The Garrett Richards signing has been the most intriguing move of the offseason to me. Sure, the Adam Ottavino trade was great and Enrique Hernández certainly fills a need, but we mostly know what we’re getting with both of those guys. Richards intrigues me because of his volatility – his career has been a bit of a rollercoaster, with plenty of good but also plenty of not-so-good, particularly in the health department.
After struggling in his early years, Garrett Richards dominated from 2013-2015 as he transitioned into a full-time starter. He threw over 500 innings throughout that span, and his FIP never eclipsed the 3.86 mark. For context, only four Red Sox pitchers with at least 10 innings last summer beat that number, and only one of them (Ryan Brasier) threw at least 20 frames.
Unfortunately, the injury bug caught up to Richards in 2016. The now-32-year-old (he’ll turn 33 in late May) tore a ligament in his right arm that year, tried to delay going under the knife but eventually was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2018. Because of these injuries, he threw fewer than 80 innings in each of his last 3 seasons with the Angels, taking him through that 2018 campaign.
This past year, a finally-healthy Richards earned a spot in the stacked San Diego Padres’ rotation. I was fully expecting him to return to his mid-2010’s form, but he had some difficulties. Richards was still fairly effective, but his FIP climbed to basically-league-average 4.28 and he was relegated to a bullpen role at the end of the season. What was the reasoning for his struggles?
The main culprit was his ground ball rate. From 2013-2015, Richards finished with a rate of over 50 percent in each year. Being able to keep the ball on the ground is a great skill and can frequently mitigate the risk of hard contact, particularly in this era of launch angle. Last year with the Padres, Richards allowed a launch angle of 14.6 degrees (way above the league average), which resulted in a career-low 40.1 percent ground ball rate. If the righty wants to fully re-gain his old form, he’s going to need to keep the ball on the ground more often.
However, he showed plenty of flashes in 2020 that make me buy in to this signing and his near-term future. Richards has extraordinary movement on his pitches – his fastball spin rate ranked in the 97th percentile among major leaguers, and his curveball spin rate ranked in the 99th percentile. Adding a pitcher with this kind of stuff is a very “Rays-esque” move, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Bloom & Co. experiment with Richards. We’ve seen the Rays sign/trade for numerous projects and help them put it all together, and I think Bloom knows the kind of potential he has with Garrett Richards.
All in all, I’m excited for Richards’ debut in 2021, and I’m expecting him to be a solid rotation piece barring another injury. If he’s able to stay healthy and get more balls on the ground this year, his ceiling is a number two or three guy in the rotation, in which case Boston has an affordable club option for 2022 to boot. If not, he’s on a flexible 1-year contract and the Sox let him go at the end of the year. This is a perfect low-risk, high-reward signing for the rebuilding Red Sox.