Back in early April, Jack Moore published an in-depth look at Garrett Richards when the Angels pitcher replaced the injured Jered Weaver in their rotation. Soon after given that opportunity, Richards pitched himself right back into the bullpen. And now he once again finds himself a member of the Angels starting staff, this time as a result of Joe Blanton being Joe Blanton. You know, the one whose ERA never seems to match up with his peripherals. The Angels have lost all hope of that ever happening, so Richards is getting another shot. Should you give him one as well?
Richards has appeared in 34 games this year, only 4 of which have come as a starting pitcher. Over those four starts, he allowed 16 runs in 23 innings for a bloated 6.26 ERA, along with 18 strikeouts (7.0 K/9) and 7 walks (2.7 BB/9). Though I won’t attempt to calculate his ground ball rate, luck metrics or ERA estimators, it is fair to say that he probably deserved better fate given his strikeout and walk rates.
Let’s start with the positives. Richards has induced a ton of ground balls this year at a rate that would rank among the league leaders if he pitched enough innings. He was a slight ground ball pitcher last year, but nowhere near the degree he has been this season. The difference is primarily due to his four-seam fastball. Last year, his ground ball rate on the pitch was just 38%. This year it has skyrocketed to 59%. If you check out his heat maps, you could see that he is throwing the pitch low in the zone more frequently this year, especially against left-handers.
He was a ground ball pitcher in the minors, so this likely isn’t a fluke, though maybe some slight regression should be expected. The other positive is that he throws hard — his fastball has averaged around 95 miles per hour since his debut. He also didn’t lose any velocity during his four starts. We know that velocity correlates strongly with strikeout rate, so a big fastball provides optimism for high strikeout totals.
Unfortunately, the negatives begin with that strikeout rate. Despite possessing a strong fastball velocity-wise, which pairs with a slider, the strikeouts simply haven’t been there. Even if you go back to his minor league days, his strikeout percentage was sub-20% at both Double-A and Triple-A. If you look at his SwStk%, you won’t really get any answers. It has been above the league average over the past two years and both his fastball and slider have slightly above average SwStk% marks. So the next thought is that his looking strike rate may be the culprit. Sure enough, his looking strike rate was significantly below the league average last year and below it again this year, but by a lesser amount.
Plugging in his various rates into my adjusted xK% formula (the formula now includes Str% as a variable), you get a 16.8% mark for 2012 (versus an actual 14.8% mark) and an 18.5% mark for 2013 (versus an actual 16.4% mark). So it sure seems like he has been a bit unlucky in the strikeout department. And considering the two years comprise just 138.2 innings, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that he has been victimized by poor luck, or perhaps poor sequencing.
Another issue is his control. His F-Strike% sits at an unsightly 54%, which hints at a much higher walk rate in his future than his current 2.5 mark. However, relievers throw first pitch strikes less often than starting pitchers and also post higher walk rates. So although Richards’ walk rate would almost certainly have risen had he remained in the bullpen, some of that increase should be offset by his move back into the rotation.
The last problem is his reliance on just two pitches. He’s a fastball-slider guy and really isn’t all that different than Justin Masterson. The problem with these types is that they typically have trouble with lefties, since the slider has a large platoon split on average. Surprisingly, Richards has actually performed better against lefties than righties this year, both in terms of opponent’s wOBA and xFIP. Last year, though, lefties crushed him to the tune of a .389 wOBA, while his 4.98 xFIP suggests it wasn’t all bad luck.
So is he doing anything differently versus lefties this year as compared to last? It doesn’t seem like a whole lot. He is throwing his fastball for a ball less frequently, which could help explain his improved walk rate. But, his Whiff rate on his four-seamer has plunged and has also declined slightly on his slider, while the rate has increased only marginally on his sinker. His pitch mix also doesn’t look all that different. He has completely scrapped his change-up, while throwing a few more fastballs and sliders, but that’s it. His dramatically improved results against lefties do not seem all that sustainable given the lack of a clear explanation.
There is always hope that a hard thrower will suddenly “see the light” and his results will start to match his outwardly good stuff. Though Jeff Samardzija has a more varied assortment of pitches, he too was always a hard thrower, but never posted strikeout rates that matched his stuff or velocity until 2011. Obviously, I’m cherry picking this example, but the point is that there is always a glimmer of hope with a guy who possesses a strong heater that it will eventually translate into strikeouts. Given that potential and his penchant for ground balls, Richards is once again worth speculating on in deeper leagues.