The Angels will be leaning on Garrett Richards to fill the starting rotation opening left by the broken elbow Jered Weaver sustained Monday. Projections are bleak for the 24-year-old — updated ZiPS forecasts a 5.46 ERA and 5.00 FIP; Steamer sees a brighter future but still one near replacement level (4.38 ERA, 4.33 FIP).
There is room for excitement here, however. Richards, the 42nd-overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, has stuff to make scouts drool. His fastball has averaged 94.7 MPH out of the bullpen in 4.1 innings this year and was a blazing 95.6 MPH out of the rotation in eight starts in June and July of 2012. His slider was rated as the best breaking pitch in the Texas League in 2011 and has induced a whiff on 34.7 percent of swings in the majors, a significantly better mark than Weaver (28.2 percent) and noted slider artists Madison Bumgarner (24.1 percent) and Matt Cain (24.9 percent).
So far, though, there has been a disconnect between Richards’s stuff and results. Due to struggles with control and home runs — a disastrous combination — Richards owns a 4.74 ERA and 4.94 FIP through his first 89.1 innings (12 starts, 29 relief appearances). In his 12 starts, Richards has struck out just 5.2 batters per nine innings and has a 4.66 ERA and a 5.41 FIP.
Richards has handled right-handed hitters — they’ve hit .225/.297/.402 against Richards in 195 plate appearances. Lefties, however, have a .318/.412/.514 mark against him. Little in Richards’s statistical profile against lefties induces confidence — a 6.5 K/9 is mediocre; a 5.7 BB/9 is dreadful as is a .196 ISO. He has served up a 26.4 percent line drive rate and a 15.2 HR/FB rate — hallmarks of hard contact.
The only positive is a 50.7 percent ground ball rate. It is the product of swapping out his four-seam fastball — a pitch he uses 51 percent of the time against righties — for a sinker, which he uses 45 percent of the time against lefties against 23 percent for the four-seamer.
Richards’s slider is his best pitch, and it remains an effective weapon against lefties. Although the slider usually exhibits a large platoon split, Richards has allowed just a .361 slugging on contact with it against left-handers compared to .361 against right-handers. It remains a big strikeout weapon as well, with a 17.2 percent swinging strike rate against lefties — actually better than his 15.6 percent mark against righties. I suspect this is because Richards’s slider, a pitch with extreme bite, tends to break more vertically than horizontally, and as such it acts more as a mid-80s curveball — a pitch with a minimal platoon split.
The problem is Richards can’t get to slider counts via the hard stuff. Lefties destroy his four-seam fastball — 16 hits including three doubles and a home run in just 37 balls in play. Unsurprisingly, then, his sinker gets hit hard if he leaves it up (or it flattens out). Lefties have a .224 ISO on contact against the pitch. He’s allowed four home runs on 24 balls in the air. Hitters have five doubles and two triples on the pitch as well.
Overall, 38 percent of Richards’s sliders have been balls. Another 20 percent have been put in play with largely poor results. The balls lead to more sinkers — he throws it 56 percent of the time when a lefty is ahead in the count — and therefore either walks or more poor results in play.
Perhaps he can find another pitch to throw. More sliders are a possibility if his arm can handle the stress. At 66.3 percent, it has the highest strike rate of any pitch he’s thrown against lefties and, as mentioned above, it’s vertical action nullifies the typical platoon split. His changeup earned some praise in the minors, but it’s been largely ineffective in the majors — 42 of the 83 he’s thrown have been balls, and it’s a dull and conspicuous pitch on video.
Most likely, though, the solution has to be command of the sinker. It does its primary job — the pitch has a 57.1 percent ground ball rate against lefties. The problem is elevation. Either he leaves the pitch up and left-handers crush it, or he overcompensates, leaves it low and outside, and creates a carousel of walks around the bases.
If Richards can find the corners a bit more consistently with the sinker and create more slider counts, he can succeed. If he can’t reel in the sinker, the Angels will find themselves missing Jered Weaver quickly.