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Student of the game: Well-read Archer has Cy Young hopes for Rays

One of baseball's most erudite players, the always interesting and rapidly improving Chris Archer could be this year's off-the-radar contender for the AL Cy Young.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a popular book on psychology and a past New York Times bestseller, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it in the lockers of many major leaguers. One morning in the spring training clubhouse at Rays camp, though, the book was all Chris Archer wanted to talk about. “I’m about a quarter of the way through, and it’s already helping me better understand my own thoughts,” he said of the tome, which was penned by a Nobel prize winner in economic science and is an investigation of the dichotomy between two modes of thought: System 1 (the fast, intuitive, mostly unconscious mode) and System 2 (deliberate and analytical).

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A voracious reader, Archer is drawn to books that challenge conventional thinking. The book has showed him that for a hitter, “your intuitive—your System 1—is affected by the previous pitch,” Archer explained. “You can’t control it, because things are happening so fast, especially now with the new rule [where] you can’t leave the box, you have to keep one foot in. They’re highly affected by that last pitch, so it’s more of a subconscious influence. Me? I think I’m more System 2 than most people.”

Archer is a thinking man’s pitcher, but some nights his stuff is so nasty it seems like he doesn’t need to use his brain at all on the mound. Thursday night in Toronto was one of those nights. Facing a Blue Jays lineup loaded with fire-breathing sluggers—Toronto had scored the third-most runs in the majors entering the game—Archer came through with one of the best games of his career, allowing just two hits and no runs while striking out 11 over seven innings. His command of his fastball, which topped out at 99 miles per hour, was excellent, though it was his slider that was the difference maker: Blue Jays hitters struck out nine times on that pitch.

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Archer is locked in. Since his wobbly Opening Day start against the Orioles, he has looked as dominant as any pitcher in the game, with back-to-back starts allowing two hits or fewer over seven innings. Now 2–1 with a 1.37 ERA and 21 strikeouts through 19 2/3 innings and three starts, Archer has now allowed three earned runs or fewer in 15 consecutive road starts going back to May 16, 2014, and has allowed more than two earned runs only once since then.

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The 26-year-old emerging ace is one of the most interesting pitchers in the game right now. It’s not just because of his back story, and it’s not just because he’s thoughtful and well-read. No conversation with Archer is ever bland—he's the kind of guy you’d feel lucky to be stuck sitting next to at a dinner party.

It’s all that, and this: Archer is a legit Cy Young candidate in 2015. A year after Corey Kluber came practically out of nowhere to win the award, Archer could be the off-the-radar American League pitcher to take it this year. Of course, he isn’t exactly emerging unseen like Kluber did last season—the 6'3", 190-pound Archer had a notable '14, going 10–9 with a 3.33 ERA and 173 strikeouts over 194 innings. But like Kluber last year, Archer looks like he’s ready to take the next step to establish himself as one of the game’s elite pitchers.

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And if he does, watch out for the Rays: After the first two weeks of the season, it looks like maybe we all underrated them. The preseason statistical projections all loved Tampa, and many evaluators did, too. When I asked one general manager for the team that everyone’s sleeping on, he didn’t hesitate. “The Rays—their pitching is going to be really, really good.”

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But that was before the spring injuries to Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly. Despite all those setbacks, the Rays' pitching has still been really good. Earlier in the week, they did something that no team had done in 13 years, with three straight games—Archer last Saturday, followed by Nathan Karns and Jake Odorizzi on Monday—in which a starter went seven or more innings and two hits or fewer. (According to Elias, it’s just the second time in AL history, other than the 1992 Athletics, that a team had accomplished the feat.) It’s not just Archer who looks like a sleeper Cy Young candidate. In his most recent outing, Odorizzi, who allowed one run in his first two starts, became just the third AL pitcher in the last 100 years to start the year with two starts of six-plus innings with two or fewer hits and one run or less.

The rotation is only going to get better as the season progresses. Smyly, who allowed one hit and struck out four in three innings at Class A Charlotte on Tuesday, looks like he’ll return in late April. Cobb, who is recovering from forearm tendinitis and, according to the Tampa Tribune, threw the ball harder during a Tuesday session than he had since he resumed throwing, might be back in May. Matt Moore, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, should be an option for the rotation in June.

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A fifth-round draft pick by the Indians in 2006 who received mixed reviews as a prospect—the absence of a good third pitch had many believing that he was destined to become a closer—Archer continues to evolve, on and off the field. During spring training, he talked about how as a student, he had a deep fear of reading out loud in class. “Reading in class was really hard for me, even in high school,” he said. “I just wasn’t confident. If you slip with one or two words, you’re really insecure. I don’t feel sorry for myself, it was my fault. I look at it as a case of not practicing enough on my own and not being prepared.”

Since then, Archer has pushed himself to read all kinds of books—he reads at minimum 10 pages a day “so I can read at least one book a month”—from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to The Biology of Belief. “From [Biology of Belief] I’ve learned that we tend to just blindly blame everything on genetics,” Archer said. “What the book says is that we’re highly influenced by our environment. I’ve learned that I have to completely reanalyze where my thoughts come from.”

“You just got to keep looking for ways to learn,” he said. “And to get better.”