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Chris Archer the latest, greatest grand marshal of Rays aces

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- He's a man on a journey. But Chris Archer came to understand a long time ago that it's not just his journey.

It's about the lives he can touch off the field. It's about the careers he can affect among the people around him. And it's about the lessons he has learned from those who came before him.

Life teaches those lessons. Baseball creates an ecosystem in which man can touch those lives and careers. And every once in a while, you come across a player who is determined to take those opportunities and make every day a little different, a little more meaningful, than the day that came before.

And so, last weekend, the latest, greatest grand marshal in the Tampa Bay Rays' Tournament of Aces parade found the moment and the inspiration to do something that has since been widely misinterpreted -- because, well, of course it has.

The characterization that somehow became attached to it is the seemingly innocent word, "scold." As in: Chris Archer delivered a "public scolding" to two highly regarded Rays pitching prospects, Blake Snell and Jacob Faria.

"But when you use the word, 'scold,' when that's the word you use," Archer says, "then people have a whole different interpretation of what happened."

So here's what did happen, from his perspective: For Snell and Faria, it was their first day in their first big league camp. The workout started at 9 a.m. So in they strolled at 8:30. They weren't late by the world's standards. They just didn't realize they weren't living up to the Rays' standards.

Which was why the best pitcher in the room seized that moment to let them know exactly what those standards were. For the pitchers on this team, the spring training work day begins before the sun rises. But not because it looks good.

Because it's part of a special culture that doesn't only predate Blake Snell and Jacob Faria. It even predates Chris Archer.

It began with the consummate teammate, James Shields. Who passed it along to David Price. Who made certain it was embedded in the hearts and minds of men like Archer and Alex Cobb. And it has become a defining part of the personality of a team that loves numbers but never forgets to value the importance of the humans who compile them.

So when Archer picked out two young pitchers who needed to not merely understand that culture but to make it a part of their existence, it was easy for the talk-show world to see it as a star player looking for a chance to call attention to himself. But you know who never saw it that way? Not for one second? His team.

"You know who does that?" says Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman. "David Price does that. And James Shields does that. And Chris is part of that train of great starting pitchers that we've had here. And he's helping perpetuate it."

Shields to Price to Archer. You hear those names together a lot around this team. And it reminds you why that Rays pitching train continues to rumble, even as the men who once traveled on it move on.

"It's a mentality," Archer says. "It's a state of mind. Everything starts with a thought. Everything starts with the proper mentality."

And that mentality begins in the predawn hours on quiet Port Charlotte mornings in February. It did for Shields and Price. It does now for Archer and Matt Moore, for Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly. It will, down the road, for Snell and Faria. So when you keep that in mind, this didn't feel so much like a scolding as it did a passing of the torch.

But as deeply as Archer appreciates the way Shields and Price passed that torch to him and the other members of this rotation, he still feels a need to say, "I don't think of myself like that."

"Those guys are much more accomplished than I am," he says. "I mean, I'm right at three years of service time, so I don't feel like I'm a veteran. But in that moment, I felt like I was the right person to mention it to them. The more success you have, the louder your voice is. I had a good year. And I feel like people really listen to what I see and watch what I do.

"So if other people are thinking that way, that might be the case. But I'm not thinking, 'This is my duty,' and 'I'm this person,' because I don't think I'm that person yet. Five years from now, we may be having a totally different conversation."

Boy, how true that is. On many levels. Heck, five years from now, if last season was any indication, we might be talking about Chris Archer the way we now talk about Clayton Kershaw.

At age 26, in his third full season in the big leagues, Archer already found himself doing things last year that Price and Shields never did. He set team records for strikeouts (252) and strikeout ratio (10.70 per nine innings). He allowed zero earned runs in 10 of his 34 starts, and no more than one in 17 of them.

He finished fifth in the American League in the Cy Young voting. And if he hadn't given up nine runs in 3⅔ innings on his birthday last Sept. 26, hiking his ERA by 34 points in his next-to-last start of the season, he'd have been a threat to win that award. But regardless, the people who watch him work have a hard time measuring him by numbers alone.

"One of the things that makes him special, and makes him a lot like James Shields was and David Price was, was because they wanted to be That Guy," says Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. "They wanted to be the best performer. They wanted to be the leader. But they were also willing to pay the price. You know, a lot of guys might say they want to be That Guy, but they're not willing to pay the price. And I think that all started with Shields here. And David certainly carried it on. And now Chris is doing the same thing."

The word "tireless" is thrown around a lot in sports. But Chris Archer hasn't just earned it. He embodies it. Off the field, his dedication to helping sick and disadvantaged kids takes up so much of his "free" time that his friend and teammate, Cobb, calls it "exhausting" just to watch and read about." And on the field, it's no different. This is a man who comes to work every day with his motor running.

"That's the only way I know to be successful," Archer says, "is take what everybody else is doing and do a little bit more."

He is also a man consumed by the mental side of the game. Ask him if there's a pitcher he has studied just to watch another variation of his most devastating pitch, the slider, and Archer has a revealing answer.

"No, because ability is something that I never really focused on, or compared myself to," he says. "It's the thought process that's the most impressive to me. I mean, all the greats -- [Roger] Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Satchel Paige -- I've read and studied all of these guys. But not from a delivery/stuff standpoint. More from a mentality/makeup standpoint, because that's the separator in this game."

But as strong-minded as he has become, he's the first to admit that it took him longer than most to find that strength, to recognize how good he could be. After all, he was a guy who went 1-10, with a 6.37 ERA, in his first two minor league seasons and took five seasons just to reach Double-A.

"I was fortunate," he says now, "that even when I had rocky seasons, people were willing to take a chance on me. And [that] gave me the opportunity to be where I am now."

It seems crazy now, but his first professional organization, the Cleveland Indians, wouldn't even allow him to throw what has become his signature pitch, the slider. So even though he slipped it back into his repertoire after he was traded to the Chicago Cubs seven years ago, it wasn't until he reached the big leagues for the first time, with the Rays in 2012, that he began to understand how unhittable that slider could be.

"That's kind of when it all started," he says. "When I got here, they were like, 'Your slider is so good, you command it so well, you can throw it any count, to any batter, and we're never going to be upset with you. If you go 3-0 and you want to throw a slider to whoever the hitter is, whether it's the worst hitter on the team or the best hitter on the team, go do it.'

"So that kind of opened my mind to how good it was, because I knew it was good in the minor leagues, but I wasn't sure how it was going to play up here. So from that point, it was just getting more and more comfortable. And the results were so good that last year, I just got to the point where I trusted it wholeheartedly. And it takes a while to develop that trust as a professional, at any walk of life."

Well, this just in: He's there. He struck out more hitters last season with his slider alone (179) than any pitcher in baseball whiffed with any pitch -- and more than Johnny Cueto or Sonny Gray struck out, period. But when you delve into the reason why that slider is so devastating, it's not real complicated.

The average velocity on that pitch was 87.8 miles per hour. Which means it's vrooming toward the plate at a rate not much slower than the fastball of the guy who won the AL Cy Young, Dallas Keuchel (whose heater averaged 89.5 mph).

"The only way I know to be successful is take what everybody else is doing and do a little bit more."

Chris Archer

But it isn't velocity alone that makes his slider special. It's the insane movement. Among the top 10 sliders in velocity, none had a vertical break steeper than Archer's. His slider was dropping at the incredible average of 17.3 feet per second when it crossed the plate, according to TruMedia research.

So no wonder Hickey calls that pitch "otherworldly. It's a 90-mile-an-hour curveball, really." And no wonder Archer's buddy, Price, has called it "the best pitch in baseball." Because it's one of the most unique pitches in the game.

Archer even has different versions for different situations, and different variations for left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. But here's all you need to know about his faith in that slider: It represented 39.0 percent of all the pitches he threw last year, a jump of more than 10 percent from 2014.

"I think the big thing now is, I trust it," he says. "I can throw it as hard as I want. Or I can throw it more as a feel pitch. And I trust both. And once you have conviction behind your actions, you soar, you skyrocket, you take off."

But there was more to Chris Archer's jump into the elite last season, his pitching coach says, than just that pitch. He didn't have to take a giant step with the slider because "he had that," Hickey says. "But he took that step with fastball command. And he took a step with his changeup. And if he continues to take those steps, you're talking about year-in, year-out, a guy who could contend for the Cy Young Award."

Archer's four-seam fastball is so good unto itself that only six pitchers in the sport threw more fastballs at 95 mph or more last season than the 1,046 he threw. And his changeup became such an important complement to the power stuff that the hard-hit average against it fell to a microscopic .107.

"He started me off an at-bat last year where he went changeup, changeup, and that wasn't even in the scouting report," says his new teammate, Logan Morrison. "So I was obviously mind-warped after that. And that's the other tough thing about him. Not only does he throw 98, but he knows how to pitch. And I think he knows who he's pitching against. For example, he probably knew that I look at scouting, I look at film. And he's like, 'Alright, let's give this guy changeups right off the bat, because I never do that.' But it's one thing to be able to say you're going to do it and it's another thing to actually execute it. Soooo ... pretty special."

But it isn't just the Chris Archer who takes the mound every fifth day who has his teammates describing him as special. The truth is, they talk equally glowingly about the guy they see the other four days, too.

Just last Friday, before the Rays' first full-squad workout of 2016, Archer told his manager, Kevin Cash, he wanted to address his teammates before they all took the field. He then brought out a painting he'd commissioned of their favorite Gold Glove center fielder, Kevin Kiermaier, robbing a home run in Baltimore last August, and presented it to Kiermaier as a "thank you" from his team for all those Web Gems last season. Afterward, Kiermaier was almost in tears as he talked about what it meant to him.

"That's just Chris Archer doing Chris Archer things," Kiermaier said. "He didn't have to do that at all. It caught me by total surprise. And it just speaks volumes to his character and what he does. I know he appreciates me and what I do out there. This is just another thing that he's done for me along the way, and I'm really appreciative of it."

Then, later that morning, another thing happened that you don't often see on a back field during a spring training morning. A 23-year-old Rays pitching prospect headed for the mound to throw live batting practice to big league hitters for the first time in his professional career. Except when he got to that mound, he wasn't alone -- because Chris Archer was waiting for him, to hand him baseballs and offer 10 minutes of veteran encouragement.

That prospect's name: Blake Snell (aka, Baseball America's minor league pitcher of the year). Who suddenly wasn't being asked about being "scolded" by the same man anymore.

"It was just cool to get his knowledge and see that he cares that much to be out there, when he has a lot of work to get done himself before the day ends," Snell said later. "And for him to put that on hold to watch me pitch, it's pretty exciting. ... He's the leader of this team, is how I feel. For him to do that for a guy like me means a lot. I'm really excited about it. I think the message is that he cares about everyone in this room."

But as we were saying, this is a man on a journey. And for Chris Archer, it will never just be his journey. He has places to go in baseball. But more important, he has lives to touch along the way. And that's one more reason why his team can't wait to see where the journey leads him.

"His ceiling is as high as any pitcher, and he has the desire to do great things on the field," Silverman says. "But he also appreciates the talent that he has and the platform it gives him. And he's taking full advantage of it to make the world a better place."