When it comes to Garrett Richards, let's hope the third time is the charm. Even though he is just shy of his 25th birthday, Richards is now getting his third shot at securing a spot in the Angel rotation.
Despite a mid-nineties fastball and a wicked slider, Richards just hasn't ever been able to have the kind of success that many had forecasted for him. His previous stints in the rotation, which have only been a grand total of 12 starts, have been plagued by high ERAs, wimpy strikeout rates, concerning walk rates, ugly platoon splits and a few too many homers allowed. Given the small sample size, some of that can be forgiven, but there is enough evidence to suggest that Richards just may not be cut out for being a starter. He's now being given this one last four-to-six week stretch to audition for the gig. Despite his youth and promise, one has to figure that if he fails to impress once again, he's not going to get any other callbacks.
The pressure may be on Richards, but there are some real signs of hope stemming from Garrett's early work as a reliever in 2013. As a relief pitcher this season, Richards is finally flashing the peripherals the Halos had hoped to see from him in his previous work in the rotation. In the admittedly tiny sample of 4.1 innings of work, Richards has posted a 10.38 K/9, 2.50 BB/9 and completely shut down left-handed hitting. Again, I can't stress how small that sample is, but he has shown a smaller but similar spike in effectiveness in his previous stints of relief work. In a still small sample of 25.1 career relief innings, his K/9 is 3.5 strikeouts better in relief and he has shaved a full walk off his BB/9 rate.
What is more important that Richards' actual results though is how he is going about attaining them. One of the reasons that many failed starting pitchers are able to find success in relief is because they are able to simplify things. They can either reduce their repertoire, give more effort and focus or focus on one specialized pitch. It appears that the early success Garrett has achieved in 2013 has been a result of all three of those factors.
One of the first things you'll notice when looking at what Richards has done this season is that he has scrapped his change up. That makes sense as he was being used in relief situations where his exposure to lefties is reduced, but he also chose not to use the pitch in his lone start against the Astros. It is something of a counter-intuitive choice given that the change up is the pitch most commonly used by starters to neutralize opposite handed batters, but it has been such an ineffective pitch for Garrett in his career (in 2012 when put in play, the change up allowed a .422 TAv and only generate a called strike 9.23% of the time and a swinging strike 6.5% of the time), he is probably better off without it.
Part of the reason that Richards can survive without a change up is that he throws a variety fastballs. He has his garden variety four-seamer, a nice little two-seamer and a burgeoning cutter that he has become increasingly dependent on. That gives him a lot of looks to flash at hitters of either hand, especially since he is able to throw all three pitches at the same velocity. When you've got mid-nineties heat coming at you and you don't know if it is going to tail away, cut in on your hands or stay straight (arguably too straight, if you ask me), it can make life pretty difficult. This, in a lot of ways, is what Jered Weaver has been able to do in recent years to find so much success despite throwing almost ten miles per hour slower than Richards.
Changing up the pitch mix has worked, but it isn't where Richards is really seeing the dividends. For the most part, his array of fastballs have led to hitters making worse contact, but he still isn't missing a lot of bats, despite his velocity. What is missing bats now compared to seasons past is Richards' slider, which has always been his best pitch.
In past seasons, Richards was going to the slider less than a quarter of the time, but this season he is pushing a 30% usage rate. What the slider is also doing is missing more bats. In 2012, the pitch generated a 17.4% whiff rate but in 2013, that is up to an even 20%, however it was over 25% during his relief outings. The evidence suggests that Richards has been able to tighten up his slider to make it more effective. Pitch f/x data suggests that he is now getting almost two extra inches of drop on the pitch compared to last season which could help explain the rise in effectiveness. He also has yet to allow a flyball on the pitch this season either. That though might just be a function of his overall trend of doing a better job of keeping the ball down and inducing more groundballs, which has been another major factor in his improvement.
So either through work in the off-season or from getting to focus on the pitch more during his relief stints, Richards has really turned the slider into a weapon. The question is how will that translate into starting pitching?
Thus far, the results are mixed. Richards was effective against the Astros, but he only struck out one batter on a team that could very well set a record for most strikeouts on a season.
Strikes / %
Whiffs / %
SNIPs / %
FF (FourSeam Fastball)
22 / 68.75%
0 / 0.00%
12 / 54.55%
12 / 66.67%
2 / 11.11%
10 / 62.50%
1 / 50.00%
1 / 50.00%
1 / 50.00%
11 / 52.38%
0 / 0.00%
5 / 33.33%
FT (TwoSeam Fastball)
6 / 46.15%
1 / 7.69%
3 / 30.00%
Pitch classifications provided by the Gameday Algorithm.
SNIPs are "Strikes Not In Play" and do not include any balls in play.
Velocities are assumed from 55ft (rather than the gameday standard of 50ft) for increased realism.
These 55ft numbers are directly comparable with our player cards.
In that start, Richards didn't miss very many bats at all. Judging by the table above, he seemed to back off his slider usage a little bit, possibly because he wasn't getting the same kind of horizontal break as he normally does. That might be a red flag, but it also might just be that he was a little off that day. Where Richards still found success was in his ability to change speeds, keeping hitters off balance. Again, via BrooksBaseball.net::
He seemed to lose his focus on changing speeds towards the end of the outing which through no small coincidence is where the wheels almost came off for him and he had to be pulled. That loss of focus is probably the biggest lingering concern with Richards. In relief, he didn't really need tow worry about concentrating for so long, but in his starts he obviously does but, judging by his penchant for the big inning, it is something he struggles with. In that Houston start, Richards had retired seven of the previous eight batters before he entered the seventh and started coming apart despite being at a very reasonable pitch count even considering he had been working in relief for two weeks.
That is a problem Richards will have to correct in a hurry as he faces a dangerous Tiger offense in his next start then a mediocre Seattle lineup before matching up against the alarmingly good (and left-hand heavy) A's. If by that time he hasn't shown that he can translate at least some of his relief effectiveness into the rotation, then Richards will undoubtedly be asked to return the rotation spot to Jered Weaver when he comes off the DL and he probably won't ever get another chance to get it back.