Los Angeles Angels pitcher Garrett Richards: A Work in Progress

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

Two weeks into the 2018 season, the Major League leader in walks issued is Los Angeles Angels pitcher Garrett Richards. As his 12 walks allowed in just 15 innings suggests, the strike zone has become as elusive as a whisper on a windy day.

With the rotation struggling to stay healthy and upright, the Los Angeles Angels need Richards to be the ace the team — and the player — they thinks he is.

First of all, it must be noted that the stuff is there. The raw material that made him so excellent in 2014 is as good as it ever was.  Per Fangraphs, his fastball is averaging 96.2 MPH. MLB’s Statcast tabs Richards’ slider with the highest spin rate in the league (among starting pitchers only Luis Severino is even close) and at just over 90 MPH, his is also the second-fastest slider in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard‘s. This season, Richards has 19 strikeouts in his 15 innings. His stuff is real.

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Is problem is, obviously, control. Among the 102 starters who’ve thrown at least 10 innings to start the season, Richards is ranks 98th in the percentage of strikes thrown. Fifth worst in the major leagues! Big league batters are perfectly happy to force pitchers to prove they can throw strikes consistently, especially when the pitcher has stuff as hard to hit as Richards’ stuff. Laboring from at bat to at bat, inning to inning, and piling up pitches as he does,

Richards has been unable to prove batters wrong and make them hit. His wildness is particularly apparent with men on base — four of his 12 walks have come with a man on base. Richards’ wildness creates RISP opportunities for his opponents.

The bright side is that Richards does appear to be healthy, fully recovered from the injuries that have plagued him the previous two seasons. Pulled from a May 1st, 2016 game with elbow pain that turned out to be an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear, he opted for an experimental procedure involving stem cells and platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections in hopes of avoiding Tommy John surgery.

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Richards did end up avoiding surgery, but he lost not only the rest of 2016, he also lost almost all of 2017. Perhaps because he had to compensate for his weakened elbow, but he lost most of last season with nerve irritation in his right bicep.

Now he’s healthy and throwing hard, but over two years removed from his last full season, and three years removed from the one season when he was ace-quality. While his stuff is as nasty as ever, stuff needs skill to matter, and at this moment, control is a skill Garrett Richards does not possess. Despite his awesome stuff, Richards is only ahead of a batter about 35% of the time, which means batters can wait for a fastball strike rather having to fish for a slider off the plate that they can’t hit anyways.

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Richards knows all of this, too. His effort is obvious and apparent, especially with men on base. As he throws fastball after fastball off the plate, as he’s forced to groove pitches because he’s always behind in the count. As he gets himself in, out, and back in trouble, Richards burns pitches and forces quick hooks. This forces the bullpen to throw four innings when he starts. Having thrown just over 40 competitive innings since May of 2016, Richards may simply have lost the the command that made him so effective Four years ago. 2014 is a long way off in the rear view mirror.

The good news is that the arm is still live and the stuff is still electric. So long as that remains true and Richards stays healthy, he can work to rediscover the strike zone. With the rotation still waiting for Andrew Heaney, with Matt Shoemaker’s status still very much up in the air, and with J.C. Ramírez done for the season, the Angels need a a dependable leader at the top of the rotation, someone who can give the team six or seven strong inning every time out.

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Richards is supposed to be that guy, but the Garrett Richards that was so effective three or four years ago doesn’t exist right now. The best case scenario is that Richards is a work in progress, that he will get better as the season goes along. If that’s not the case, Angels are going to have to scramble for starting pitching sooner rather than later.