So we know by now that Garrett Richards has blossomed into an ace. He always had it in him, at least based on his fastball velocity and movement, and in this particular season he’s helped to pick up a lot of the slack within an Angels rotation that carried a bunch of question marks. Richards is the premier arm on the staff, and a part of his breakout has had to do with his dramatic increase in strikeout rate. From last year to this year, Richards has increased his strikeouts by half, which, well, think about that.
The other part of his breakout has had to do with his limiting quality contact. Tony just wrote about this Wednesday, linking Richards with Felix Hernandez, and that’s saying something considering Felix is having one of the better seasons ever. Richards has started 24 baseball games, and he’s allowed just five home runs. He’s yielded a .256 slugging percentage that is actually lower than his opponents’ on-base percentage. You don’t need to dig too deep to understand that batters haven’t been hitting the ball hard against Garrett Richards through four and a half months. But, what’s going on here? How does a pitcher allow just a .063 ISO?
I can’t actually explain the very essence of Garrett Richards. I don’t know what it’s like to face him, and I don’t know what numbers are definitely signal, and what numbers are definitely noise. But, recently, with hitters, I’ve taken a look at guys who have and haven’t pulled the ball in the air more often. Pulled air balls tend to be more dangerous than non-pulled air balls, and it stands to reason we can apply the same kind of thinking to pitchers. And this is where Richards popped up, for me.
Baseball Savant gave me 175 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 1,000 pitches in 2014. I looked at their total fly balls and line drives against, and then I looked at how many of those were hit to the hitters’ pull sides. I split things in half, instead of thirds, for simplicity. On average, out of the sample, the pitchers allowed 49% of fly balls and line drives to be pulled. But Garrett Richards shows up at 36%. He shows up at a league-low 36%. Against Richards, batters have had a difficult time pulling the ball in the air.
He’s at 37% against right-handed hitters, and 34% against left-handed hitters. There’s no hint of a platoon split here, and before this season, Richards was at 55% against righties and 43% against lefties. This year he’s gotten more difficult to pull, which helps to explain the limited power allowed. It’s also an indication that hitters just haven’t been taking very comfortable swings in the box. So it’s direct evidence and indirect evidence of improvement and dominance, and here are a couple spray charts from Baseball Savant. First, righties:
StatCorner shows basically the same thing. Looking just at fly balls, Richards has allowed 27% of them to be pulled, against an average of 44%. Sometimes hitters want to go the other way, and some hitters specialize in hitting for power the other way, but overall, this is a lot more of a good thing than a bad thing for Richards to be pulling off.
How can you explain this? I can offer some simple potential explanations, which seem to suffice. Richards, this year, has improved his fastball command, and he’s refined his secondary stuff. Those can be almost empty statements, some of the time, but that’s also the same explanation given for Corey Kluber‘s emergence. Richards, also, is pitching to different areas, and this year he’s been more willing to come inside against righties with his sinker. As a hitter, you don’t know what to look for against Richards — he has a good breaking ball, and he also has two hard fastballs with similar velocities that move in different directions. So you can’t really sit on anything against Richards, making hitting all the more reactive.
And there’s that part where Richards is throwing extremely hard. Already blessed, this year Richards has kicked it up. His fastball has gained about two ticks, surpassing 97. His sinker is up a tick and a half, touching 97. His slider’s also at 88, and his curveball’s up to 80. Intuitively, it seems like there should be a close relationship between velocity and pulled balls allowed. In reality, things are more complicated than that, but this year Richards is giving hitters even less time to react, and they’re having to react to better and sharper pitches thrown all around the zone. When you put it that way it sounds impossible. And based on the numbers, it has been almost impossible.
Batters don’t struggle to pull the ball against Yordano Ventura, but Ventura doesn’t have Richards’ secondary stuff. Batters don’t struggle to pull the ball against Nathan Eovaldi, but Eovaldi doesn’t have Richards’ secondary stuff. I should note that batters also don’t struggle to pull the ball against Aroldis Chapman, but there they basically have to look fastball, or else they won’t have a chance. And that’s why Chapman’s slider and changeup are so lethal when he has his command.
I don’t know how sustainable this is for Richards in the future. It makes all the sense in the world to me, but I can’t believe people ever pull the ball against Chapman so I know there’s more going on than I understand. Maybe hitters will make adjustments, maybe Richards will change something, maybe the numbers will normalize for some other reason or reasons. But, a year ago, Richards wasn’t easy to pull the ball against, and this year he’s gotten even more dominant in terms of his contact neutralization. His pitches are sharper, his pitches are harder, and his pitches are better located and mixed up absent predictability. For years, when we watched Garrett Richards, we wondered why his results didn’t match the perception. They’re matching the perception. Richards now is exactly as impossible as he was supposed to be.
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