Twins pitcher Chris Archer is taking his comeback one start at a time

The online debate begins every time Chris Archer pitches.

“He’s pitching so well, why not push him more? What are they thinking, removing him after five innings? Why is he in the rotation if he can’t go deep into games?”

While the curiosity is fair, there’s a simple reason the Twins haven’t pushed the veteran pitcher hard in the first third of the season: they want him around in September and October. Similar to how they’ve managed other pitchers in the past, the Twins created a detailed plan to help Archer slowly build up in what potentially could be his first full season since 2018.

Already, Archer, who will make his team-high 12th start for the Twins on Monday night at the Seattle Mariners, has pitched more innings than he has the past two seasons combined. He’s increased curveball usage to eventually pitch deeper into games. And in his last outing on Wednesday, Archer produced his best fastball velocity since before he had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.

“It feels good to feel good, that’s for sure,” Archer said. “We have a plan and we’re sticking to it and I greatly appreciate it.”

Though he missed low with the pitch, the Twins were downright giddy when Archer pumped a 96.6-mph fastball to the YankeesDJ LeMahieu in the third inning on Wednesday. They saw it as yet another sign Archer isn’t only healthy, but that he has plenty of gas in his tank after more than 2 1/2 injury-riddled seasons.

Yet even when Archer, 33, unleashed his best fastball since Aug. 8, 2019, the Twins didn’t deviate from the plan. Nor did they change their minds when he completed five outstanding innings against the Yankees in 70 pitches. The same went for his previous start in Detroit, when Archer cruised through five innings with only 57 pitches thrown.

As enticing as pushing him further seems, the Twins recognize Archer hasn’t pitched this much in nearly three years.

“It was very tempting to keep going,” Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson said. “One of the things (manager Rocco Baldelli) is phenomenal about is keeping me in that frame (of mind) because I wanna keep (going). That’s what we have to do.

“We’ve been very, very conservative on how we’re building him up. We want Chris for the whole season. … Now, he’s been five (innings) two times in a row and he’s feeling good, his body is responding well. Now we can take another step.”

This is where Archer hoped to be after essentially scrapping his old offseason program to prepare for the 2022 season. From a throwing perspective, Archer was able to successfully return to action in 2021 after his June 2020 surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). According to the Cleveland Clinic, TOS is used to describe a group of disorders that occur when there is compression, injury or irritation of the nerves and/or blood vessels in the lower neck and upper chest.

Archer pitched a combined 34 2/3 innings for Tampa Bay and its Triple-A club in 2021. But while his arm was fine after surgery, his body wasn’t up to speed.

A hip injury sidelined Archer in mid-September and convinced the veteran he needed a new plan during the winter. Archer described the first six weeks of his offseason as “more like a rehab (assignment).”

“My offseason was a lot different,” Archer said. “Usually, I’m able to lift, run, do plyos, jump. This year I had to tame it all down and work on stability and mobility and kind of lay that foundation.”

Archer spent the offseason working with former Toronto Blue Jays athletic trainer Nikki Huffman in Tampa, Fla. Huffman was the head trainer for two seasons in Toronto and since has become a private instructor, working with a handful of clients including Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman. Huffman’s baseball experience gave Archer comfort, knowing she could create an all-encompassing plan to have him better prepared.

He described the program as core strengthening through a blend of pilates, yoga and additional strength training. One exercise included Archer repeatedly demonstrating how long he could hold his body in a pitcher’s finishing position.

“She knew what I needed volume-wise to have my body ready,” Archer said. “It was more mental than anything. Your gains are so incremental that you have to be like, ‘This week do I feel better than I did last week?’ And at the end of the offseason hopefully you’ve made strides.”

After six weeks of core strengthening, Archer’s plan shifted to strength building. Then from January through February, he began to ramp up in the bullpen.

It didn’t take long to determine he was in a good spot.

Archer recorded his bullpen sessions and live batting practices on Rapsodo. He was throwing 90-92 mph, which was a great sign for that point in the offseason.

While the Twins and other teams appreciated that Archer provided them with analytics courtesy of Rapsodo, he learned TrackMan provided more accurate data. So Archer headed to Arizona in March to work with Driveline Baseball, which uses TrackMan to record his efforts.

“We didn’t have anything to hide,” Archer said. “During the lockout I was recording everything and had a ton of data because we knew when it ended teams would wonder ‘Where’s he at?’ ‘Here’s 10 bullpens worth of data. He’s faced hitters twice.’ Make your decision based off that.”

The Twins were very intrigued. They needed an arm capable of major-league outs and liked the data Archer provided.

He convinced them enough that the Twins signed Archer on March 29 to a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. The contract includes up to $9.5 million in incentives, including up to $6 million in bonuses for every appearance in which he records at least nine outs.

Though he had plenty of data to back it, even the Twins were surprised by Archer’s form. Archer arrived in camp late enough that he and Johnson remained at spring training an extra day to get in one more throwing session.

“To see where he was and how he was throwing the ball, to say I wasn’t a little shocked wouldn’t be telling the truth,” Johnson said.

Archer isn’t simply telling everyone he feels better; he’s demonstrating it on the mound.

His 96.6-mph fastball is 1.5 miles-per-hour faster than anything he threw in 2021. Whereas last season Archer had six pitches at 94.5 mph or above, this season he already has 34.

Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher most of his career, Archer has worked with Twins pitching coaches to further develop his changeup and curveball. Johnson said adding those pitches gives Archer a better chance to face an opposing lineup the third time.

Those chances should be more plentiful now.

But Archer trusts the Twins won’t push him too far too fast. Baldelli worked in the front office and as a coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, where Archer played from 2012-18.

The two talk often and have frank discussions about the plan. Even after the bullpen blew a save and earned the loss in his June 2 start (he was pulled after throwing 57 pitches over five innings and was in the lead), Archer wasn’t upset. As Archer explained, it was the first time all season he’d been up and down five times.

“I was totally on board with Rocco,” Archer said. “We have a really good relationship. We talked about things, at least, an outing or two in advance. We’ve already discussed how this is going to go.”

Said Baldelli: “Trust is definitely the word and it’s a big part of it. … I’ve been very honest with him, and he’s been able to spend some time in this office this year, too, just talking about a lot of different things. But his comeback this year has gone very well, and I think it helps him to pitch well when he knows what’s going to be expected of him.”

Archer has been one of the Twins’ most stable starters this season and last Wednesday he kept a talented Yankees offense quiet until his teammates’ bats heated up. He made his biggest pitch of the season in the top of the fourth when Gleyber Torres bounced into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded.

A byproduct of the shorter starts is Archer has fewer chances to earn a win. When he earned his first victory since Sept. 4, 2021, and only second win since 2019, by beating the Yankees, Archer embraced the moment.

“What I’ve come to learn is getting an individual win in the big leagues is hard — really, really freaking hard,” Archer said. “So any win against any team is nice, regardless. Doesn’t matter what time of year it is, who we’re facing — getting major-league wins is hard so I cherish every single one I get.”

Archer acknowledges he feels as good as he has in the past few seasons. He wants to keep proving it, too. But Archer isn’t about to look ahead and forecast what his comeback could look like in August, September, October.

“One start at a time, definitely,” Archer said. “I don’t get ahead of myself at all. I’m going to start looking into Seattle soon, and that’s as far ahead as I’m looking.”

(Photo: Scott Taetsch / USA Today)

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