leaguers, you know? Especially the ones that have established themselves. And trusting them more and focusing on different things, rather than, like, controlling things a big-leaguer should already know how to do. Focused more on on-field play and on-field execution, on making the individual a better baseball player. Instead of worrying about often just ... little things that don't matter. ... There's still grit, there's still intention behind everything we do. But ... it's baseball, man. Like, we're not lining up and trying to knock each other out."
• On the Astros' cheating, because of course that had to come up, too: "It was disheartening. Because you heard some rumors, but I don't think anybody expected it to be to that extent. You know what I mean? Especially when you know these dudes. On a personal level, you've talked to them in person, gone to dinners with them, FaceTime with them, texts, whatever. And then to find that out ... it was definitely disheartening. It's bad for the game. I mean, they set out the punishments, and it is what it is at this point. I guess it's time for everybody to move on."
• On whether other teams have been similarly cheating: "It's hard to say because I don't know, so I really don't want to sit here and speculate. But some of the same concerns we had about Houston prior to it all coming out ... there's some speculation about other teams."
• On if the Pirates will continue to shuffle signs even when there's no runner on second base: "Yeah, probably, because technology's always evolving and, as we've learned in the past couple days, it was deeper than just one guy looking and figuring it out. They had an algorithm. So it didn't matter if you had a set of signals because they could decipher and break those signals down immediately even if you were putting out five signals with nobody on base. So yeah, we're going to be cautious. We're going to mix some things up. But at the end of the day, pitch execution is the biggest thing so we're going to focus on that and not be too worried about the other team."
• On his own chance at reclaiming peak form in 2020, this after investing his offseason in intensive workouts in California aimed at strengthening long-nagging core issues: ""I can tell you this: They didn't see it last year. I wouldn't have uprooted myself and found a new trainer and worked on a bunch of the pitching things that I worked on if that wasn't what I expected out of myself. I don't want to say a whole lot. I just want to go out there and show people. But I feel like I'm in a really good spot."
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