Garrett Richards, Who’s Making Sense

One of the most confounding things in baseball is an obviously talented starting pitcher who doesn’t generate many strikeouts. Generally speaking, we expect to see strikeouts match the stuff, and while sometimes we just confuse a good fastball for a good repertoire, there are guys who just pitch below their ceilings. Garrett Richards, in the past, was such a guy. It wasn’t just that he possessed one of the fastest fastballs in the majors — he’s also thrown a sharp slider, yet through his first three years he posted the same strikeout rate as Jeff Karstens and Kevin Millwood. Because of the incongruity, Richards has been considered a sleeper, but sometimes all a sleeper is is an early-stage disappointment.

Right now it doesn’t look like Richards is going to be a disappointment. It looks like Richards is going to fulfill that sleeper potential people have long figured he had. Wednesday, Richards was dominant against the Phillies, whiffing eight over seven shutout innings. Now, through a quarter of the year, Richards has struck out one of every four batters he’s faced. One out of four is bigger than one out of six.

What Richards has posted is the second-greatest strikeout-rate increase in the bigs. Following, the top five, through this writing:

  1. Jon Lester, +10.3 percentage points
  2. Garrett Richards, +9.5
  3. Brandon McCarthy, +9.0
  4. Ervin Santana, +8.9
  5. Zack Greinke, +8.7

For Lester, he’s been around this strikeout level before. McCarthy has added oomph to his repertoire. Santana has developed a stronger changeup. Greinke has been around this strikeout level before. Richards didn’t get many strikeouts in 2013, or in 2012, or in 2011, and even his upper-level minor-league rates were underwhelming. Richards is doing something he hasn’t done, and when you combine the whiffs with his groundball tendencies, you get an almost-26-year-old with a mid-2s FIP. Or, you get the sort of breakout people have been predicting.

Interestingly, it’s not like Richards is exhibiting superior command or control. He’s always been a below-average strike-thrower, and so far this year he’s just shy of 60%. His goal in spring training was to cut down on the walks, and to this point his walks are up and his strikes are down. So if we want to try to explain Garrett Richards, we have to look somewhere else, and thankfully we have a few options.

We can start with the obvious. From Brooks Baseball, here’s Richards’ average pitch velocity:

richardsvelo

Richards, in 2014, is throwing harder, even though he’s spent considerable time in the past in the Angels’ bullpen. With every pitch, he’s up a tick or two, and while velocity doesn’t mean the same thing to every pitcher across the board, it obviously benefits a guy to give a hitter less time to react, and Richards has added on to something that was already intimidating. This might be all the explanation we need. Richards is throwing harder. Throwing harder leads to more strikeouts.

But we might as well keep exploring, while we’re in here. This year, Richards has done a slightly better job of getting to two-strike counts. Yet the biggest difference is in what he’s done with those two-strike counts. Simple numbers:

2011-13: 35% strikeouts
2014: 51% strikeouts

Clearly, a guy whose strikeout rate is up is going to have numbers showing a better ability to convert two-strike counts, but this helps to clarify the message: Richards has been doing a much better job of putting hitters away, after pushing them to the brink. It’s been true for him against righties, and it’s been true for him against lefties, and his strikeout leap is massively significant.

So are we looking at a change in approach? Against lefties, Richards has trimmed his two-strike slider rate and increased his two-strike curveball rate. But against righties, his pitch mix is similar, so it could be beneficial to pay more attention to pitch location. For example, some numbers with two strikes:

Against LHB

2011-13: 49% pitches low (lowest third of zone or below)
2014: 66%

Against RHB

2011-13: 43% pitches away (outer third of zone or beyond)
2014: 60%

Richards has definitely been pitching to different spots, and while we can’t very well tie that to his increase in strikeouts, it seems like it’s probably not a coincidence. Against righties, he wasn’t having a ton of success getting strikeouts inside. Against lefties, he wasn’t having a ton of success getting strikeouts up. Now he’s still throwing a lot of balls and pitching frequently from behind, but when he gets to two strikes, he’s better able to finish the job with a whiff or a grounder.

And there’s another thing I’d like to note, something that could be playing a part in all this. Again, from Brooks Baseball, here’s a chart of Richards’ horizontal release points:

richardsrelease

There’s a big shift in late June 2013, toward the first-base side of the mound. The trend has continued in 2014, and if this is confusing in chart form, maybe it’ll be easier to understand in image form. From last June, before the shift:

richards1

After the shift:

richards2

From this very month:

richards3

Richards is consistently pitching from a different spot on the rubber. It isn’t that easy to intuitively link a change like this to a change in performance, but Richards is far from the first guy we’ve seen attempt such a move, and it tends to be about improving angles and ability to pitch to the edges. As Richards has shifted toward the first-base side, his pitches to righties have shifted toward the first-base side, and he’s spending less time trying to work to lefties up and away. It’s also possible this in some way changes how easy or hard it is to see the ball right out of Richards’ hand.

Some things we know: Garrett Richards looks like he’s starting to fulfill his potential. His strikeouts are up, as he’s doing a much better job of converting two-strike counts into three-strike counts. He’s pitching both righties and lefties a little differently, and he’s moved on the rubber, and his velocity is up across the board. Maybe it all has to do with that last bit. Maybe there’s a mechanical adjustment in there that’s been made that I missed. But all anyone really cares about is that Richards has changed for the better, and now that he’s getting his strikeouts, it’s hard to envision him giving them back. We can all continue to talk about the Why, but the What is actively helping the Angels try to get back to the playoffs.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Steve
Member
Steve
2 years 1 month ago

Yeah. He’s good.

Swfcdan
Guest
Swfcdan
2 years 1 month ago

Now thats insight.

FeslenR
Guest
FeslenR
2 years 1 month ago

Thanks for the in depth article, it has convinced me to keep Garrett for both leagues.

I was watching him last few outings and wondered if his pitching style changed, and it has. Good for him and Angels fans that he has improved.

Nocturne
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

Fantastic work Jeff. I was bullish on Richards and his starting potential for years. People would tell me he was destined to be a bullpen arm, while I truly believed he was a #2-3 that would last for years. Now, he’s looking like Jered Weaver’s replacement as the leader of the Angels pitching staff. It’s a treat to watch him. He has a knack for getting out of big jams by being patient and using the tools you outlined so well in the second half of the article.

It really helps explain why he’s so much better now.

flailing
Guest
flailing
2 years 1 month ago

When he was drafted some years ago, scouting reports rated his stuff highly but were unsure as to why he didn’t have more success preventing runs. Watching him pitch last year, there was marked improvement somewhere along the line. He wasn’t ready for the rotation as some fans claimed but it was obvious that when he did get a chance towards the end that something had changed.

Mark Langston does the color commentary on the radio and constantly harps on Richards to use his sinker rather then throwing high strikes. When he throws the latter is when he gets into trouble.

Erik
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

FIP really undersells Richards are well. He’s been just about the hardest pitcher in baseball to get a hit off of this year.

bdhudson
Member
Member
bdhudson
2 years 1 month ago

His FIP is 2.49…how is that an undersell?

Josh B
Guest
Josh B
2 years 1 month ago

Has anyone notified Brad Johnson??

SeattleSlew
Guest
SeattleSlew
2 years 1 month ago

Richards seems very confident in using his breaking ball during fastball counts. He has made huge strides in keeping hitters off balance. I guess everything looks easier with better command.

CharlesH
Guest
CharlesH
2 years 1 month ago

Should Richards owners worry that the increase in velocity might lead to injury?

Swfcdan
Guest
Swfcdan
2 years 1 month ago

Gun shy after the Jo-Fer injury?

Free Bryan LaHair
Member
Free Bryan LaHair
2 years 1 month ago

“now that he’s getting his strikeouts, it’s hard to envision him giving them back”

nice

jake the snake
Guest
jake the snake
2 years 1 month ago

we must ask ourselve how some1 can go from a 4 era to a 2? PEDSSSSS they should get him and pujols checked out. shame he couldve been the 1

Hmk
Guest
Hmk
2 years 1 month ago

This comment is why I believe in sterilization

Seik1177
Guest
Seik1177
2 years 1 month ago

Sterilization is too humane in this case.

tx ball scout
Guest
tx ball scout
2 years 1 month ago

he was a bit of enigma at OU. we all liked the overall package but should’ve had better success. was just a guy you figured hitters saw well.

Matty Brown
Member
Member
Matty Brown
2 years 1 month ago

Sort-of on topic question? Why the heck does Greinke only have 0.5 WAR on the season? 45.1 IP, 2.38 Era, 3.41 Fip, 2.64 xFip, 10.92 k/9, 1.99 bb/9

I just don’t get it.

Jesus Mejia
Guest
Jesus Mejia
2 years 1 month ago

I expect some regression here. Richards has a 256 babip that looks unsustainable even though his GB rate is very good, he is allowing to many line drives(more than 22 percent),and besides that, one should expect a significant regression on his homerun per fly ball rate too,He does not seem to be doing something especial to keep the latest going.

I do think he can be a solid starter but not as good as he has been this season.

What do you think jeff?

Turk's Teeth
Guest
Turk's Teeth
2 years 1 month ago

You might look to the Angels’ team defense and park factor to answer that question to an extent. By a few measures, FG indicates the Angels have the best team defense in the MLB. Meanwhile, they have a park factor that is beneficial to pitchers.

Weaver, Wilson, Richards and Skaggs all show BABIP between .250 and .280. That commonality might indeed be attributable in part to team defense.

Swfcdan
Guest
Swfcdan
2 years 1 month ago

Added him off the wire and haven’t looked back. No idea this was going to happen.

Him or Kazmir for ROS?

Jesus Mejia
Guest
Jesus Mejia
2 years 1 month ago

Yes you are right turk’s teeth, thanks

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