As recently as March 2014, Los Angeles Angels right-hander Garrett Richards was considered a league-average starting pitcher/middle reliever with decent velocity and a good slider. Now just 14 months later, he’s considered one of the top pitchers in the American League. What were the keys to his 2014 breakout performance, and will it continue?
Richards has always had good stuff — in his first three years in the league (2011-13), Richards got whiffs on 9.5 percent of the pitches he threw, which would be top 40 this year among qualified pitchers — but he really didn’t post good strikeout totals until 2014. He posted a mediocre (or worse) 6.3 K/9 rate in 2013, which at that point was the highest mark of his career. But he jumped that rate to 8.8 K’s per 9 last season, ranking 19th in the majors among qualified pitchers in that metric, and he has a respectable 8.2 K/9 rate this season.
So I took a closer look at Richards’ repertoire and metrics in an attempt to find out what’s behind the breakout, then asked the pitcher himself for his thoughts.
The first place to look anytime a pitcher breaks out is his mix of pitches. Here are the different pitch types Richards has used since he entered the league, as classified by PITCHf/x.
|Season||Four Seam||Two Seam||Cutter||Slider||Curve||Change|
Richards ditched his changeup, but as you can see, he didn’t throw it much to begin with. “I never really threw a changeup to begin with,” said Richards with a chuckle. “[I threw it] just a few times a game if it was feeling good that day.”
The variance in his cutter usage does stand out, though, as it seems that pitch has been in and out of Richards’ repertoire. But according to the pitcher, it’s just a matter of how his pitches are being labeled. “I’ve always had a cutter; my four-seam fastball is a cutter,” Richards said before a game against the Oakland Athletics.
Allow me to explain. There are two kinds of cutters. One is a baby slider that goes three-plus mph slower than the standard fastball and usually features a slider-like grip, and the other is more of a true cut fastball that is close to the same velocity and comes from a four-seam grip in which the seams are merely offset a bit. Richards’ version of the cutter has averaged half a mph less than whatever the systems consider his four-seamer.
So if his cutter is apparently his four-seamer, then what’s going on with the four-seamers that PITCHf/x is picking up? Well, there appears to be a version of his fastball that has some arm-side run but doesn’t go as far as his two-seamer. “I couldn’t throw a four-seam fastball straight if I tried,” Richards said. So what are those four-seamers? Let’s look at all of his fastballs, graphed by x and y movement, with the velocity represented by the color.
He clearly has two fastballs. You can call one a cut fastball, or a four-seamer; that’s the one with 2-3 inches of glove-side cut. And the one with about seven inches of arm-side run is his sinker. Both of these pitches feature above-average movement and velocity, and prompted his catcher, Chris Iannetta, to single out Richards as the toughest to catch on his staff.
Then again, he has had both of these pitches his entire career too, so that might not explain the breakout.
Maybe his control improved? In 2012, Richards walked more than four batters per nine, and since then, he has had better than average walk rates (though it’s up slightly in his five starts so far this season). When asked about this, Richards said, “It’s trusting my stuff, throwing everything down the middle and not trying to nibble too much.” But when you look at the percentage of his pitches that have hit the zone recently, it doesn’t really fit what he’s saying:
And it’s just not a high number of breaking balls outside the zone that is affecting the zone percentage; his fastball zone percentage also has remained consistent:
So our quest to find out what led to Richards’ 2014 breakout, which he has carried into this season, continues. Could it be that he’s hitting the edge of the strike zone more than the heart of it? Data consultant Bill Petti has metrics that measure this concept — the self-explanatory edge percentage and heart percentage — but as the following table shows, those numbers don’t show much of a change from 2013 to 2014. Doesn’t look like this is the ticket either.
|Year||# of total pitches||Total Edge%||Heart%||Edge/Heart Ratio|
Stymied by the lack of a new pitch or a big change in command, I asked Richards to elaborate on his 2014 keys to success. “You have to get the ball over the plate,” he reaffirmed, before adding, “I work in thirds. Two-seamers in to righties, cut it away to righties, cut it in to lefties, sink it away to lefties.” Let’s look at Richards’ heat maps for his fastball usage in 2013 and 2014 to see what he’s talking about.
Bingo. It does appear Richards did hit the strike zone more and use his fastballs inside to righties more often in his breakout year, and it’s also worth noting that Richards threw 35 percent more fastballs inside and off the plate to righties in 2014 than he did the year before. That’s a major difference, and it’s something you can see again in his heat maps against lefties in 2013 and 2014. So it’s location, location, location. He did gain a bit of velocity, but at 95 mph before his breakout, and 96 since, he’s always been cooking with gas.
Neither the pitcher nor his catcher was surprised by the leap in performance. Unlike in previous years, Richards had a starting gig right out of spring training, and he ran with it. It required peeling back a few layers, but we’ve found a big key to Richards’ breakout — inside fastballs — and at age 26, there’s no reason the Angels’ ace can’t continue this success.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.