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:
- Jon Lester, +10.3 percentage points
- Garrett Richards, +9.5
- Brandon McCarthy, +9.0
- Ervin Santana, +8.9
- 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:
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:
2011-13: 49% pitches low (lowest third of zone or below)
2011-13: 43% pitches away (outer third of zone or beyond)
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:
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:
After the shift:
From this very month:
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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