Garrett Richards is done being jerked around. For the first time in his career, he has a rotation spot to call his own. Hopes are high for him after a strong finish to 2013, but are those hopes justified for a pitcher who has spent his young career being nothing but inconsistent and frustrating?
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA calculation is approximate because my math skills are only "meh")
What happened in 2013?
2013 was just weird for Garrett Richards. The Angels tried to give him some consistency in his role, an issue that had really stunted his development, but they failed miserably. With a full rotation on Opening Day, the Halos moved Richards to the bullpen and promised he would stay there. Richards was good in that role, but not great. Still you could see the potential. Then Jered Weaver got hurt, so back to the rotation went Richards.
Richards stepped in for a four starts and looked passable as Weaver's fill-in. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Instead of letting Richards blossom in the rotation, he was yanked back into relief work after a subpar outing in Oakland to try and bolster a relief corps that was falling apart at the seams. Again, Richards was OK in the role, but he was hardly the savior they needed as his 4.10 ERA as a reliever shows. Inconsistency, as per usual, plagued him and prevented him from stepping into a high leverage role.
Oh well, Richards will just be damned to a life in middle relief, right? Wrong again! After finally giving up on getting anything out of Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson, Richards was once again re-inserted into the rotation. Sure enough, he took to it like a fish to water. Garrett turned in 13 starts to finish the season that was strong enough, via a 3.72 ERA and .708 OPS allowed, that Mike Scioscia and Jerry Dipoto couldn't help but promise him a spot in the 2014 rotation, a promise they actually delivered on even though Richards struggled badly in his final two starts to put that promise in jeopardy.
What do the projections think he will do in 2014?
The projections for Richards are all over the map. Oliver thinks he'll be a quality #3 starter, CAIRO thinks he is more of a #4 while Steamer and ZiPS think that he could stink. The one thing that separates Oliver from the rest of the projections is that it puts more faith in Richards' ability to limit walks like he did in 2013 when he cut his BB/9 nearly in half. That really seems to be the key difference among all the systems.
Interestingly, the FIP projections are a bit more clustered. In fact, the Steamer FIP projection is a hair better than Oliver's. We don't really have enough of a big league sample with Richards to know if he is the kind of guy who regularly has an ERA under, abover or right around his FIP. Last year was his most innings pitched and his ERA was well above his FIP, so take that for what it is worth.
One thing you'll see with Richards' projections is low innings projections. Don't worry too much about that as it is just a result of Richards having never been in the rotation full-time in his previous MLB seasons, so the systems don't have an accurate picture of the kind of workload he is capable of to base anything off of.
Does the Monkey agree or disagree?
I guess both, because the projections are at every part of the spectrum. Mine is more in the middle. I have Richards being not great, but good enough to stick in the back of the rotation. My issue with Richards is that in 2013, some of his peripheral rates took big leaps forward and I just am not sure that they are sustainable.
The first of which was the walk rate. He had been nearly 11% of batters faced in the majors and Triple-A over the last two years, but that dropped to 7.1% in 2013. That rate is in line with what Richards was posting in the lower levels of the minors, but those were the lower levels of the minors, not the majors.
The other rate that jumps out is that Richards suddenly turned into a groundball machine, inducing grounders 57.9% of the time in 2013. That's an elite rate and Richards had never approached that before, not even in the minors. He has always leaned towards being a groundball guy, but never that much, more like 45%.
It is possible that these changes are real though because Richards really changed his repertoire in 2013. Richards basically stopped throwing his changeup and instead went back to his curveball. Neither were used all that much, but his changeup was terribly ineffective in previous years, so just upgrading those 5% of pitches to a more useful pitch in the curve is going to help.
The real big shift though was that Richards back off his two-seam fastball and embraced his cutter. That change has allowed him to remain effective against left-handers despite the scrapping of the changeup. That cutter could be the reason that his grounders have gone up, but not by the massive amount that we saw last year.
Taking all of that into consideration, I have no choice but to assume that Richards is going to walk more batters and a lot fewer grounders. My hope is that he'll be able to grow as a pitcher simply because he is being left alone in the rotation without real fear of losing the job for the first time ever. How well those two offset will determine whether Richards can make the leap to being the reliable #3 the Angels need or simply a guy who soaks up 170 innings in the back of the rotation.
What are the known unknowns?
One thing that has always bothered me about Richards is that he throws so hard but he just doesn't miss enough bats. I realize that Richards pitches more to contact because of his ability to induce grounders, but I still have a hard time getting around his K/9 being in the low six range.
What I don't know is if the lack of whiffs is a product of his approach or if his stuff just isn't as good as it appears to the naked eye. Yes, he throws hard, but hard only goes so far if it doesn't have enough movement. Yes, his slider looks sharp, but that doesn't mean it is deceptive or that he sets it up properly.
That is what makes Richards such a difficult nut to crack. He has these big flashy tools that you just hope he eventually figures out how to put together and become a big strikeout frontline workhorse instead of putting up the kind of peripherals that resemble guys who can barely crack 90 MPH.