After making just six starts in 2016 and undergoing an experimental alternative to Tommy John surgery, Angels ace Garrett Richards began the 2017 season fully healthy and, therefore, with high expectations firmly fastened to his right arm. But he was removed from his first start of the season in April after 4 2/3 scoreless innings with what was originally billed as only a “biceps cramp.”
The injury turned out to be much more serious, though, and the 29-year-old was sidelined until September with nerve irritation in his biceps. When he was on the field, however, Richards looked like he hadn’t missed any time at all, posting a 2.28 ERA in six 2017 starts.
In fact, Richards was so good in his 27 2/3 innings this year that his 1.0 Wins Above Replacement were tied for the most among Angels starters, although that might say more about the state of the Angels’ pitching staff than Richards’ performance. Regardless, the point is that he was good. Really good.
Velocity and Pitch Selection
The possibility of diminished pitch velocity is perhaps the most immediate concern with a pitcher returning from a long layoff due to an arm injury, especially for a pitcher like Richards whose success depends so much on his blistering fastball. But Richards had no trouble rediscovering his primary pitch.
Richards’ 96.1 mph average four-seam velocity was almost identical to what it was each of the previous two seasons, though it was still lower than the 97.1 it averaged during his breakout 2014 season. Among starting pitchers with at least as many innings pitched as Richards, the right-hander’s fastball was the 12th-fastest.
The velocity of his devastating slider—his second-most used pitch—was also in line with where it has been, averaging 89.5 mph this year, which is the hardest Richards has thrown it in his career and the eighth-fastest slider among starters.
In 2016, Richards incorporated a new pitch into his arsenal: A changeup. He threw it fewer than 60 times, but he only gave up two hits, and the pitch generated swings and misses more often than any of Richards’ other pitches that year.
However, he attributed his elbow injury partly to the new pitch, and ditched his changeup this year. Because of this, Richards increased his slider usage back to its normal level, throwing it about a third of the time as opposed to about a quarter of the time in 2016.
He also decreased the frequency with which he tossed his fastball—both his four seamer and two seamer—in favor of his curveball; he spun his curveball a career-high 8.5% while his combined fastball usage reached a career-low 58.2%.
While opposing batters saw his four-seam fastball well, hitting .300 and slugging .400 against, Richards’ two-seam fastball, which he throws at a similar velocity as his four seamer, was much more effective, and his breaking pitches were nearly unhittable, one of which literally was.
Opposing batters hit just .160 against his two seamer while slugging a mere .240, and he held hitters to a .136 batting average and a .296 slugging percentage against his slider, recording 19 of his 27 strikeouts with the pitch. But perhaps most remarkably, Richards threw his curveball 48 times and allowed exactly zero hits.
The dominance of his breaking pitches is the result of Richards limiting his mistakes and commanding the lower part of the strikezone extremely well, which is particularly noticeable with his slider.
As shown above, a significant number of Richards’ sliders were located low and away to right-handed batters and low and inside to lefties, a side of the strike zone also known as the glove side for a right-handed pitcher (the darker the color, the more pitches located in that area). This is vital because elevated breaking balls tend to get crushed. For instance, opposing batters hit .667 and slugged 1.333 on Richards sliders up in the zone in 2015.
For comparison’s sake, here’s what Richards’ slider heatmap looked like that year:
As is clear, Richards was much more erratic with his slider two years ago, and he left many more in the middle of the zone with very few concentrated in areas that hitters have more trouble with compared to 2017.
In other words, when Richards missed his spot with his slider this year, he tended to miss out of the zone rather than in it, limiting the potential damage of inevitable mistakes.
And on sliders on that low glove-side corner, both in and out the zone, that Richards was focused primarily on, opposing batters managed just one hit in 2017, good for an .083 batting average. But the most impressive part about Richards’ slider this year was the amount of whiffs it generated.
As previously mentioned, about 70% of Richards’ strikeouts this year came on sliders, which is due to the pitch’s extreme swing-and-miss potential, as shown above. On low sliders, batters whiffed on nearly 54% of their swings.
And it’s not as if they were laying off most of them and just missing when they occasionally opted to swing. No, they swung at 52% of low sliders that Richards threw and even more impressively, this number isn’t buoyed by hitters only swinging at strikes; they chased just over half of such pitches that were out of the zone.
And of the 182 sliders he threw this year, 21.4% resulted in whiffs, which is over 4% higher than it was last year.
As for his curveball, it was already a very effective pitch; opposing batters hit just .192 against it in 2015. However, he increased its potency by improving his command of it, just as he did with his slider.
Again, Richards focused on hitting that same corner he did with his slider, and he was mostly successful. His curveball didn’t garner the amount of whiffs his slider did, but batters still swung and missed at over 12% of his curves, which is the second-highest rate of his four pitches, behind his slider. Additionally, his overall swinging strike rate of 12.7% was the highest of his career.
All of those swings and misses resulted in Richards posting a career-high 25% strikeout rate, a number that was just 20.4% two years ago. And the improved command of his breaking pitches helped produce a career-low 6.5% walk rate. He also maintained his ability to induce ground balls, doing so on 54.2% of balls in play, which was the 18th-highest mark among starters.
Entering 2017, Richards was the Angels’ most important pitcher, and rightfully so; his 3.06 ERA since 2014 ranks third among American League starters. The thinking was that the Angels wouldn’t go anywhere without him because of the lack of reliable arms in their rotation, and his five-month absence proved that to be true.
Richards is set to be a free agent at the end of next season and because of a series of injuries, he has only completed one full season as a starter. But come 2018, the Angels rotation will still be in a state of disarray, and Richards will again open the season as the club’s best and most important pitcher, barring any offseason moves. And as long as his body allows him to, Richards could certainly anchor the rotation, and lead the Angels back into contention next season.