Richards has the stuff, but can he find the consistency?
Note that this is not a traditional "best prospect list," but rather a ranking of individual Angels' prospect performances in 2011 according to (W)ins (A)bove (R)eplacement. However, rather than running through the year's statistical ups and downs, the profile below leans heavily in the direction of a scouting report.
5) Garrett Richards, 5/27/1988 -- rhrp/rhsp, AA and MLB
12 wins, 2 losses. 143 IP, 3.15 ERA, 123 hits, 103 K/40 BB. 19 runs saved, 3.9 WAR
Richards is now the consensus top pitching prospect in the Angels' system due to outstanding raw stuff and ability to pound the strikezone. Because Richards is currently the organization's best bet for a young, cost-controlled arm, molding him into a rotation workhorse before Dan Haren and Ervin Santana complete their contracts is among the Halos' key long term challenges. We've all seen him perform on the big stage now, so we undoubtedly all have opinions about whether or not he will successfully assume that role.
Before projecting him though, let's run through the data. At the MLB level, Richards' average fastball velocity was 94.5-94.8 mph (depending on your source), and he frequently augmented the pitch by cutting it to his glove side at roughly the same speed. That velocity would have ranked fifth or sixth among all MLB starters had he sufficient innings to qualify. Scouts who saw him midseason in AA reported even more gas, and graded out his fastball as "top of the scale." Moreover, he touched 96 mph multiple times in his final start of a 157+ inning season, pointing to good stamina. His slider routinely sat in the mid to high 80's, and features good downward tilt. Hitters swung and missed 11% of the time at the breaker, and RIchards will likely induce more empty swings when he learns to set it up more effectively. Most evaluators grade the pitch out as plus. While he used his change-up infrequently, he tossed a couple of really good ones to Josh Hamilton on the final day of the season, so it flashes as plus and has the potential to be at least an average pitch with more consistency. It's a hard change, usually in the mid 80's, but he throws his fastball with such oomph that there's adequate separation. He's dropped the curveball for now, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him throw it as a get-me-over pitch to lefties in 2012.
All of his offerings produced negative run values in the majors according to Fangraphs. Richards' grooved far too many pitches in his major league debut season, leading to 4 homeruns in just 14 innings (why did he have to throw ANOTHER slider to Edwin Encarnacion?!?). However, that's not uncommon for young guys - the best right handed pitching prospect in baseball, Julio Teheran, also gave up four long balls, albeit in 19 innings - so we can cut Richards some slack given his good minor league track record of homerun prevention. More concerning is the reoccurring bouts of hittability that have afflicted Richards since his college days, and he tends to give up a lot of line drives. I still consider Chatwoods' 93 mph heater down in the zone as a more difficult pitch to square up than Richard's 96 mph on either side of the plate. I suspect that Richards is going to suffer from some big inning syndrome for at least his first few years in the majors, much like John Lackey and Ervin Santana did early in their careers.
Prospect watchers have bashed Richards for his 2011 drop in K-rate, which sank from 10.6 per nine innings in High A ball all the way down to 6.5 K's per nine in Double A. While that rate stat is among the best indicators when evaluating minor league pitchers (for many good reasons), it breaks down with Angels' guys who advance to Arkansas. The Halos promote a "three pitches, one out" mantra to their young arms at that level, encouraging them to get ahead in the count and then pitch to contact within the safe confines of the Travs' home park. Pitch efficiency, and not missed bats, is the organizational evaluation criteria, and prospects generally respond to it. Major leaguers Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders all saw their K-rates drop in their initial exposure to the level (though Santana's K-rate rebounded when he returned the following season). Prospects Nick Adenhart, Tyler Chatwood, Trevor Bell, and Trevor Reckling are additional examples. Given Richards' history of missing bats, his consistently good groundball rates, and his solid control, I think concern over his mediocre AA K-rate is misplaced.
The most exciting aspect of Richards' scouting report is his smooth delivery and effortless velocity. "Easy gas" is an excellent indicator of endurance and future improvements in command, which are crucial to projecting Richard's upside. On the other hand, he attracts some criticism because of his "cross-fire" delivery (he whips his throwing arm around in a diagonal that verges unusually close to a horizontal motion across his body). Published reports oftedn cite concern that the motion could lead to shoulder problems. However, there are a number of pitchers, Jered Weaver among them, who do just fine with that type of follow-through. Also, Alex Eisenburg at Baseball Intellect provided good documentation of Richards "tipping" his curve and change-up earlier in his career, but the pitcher eliminated the curve (for now) and made the necessary tweaks to his change-up delivery. Overall, I rate Richards' mechanics as a big plus.
Richards' unique combination of outstanding scouting reports, crappy amateur track record, and solid but not quite dominant rate stats over young minor league competition provide a lot of dissonant information, which all point to him being a bit of an enigma. I can't say that I have a good intuitive sense of which direction his career will take, though I think that his most likely outcome is a streaky, high upside, brilliant-one-start-and-frustrating-the-next rotation horse in the Ervin Santana or even Javier Vasquez mold. He'll be valuable most years, completely undependable in others, with career numbers that eventually even out to those of a solid mid-rotation starter. He still has the upside of a strong number two, but his pitchability has a long way to go in order for him to reach that ceiling. For a young, cost-controlled guy, that's still great value. I think he's one of the best seventy-five, maybe top fifty prospects in all of baseball.