Garrett Richards is having a tremendous season for the Angels, proving many of his detractors wrong with a 2.42 ERA, a matching 2.49 FIP and (finally) striking batters out batters at 9.35 K/9 clip. It’s impressive stuff on its own merit but it is even more impressive when you consider that he is doing it without really throwing the ball in the strike zone.
Through eight starts this year, Richards has put just 41.8% of his pitches in the strike zone, according to Pitch f/x. That’s one of the worst marks in all of baseball, putting him in the company of such luminaries as Francisco Liriano, Tyson Ross, Martin Perez and Dallas Keuchel. While Richards has never been the type of guy that pounds the strike zone, it is a distressingly low mark. But is it actually too low? I poked fun at the other pitchers in the group, but Perez, Ross and Keuchel are having pretty good seasons so far.
The key phrase there is “so far.” There haven’t been many pitchers who have gone a whole season throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone then Richards’ 42.4% mark. There actually could be more pitchers on that list, but who didn’t qualify for the ERA title, likely because they were so bad due to their lack of strikes that they weren’t given a chance.
As for those that did qualify, Jeff Locke finished last season at 41% and had a solid stat line, but it seemed all season long as if he was playing with fire. Sure enough, Locke ended up starting this season in the minors. There was also Tom Glavine who hit the zone just 40.3% of the time in 2007, his next to last season in the majors in which he posted a 4.45 ERA. And then there is Derek Lowe who was under 41.8% in 2010 and 2011. His respective ERAs in those years were 4.00 and 5.05. So while it hasn’t spelled disaster for those three pitchers, there was never a season in which the dominated.
If Richards has one thing going for him over those other pitchers, it is that he is actually capable of missing bats. Locke’s K/9 rate in 2013 was 6.76 and that is the best out of the bunch. Glavine somehow got through 2007 while striking out just 4.00 batters per nine. Lowe’s two seasons ranged from 6.32 to 6.59.
The closest approximation for what Richards is doing might be A.J. Burnett in 2007 when he threw 43.2% of pitches in the zone while striking out 9.56 K/9. Burnett had a very solid 3.75 ERA that year, but he just wasn’t dominant. None of this bodes well for Richards being able to continue to thrive at such a high level.
Richards better hope that he is the exception to the rule because this trend of throwing out of the zone is only getting worse for him as the season marches on, via Brooks Baseball:
The trend appears to be entirely driven by his fastball, too. To be specific, it has really been his sinker leading the charge, a pitch that he has actually been using more than ever this season. In three May starts, his sinker has been in the zone just 17.91% of the time. If hitters ever catch on to that, Richards could be in a lot of trouble.
Of course, the pitchers have to catch on first and, if anything, they are only more baffled than ever as Richards has only been getting better as the season goes along. Perhaps he will end up being the exception to the rule, or maybe he will eventually regress and end up being just an average performer like the zone-challenged pitchers before him.