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2021 in Review: Garrett Richards was all over the place

He evolved from an up-and-down starting pitcher to a substanceless reliever who helped keep the team afloat during a chaotic stretch run.

Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays - Game One Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Garrett Richards’ 2021.

2021 in one sentence

Garrett Richards spent over two-thirds of the season in the starting rotation, encountering numerous ups and downs, but his move to the bullpen after the return of Chris Sale provided an unexpected boost to an undermanned crew down the stretch.

The Positives

Pitching on a one-year, $10-million contract, Richards started 22 games for the Red Sox in 2021 and the team was 11-11 in his starts, going five innings or more in 16 of the 22. In an eight-start stretch from April 27 to June 6, Richards went five innings or more in all eight starts going 4-2 with a 2.98 ERA.

After his final ten starts left something to be desired, Richards moved to the bullpen in the second week of August. His presence there stabilized a ‘pen that was both struggling on the field and dealing with a COVID outbreak off the field. In his first 13 outings in relief, Richards was lights out, allowing only two earned runs in 20 23 innings and striking out 25 while not allowing a home run. He even, most remarkably, tallied three saves in this span, although two were of the three-inning variety.

Before moving to the bullpen, it would’ve seemed impossible that Richards would make the playoff roster over Matt Barnes, without the presence of an injury, but he was selected and was the first reliever called upon in Game One of the ALDS.

The Negatives

Well, this is a start:

Per Baseball Savant, Richards was dead last in all of baseball in terms of rate of hard-hit batted balls allowed, as 47.8 percent of the balls in play were hit at 95 MPH+.

Richards threw 51.6 percent of his pitches in the zone (up 2.1 percentage points from 2020), with a 71.9 percent Zone Swing rate (up 2.4 percentage points) and 85.8 percent Zone Contact rate (up 2.4 percentage points), all career highs. His Whiff rate on all pitches was a career-low 22.4 percent (down 3.5 percentage points). In short, he threw pitches in the zone that were being swung at often and hit hard even more often. Not a good combination. Richards allowed 19 home runs in 136 2/3 innings, had a 4.87 ERA overall, and a WHIP of 1.60 that was right near the bottom of the league.

Richards’ quotes were curious at times. He understandably was not a fan of the mid-season rules changes with substances. After walking six and losing to Toronto in April, Richards said postgame, “I mean I didn’t even pack a jacket for a season until this year, so I’m going on my ninth, almost 10th year. So, yeah, you know it’s something different, but it’s nothing that can be dealt with. I just got to make adjustments, you know. I’m not making excuses I just got to, I got to figure out a way to get it done.”

After pitching his way onto the postseason roster, Richards suffered a hamstring injury after facing only one batter in Game 1 against Tampa. He was removed from the ALDS roster which automatically kept him off the ALCS roster and thus ended his season.

The Big Question

The Question: Which pitches will Garrett Richards use in 2021?

Little did we know at the time how perfect this question would be, as a result of the sticky stuff enforcement coming into play in June. As Matt mentioned in the preseason, “Last season, per Baseball Savant, Richards was mainly a two-pitch guy, throwing his four-seam and slider 48 and 38 percent of the time, respectively, with his other pitches all coming in at a rate less than 10 percent.

As the news came down throughout June, Richards was not shy admitting that he needed to come up with a new pitch repertoire on the fly. Richards mentioned after his June 28 start against the Royals that he had just learned a new change-up that week. “I’m figuring it out. I’m starting to throw a changeup now that I learned this week in about three days. Now I’m throwing a curveball at 60 miles an hour, which is new for me. Just trying to figure out how to pitch again, man.” The “60 miles an hour” curve wasn’t that much of an exaggeration, as he did throw 11 curveballs under 73 mph in that same Royals start which, as SI pointed out, Richards had never previously thrown a pitch under 73 mph in his career. As his effectiveness declined in June and July, Richards adjusted his pitch mix. The changeup that first appeared in June increased to 11, 15, and 19 percent usage, respectively, over the final three months. He used his four-seamer less, his slider more, and all but ditched the curveball by the time September arrived.

2022 and Beyond

As was the case in 2021, Richards was similarly removed from the San Diego Padres rotation in 2020 during the stretch run, making ten starts to open the season before the final eight appearances came in relief (postseason included). It is difficult to envision Richards in the rotation on a top-tier staff going forward but could be worth a flier as a staff filler on a rebuilding team. With the number of injuries ticking up on pitching staffs throughout the league, depth and experience are still important. With a fastball that averaged 94.3 MPH overall this season, Richards did tick up a bit after moving to the bullpen and averaged as much as 97 MPH in some relief appearances. An effective power right-hander for an inning or two is not out of the question.

It is unlikely that Richards would be brought back to the Red Sox on anything more than a minor-league invite. They will likely want to add one or two relief pitchers that are a tier (or two) above Richards and there is a logjam of relief arms on the 40-man roster already. I would expect that Richards signs a deal for $3-4 million for one year with the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot somewhere in 2022.