The Difficulty of Squaring Up Garrett Richards by Jeff Sullivan March 12, 2015 I think you could say 2014 was the year Garrett Richards started making sense. He was supposed to strike a bunch of guys out. He was supposed to pitch like a staff No. 1. He was supposed to be awesome, and last year, he finally became awesome, taking over an Angels rotation with the more established arms in decline. Richards hasn’t answered all the questions, and his significant injury last August raised a new one, but at this point, it feels like Richards is what he was supposed to be. And he’s maybe even more remarkable than you thought. It’s easy to see the big gain in strikeouts. It’s easy to see the drop in FIP and xFIP. It’s easy to see the increase in whiffs. Here now are last year’s top five qualified pitchers in slugging percentage against: Garrett Richards, .261 SLG Clayton Kershaw, .289 Felix Hernandez, .303 Chris Sale, .305 Adam Wainwright, .310 The belief is that Kershaw had the most insane season. And Kershaw did have the most insane season, overall. This is looking at just one thing. But Richards had a big edge in slugging, and he had that edge while pitching in the more hitter-friendly league. The likely reason? It’s the intuitive reason. What’s the one thing we’ve always known about Garrett Richards? He throws really hard. And, in fact, last year he threw even harder than he had in the majors in the past. That velocity is a big reason why people always expected more strikeouts. Granted, the reality of strikeout generation is more complicated than that, but there’s no denying the strikeouts did eventually come. Anyway, this isn’t about whiffs. What comes to mind when you think about a big fastball? Late swings, probably. Missed swings, maybe, but if anything, missed and late swings. You expect that hitters would be behind the pitch. Less time to react, right? It only makes sense. And now think about balls hit in the air, and which tend to be the most dangerous. Generally speaking, the balls in the air you don’t want to allow are the pulled ones. The pulled ones are the ones hit with the most bat speed, typically, and the pulled ones can rocket off of or over the wall. There’s definitely such thing as an opposite-field home run, but fewer hitters are capable of doing that sort of damage. All else being equal, as a pitcher, you’d rather allow a pushed fly ball than a pulled one. I’m going through this quickly, but only because I don’t want to slow your day down. Getting to the point: I examined 2014 pulled-air-ball rate. I considered only fly balls and line drives, and I set a minimum of 100 allowed. Instead of splitting the field in thirds, I just split the field in halves, so a ball hit in the air was either pulled or it was not, depending on where it was relative to the line through second base and center field. The average pitcher in the sample allowed 49% of his fly balls or line drives to be pulled. The standard deviation was right around 5%. Garrett Richards finished with the lowest rate, at 34%, or 2.8 standard deviations from the mean. The next-lowest rate for a full-season starter was 40%. The point being: last year, Richards was extremely difficult to square up. If batters managed to put the ball in the air, they usually did so to the other half of the field, and those are just less-dangerous balls in play, most of the time. Sometimes, they go out. Usually, they do not. For Richards, this was an improvement, from the previous season’s 47%. His improvement was the second-biggest in baseball, behind only Ryan Vogelsong’s drop of 15 percentage points. Richards saw gains against righties, and he saw gains against lefties. A table of pertinent information, combining 2011 and 2012 because of small sample sizes: Season Overall Pull% RHB Pull% LHB Pull% 2011/12 50% 56% 44% 2013 47% 51% 43% 2014 34% 34% 34% Last season, righties and lefties finished with the same rate. Previously, lefties had pulled more air balls, and righties had pulled even more air balls. So last year against Richards, lefties slugged .262. And the righties? The righties slugged .260. The hits and power largely disappeared. From Baseball Savant, you can look at this visually. Air balls hit by righties against Richards: And those hit by lefties: Richards’ pitches were difficult to turn around. You’d expect them to be difficult to turn around. He didn’t completely change as a pitcher — he’s always had live stuff — but he simultaneously boosted his velocity while improving his command, with the velocity boost giving hitters reduced timing, and with the command improvement keeping pitches in far safer places. Richards was able to move around his fastballs, and he more consistently kept his breaking balls down, so he became that much tougher to attack with authority. Lefties had to deal with a sinker at 97, running away. Righties had to deal with a fastball at 97, with cutting action. The slider was available in any count. Why was Richards so difficult to punish? How did he finish with a HR/FB rate of 3.9%? It’s all the stuff you’d guess — he throws really hard, and last season he had a better idea than ever of where his pitches were going. Now, the year-to-year correlation for this isn’t incredibly strong, at first glance. It exists, but you have to expect regression at the extremes, and going forward, Richards will probably allow more than one-in-three air balls to be pulled. But based on last year’s improvements, I’d count on him to remain better than average in this regard, which helps to make up for a very opposite Jered Weaver. Last season, Garrett Richards started to make sense. He’s become one of the easiest pitchers in baseball to explain. Garrett Richards throws really good stuff. It does what you’d think really good stuff would do.