The Good and Bad of Garrett Richards 2nd start

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 03: Garrett Richards
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 03: Garrett Richards /

Garrett Richards’ second start highlighted everything that is great and terrible about Garrett Richards. Tonight, it was mostly great. Mostly.

On a night when Shohei Ohtani stole the show for the second time in three games and the Angel offense pounded Josh Tomlin like a bent nail, Garrett Richards overcame a rough first inning to earn his first win of the season. Going 5.2 innings, Richards struck out 9 while allowing just one hit.

On the other hand, the problems that have dogged him since his outstanding 2015 were also on display: he walked four batters, and the one hit allowed went over the big wall in right field for a two-run homer that put the Angels in an early hole.

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The Angel offense, dormant during a home-opener shutout, pounded five homers — including Ohtani’s ecstasy-inducing first major league homer — and 11 runs in the first five innings, but despite being in completely command of the game, Richards still racked up 102 pitches in less than six full innings. (In case you’re wondering, Richards hasn’t pitched into a seventh inning since 2015.)

RIchards’ issue has always been his inability to keep bad at-bats from snowballing into bad innings, in part because he has a tendency to overthrow his fastball in tight spots. It’s funny to say that a guy whose fastball sits at over 96 MPH has trouble overthrowing, but big league hitters can turn fastballs around in a hurry.

When Richards overthrows that four-seam fastball, it flattens out. We saw this at the very top of the first inning: Richards could not throw his fastball for a strike, and walked Francisco Lindor on five pitches. Forcing himself to throw strikes, he grooved a fastball to the next batter, Jason Kipnis, who made a hard out, then a few pitches later grooved another fastball to Jose Ramirez that Ramirez hit for a two-run homer. Of Richards’ first 10 pitches, nine were fastballs, and the only two he threw for strikes were hit very, very hard.

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After the homer, Richards changed things up. He threw two slow curveballs to a wild-swinging Yonder Alonzo before getting him to ground out back to the box, then got Edwin Encarnacion to hit a grounder on a slider that should have ended the inning. So with two outs and a man on, Richards did it again, overthrow his fastball and, of course, throwing them for balls. He walks Lonnie Chisenhall to put runners in scoring position with two outs, then fell behind Roberto Perez with a fastball in the dirt. Of his first 21 pitches, Richards threw 14 fastballs, and the only two that were strikes were hit hard. See the problem?

He got out of the jam by going to his slider. RIchards has perhaps the sharpest breaking slider in the American League, and he throws it hard enough that it looks like a fastball when it leaves his hand. It dives down from right to left, away from right-handers, with a spin so heavy that one scout compared hitting it to hitting a bowling ball. Perez looks a two sliders, a ball and a strike, then swings through a third one. Now looking slider, Perez gets jammed up and in with a fastball and 96 and pops out to short.

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Richards’ first inning was a mess, and it was a mess because he was trying to establish his fastball, and couldn’t manage to throw a strike without making it batting practice-quality. Once he started going to his slider, all of a sudden Indians hitters began to flail, and that’s when the Garrett Richards that was an All-Star in 2015 showed up again. He struck out the side in the second inning, finishing with six straight strikes, five of them sliders, then two more in the third. Setting batters up with sliders and slow curves, the fastball that looked so hittable early became unhittable because Indians batters couldn’t sit on it.

Suddenly, the fastball became too fast as guys started looking for sliders, and sliders became unhittable because they looked like fastballs. In his last 4.2 innings, Richards needed 77 pitches to set down 14 of the 17 batters he fast, striking out nine and walking two. The two guys he walked, naturally, looked at fastballs for ball four.

Big league pitchers almost always go with their fastball in three-ball counts, and that’s especially true with guys who can throw high heat at 97-MPH whenever they want. However, if that guy also possesses a great secondary, then magic is possible. Clayton Kershaw will throw curveballs in three-ball counts. Justin Verlander will throw change-ups with a three-ball count. Max Scherzer made the jump from good to great by throwing his slider in fastball counts. Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton were famous for throwing sliders in full counts.

Richards has that slider, the one that looks like it’s high heat then veers away like an ex-lover. The contrast between his first inning and his next four-plus shows the picture: When Richards shows that slider, it opens possibilities with his fastball and curveball that allowed to dominate one of the best offensive lineups in baseball. His 2015 All-Star season was three years ago, but a healthy Richards still has the stuff to be that pitcher again. There’s no reason why tonight’s game can’t be the same Richards we see every start.

Next: Shohei Ohtani has huge debut at Angel Stadium

With Matt Shoemaker joining Andrew Heaney on the shelf for at least 10 days due to a forearm strain, it becomes even more important that the Angel rotation establish some stability. As good as Richards was tonight, the bullpen still needed to throw 3.1 innings, which makes all seven games this season that the pen has had to go at least three inning. Better starts and deeper starts are what the Angels need coming out of the gate. Garrett Richards re-establishing himself as the Angel ace would help tremendously with that, and he took a big step in doing so tonight.