Garrett Richards Has Had to Reinvent Himself

It’s pretty evident that Major League Baseball’s crackdown on foreign substances will have wide-ranging effects on the sport. Offense is almost certainly due to increase; that that has yet to happen (at least beyond normal temperature-related effects) may only be a question of time. But with spin rates plummeting and pitchers telling the media that they are “trying to figure out how to pitch again” as a result of the new policies, it seems that we’re bound to see broad changes sooner rather than later.

The hurler who supplied the quote above is none other than right-hander Garrett Richards, an 11-year major league veteran currently pitching for the Red Sox. Boston signed Richards this past February to a one-year, $10 million contract that included a club option for 2022, a deal meant to shore up depth for a rotation that was a weak spot for the team as it entered the 2021 season. And though he has dealt with a collection of arm injuries throughout his career — including a 2018 Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss almost all of 2019 — Richards posted solid peripherals with the Padres last season and was heralded for his league-leading spin rates.

Through Richards’ first 11 starts this season, it seemed like Boston’s gamble had paid off. He wasn’t putting up elite numbers, but a 3.75 ERA, 20.2 K%, 11.6 BB%, and a 4.06 FIP is certainly serviceable. Through his start on June 1, Richards was worth 0.9 WAR, putting him in a virtual tie with Martín Pérez and Eduardo Rodriguez in terms of value. As for Boston’s starting staff as a whole, their combined 6.4 WAR through June 1 ranked fifth in the majors, which represented quite the pleasant surprise given that their rotation ranked 16th in our preseason power rankings.

But since MLB’s June 3 warning that sticky stuff enforcement was coming, Richards has not been the same pitcher. This is by his own admission, too; he told Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic that he had to reinvent his repertoire in response to the crackdown. Richards emphasized to McCaffrey that while he used sunscreen and rosin, he never worked with anything tackier, like Spider Tack or Pelican Grip. Even still, Richards admitted that the sunscreen and rosin concoction that he used — one that is believed to be common throughout the game — likely did have an impact on his spin rates.

“It kind of opened my eyes now,” Richards said. “Do I feel a little bit like, ‘Damn we were doing something wrong the whole time?’ Yeah, I do feel that way. But in all fairness, I don’t think we knew we were doing something wrong. So we’re just a product of an era, just like any other era, there was the steroid era, now we’re the sticky era so we’re working through it.”

Richards has not seen the largest spin-to-velocity ratio decrease since the June 3 date of demarcation: among the 225 pitchers who threw at least 100 four-seam fastballs before June 3 and at least 50 since, Richards’ drop in spin-to-velocity ratio is only the 32nd-largest. But he’s been arguably one of the most vocal about how he’s needed to adapt since the crackdown.

And in that time, Richards’ performance has fallen off of a cliff, going from being quite serviceable to one of the worst pitchers in baseball:

Tale of the Crackdown: Garrett Richards
4/4-6/2 60.0 3.75 20.2% 11.6% 0.75 4.06 4.57
6/3-6/28 21.2 8.31 12.8% 7.7% 2.49 7.04 5.24

It’s hard to know how much of Richards’ dip in performance we should attribute to a presumed lack of sunscreen and rosin versus poor luck, but between the results and the quotes, it is definitely fair to assume some sort of connection. What’s interesting to me, at least, is that Richards’ walk rate has actually decreased post-crackdown. It may be because he feels as if he has little choice but to pour pitches down the middle of the strike zone due to a presumed decrease in command sans added tackiness. Indeed, Richards upped his rate of pitches in the heart of the strike zone by four points and his overall zone rate by more than seven points. That zone rate increase is one of the largest in baseball since June 3:

Largest Zone% Increases Since June 3
Name Before Zone% After Zone% Difference
J.P. Feyereisen 37.2% 49.0% 0.118
Sam Howard 40.8% 51.2% 0.104
Taijuan Walker 52.9% 60.9% 0.080
Tyler Alexander 51.4% 59.3% 0.079
Joe Ross 47.4% 55.3% 0.079
Will Smith 43.9% 51.6% 0.077
Austin Gomber 51.7% 59.3% 0.076
Sam Hentges 40.8% 48.3% 0.075
Garrett Richards 48.0% 55.4% 0.074
Emmanuel Clase 44.7% 51.9% 0.072
Min. 300 pitches before June 3 and 100 pitches since.

That would explain the decreased walk rate and may also explain why he’s been hit so hard; Richards has allowed some of the loudest contact in baseball, especially post-June 3. All of his pitches have been negatively impacted. Hitters are crushing just about everything that comes out of Richards’ hand:

Pitch Data, Garrett Richards
Pitch Type Before RV/100 After RV/100 Delta Before xwOBA After xwOBA Delta
Four-Seam -0.96 2.80 3.76 .370 .454 .084
Slider 2.17 2.72 0.55 .319 .437 .118
Curveball -1.29 5.35 6.64 .237 .451 .214
Before and after June 3. Lower run values are better for pitchers.

This must be why Richards is trying something new, throwing a split-changeup he learned at the end of last week. He also introduced a super slow curveball, one that averaged less than 70 mph in its introductory appearance on Monday. While his average curveball velocity on the season is muddled by two effectively different pitches, that game represented one of the slowest velocity single-game curveballs this season. There have been 1,019 instances of a pitcher throwing 10 or more curves in a game this year; Richards’ 69.7 mph average on June 28 was the seventh-slowest average single-game curveball velocity this season. It also represented a significant change from his curveball of the past, one that at times would average over 80 mph:

None of this is ideal. Asking a major league starter to change his entire repertoire on the fly in the middle of a season doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Yes, Richards admits that he broke the rules, but it’s important to consider the context surrounding that rule-breaking. MLB opted to make an extreme change to their enforcement midway through the season in hopes of increasing offense at a time when base hits are at all-time lows and run scoring is so heavily concentrated in home runs. In the process, though, the league has effectively conducted a midseason experiment, one which has created an added burden on pitchers to comply. I’m not saying that breaking the rules was right, or that Richards shouldn’t be forced to adjust. It’s just difficult to expect major league pitchers to, using Richards’ words, “learn how to pitch again” in the middle of June.

It’s hard to know exactly what will come of Richards’ adjustments. We’ve only had early, non-significant returns; I imagine he’ll continue to keep tinkering with his pitch mix and grips. After all, he learned a split-changeup last week and immediately turned around to throw 24 of them in his first start post-lesson, his second-most used offering of the night. Whether or not he has success with it is almost besides the point, though it will obviously matter a great deal to him and the Red Sox. While MLB may get the results they desire in terms of lowered spin rates, it may come at the cost of extreme midseason experimentation. As Ben Clemens wrote in his piece breaking down MLB’s action, “The only thing that’s certain [about this new enforcement] is that there will be a host of major leaguers figuring out how to play a substantially different game in real time.” So far, no one seems more emblematic of that than Garrett Richards.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago

Good article! It would have been wiser to eliminate spin rates during the off season, but to me it makes little sense cause home-runs are not really down and we have big scoring games all the time.