Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer did more than set a new franchise record when he lost 19 games last season -- he tied the 30-team era's mark for the second-most defeats suffered in a single season. (Mike Maroth, infamous for his 21-loss effort in 2003, retains the dubious honor of pacing the field.) Of course win-loss record carries little predictive value, and speaks more to a confluence of variables than the individual pitcher in question. But it's fair to write Archer was (and is) too talented to merit the statistical embarrassment he endured in 2016.
Fortunately for Archer and the Rays, it's also fair to write that few players appear better equipped than he is to rebound from such indignity. That's in part because Archer practices mindfulness -- a technique peak performance coach and author Howard Falco calls "the next edge in sports." Falco is relevant here because his book "I AM" no less than inspired Archer and informed his ways.
Mindfulness is the separator.— Chris Archer (@ChrisArcher22) November 18, 2016
"Chris discovered the book when he was just coming out of Triple-A, and the book had a profound impact on him," the Arizona-based Falco told CBS Sports. A few social media exchanges later, and Archer and Falco unearthed a nifty coincidence.
"[We] realized that a week later, or like, within three days, they had an interleague game with the Diamondbacks out here in Arizona, and ironically (or serendipitously) he also had a night off. So, we met for dinner and we established a friendship and a relationship regarding work."
What Archer found in "I AM" (which he's called "great") is an onslaught of self help-slash-spiritual guidance, including the premise that thought molds reality: "All that matters is what you make matter. Therefore, you make matter," is one of the lessons offered. Such existential philosophy might seem misplaced in a clubhouse, but that's not necessarily true -- Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt has talked about Don Miguel Ruiz's The Four Agreements and Chicago White Sox pitching prospect Michael Kopech has credited his turnaround to The Secret. CBS Sports before
Archer's advocacy for Falco, a former member of the finance industry who achieved some form of spiritual enlightenment through what he calls a "spontaneous experience" more than a decade ago. And Falco's work has not been lost on his Rays teammates or the club's management. Face of the franchise Evan Longoria is a believer, and prospect Peter Bayer (recently voted the Rays' minor-league pitcher of the month by a Rays blog) is one of Falco's Twitter followers. Tampa Bay's front office even invited Falco to address the roster prior to last season.
Obviously the 2016 Rays didn't find the secret to winning ballgames in Falco's message, but no one is mistaking mental or spiritual acuity as substitutes for talent -- those attributes are more along the lines of enhancers, or stabilizers during the inevitable rough stretches. Archer's success is foremost owed to his outstanding athleticism, his mid-90s fastball, and his signature slider. Still, it's worth wondering if his mental strength allows him to adjust and recover quicker and more effectively than an equally talented player with a lesser head game.
"Holding limiting ideas about life experiences that haven't happened yet is a sign of a closed and limited mind." -Howard Falco— Chris Archer (@ChrisArcher22) August 21, 2013
"Chris is a very cerebral person and just an epitome of what I would call a role model in every way, shape, and form," Falco said. "He's adopted a lot of his work on the mind and beliefs and how important that aspect is on the game into his work."
True to character, Archer is self-professed fan of visualization -- essentially conditioning his mind and body to succeed ahead of time. "I do a third-person point of view, so I see myself executing a pitch," Archer told MLB.com in 2013. "I also see myself from a first-person point of view, where I'm actually inside my own body doing it and feeling it. So I see myself do it, then I actually do it."
"You only offer the world as much love as you have for yourself" Howard Falco— Chris Archer (@ChrisArcher22) February 10, 2014
Whatever else Archer puts in his metaphysical smoothie in addition to mindfulness and visualization has him positioned to improve upon last season's surface-level disappointment.
If Archer employed one of Falco's tricks -- putting his ideal stat line on paper to make it tangible -- then odds are he wrote down a lower ERA and a healthier strikeout-to-walk ratio than the ones he's sporting. All the same, he's been the the fifth-best starter in baseball according to DRA (an advanced metric) and he's boasting improvements in various standard measures: he has a better ERA+ and strikeout, hit, and home-run rates as compared to last season. Archer is also averaging a would-be career-best 6.5 innings per pop through his first 10 starts, and has already had a better top outing (per Game Score) than he did in 2016.
There's no apparent process change to credit for Archer's gains, either. His most noticeable tweak has been a simple one to his pitch selection. He's now using his devastating slider 45 percent of the time -- or five percentage points more than his previous career-high, which was set last season. The resulting effect has been that he's throwing about half and half fastballs and sliders against righties. Archer is less balanced against lefties, but only barely -- he's thrown 46 percent fastballs and 40 percent sliders. Given Archer's uncharacteristic struggles against lefties so far (albeit in a small sample), that approach could change again soon.
Archer's new-age mindset, conversely, seems less likely to change. If anything, he'll probably lean into his philosophy more -- especially since belief is the fuel that makes the whole machine that is the universe run, per Falco and his teachings. "The core of how we define ourselves ultimately leads to everything we're going to do," Falco said. "Dream big is not just [a line]. There's some real truth to that when not only you dream big, but you also believe big."
How Archer defines himself, how big he believes, are intimate matters only he is privy to -- if mind does dictate matter, however, then he seems to believe he's much more than his poor '16 record indicated.