With the 2022 regular season over, it is that time for us to go back and take a look at the players who appeared for the Texas Rangers this season.
Today, we look at relief pitcher Garrett Richards.
MLB is nerfing the unbalanced schedule next year. Starting in 2023, teams will no longer play their division rivals so often, dropping from 19 games against every divisional opponent to 13 games. As a result, there will be more than twice as many interleague games in 2023 as there has been in previous years, going from 20 to 46.
Having a series against divisional opponents six times per year, seeing the same four teams so often, had a definite impact on the fan experience, I think. The sense of Colby Lewis facing Trevor Cahill all the time, for example. The seeming inevitability of George Springer leading off games with a homer for the Astros. The annoyance of the weird things that always seem to happen late in games involving the Mariners.
Part of seeing the same teams all the time, and knowing that these are the teams the Rangers have to finish ahead of to win the division, is a developing dread when we see a player who we feel will elevate a team in coming seasons, will torment the Rangers for years to come. Julio Rodriguez of the Mariners is a great current example. Alex Bregman, who also has the “shoulda been a Ranger” backstory about him that makes it even worse.
It doesn’t always work out that players who appear and seem scary end up panning out, though. Peter Bourjos had a 5 win season in 2011 as a 24 year old for the Angels, and the idea of them pairing a top notch defensive centerfielder who had a well-rounded offensive game with Mike Trout for the next half-decade kept Rangers fans awake at night. Bourjos, of course, never came close to that level of performance again, accumulating just 3.2 bWAR from 2012-19, and is now out of baseball.
Which brings us to Garrett Richards, and his long, strange baseball career.
Remember how scary Garrett Richards was, for a brief time? Remember how we feared him, and what the Angels might be able to do with him fronting their rotation?
2014, with the Rangers making Murphy look like an optimist, Richards put up a 2.61 ERA and a 2.60 FIP in 168.2 IP. He allowed just 5 home runs all year — 5! He was a monster, a guy with incredible stuff who shattered bats and broke spirits. And the Angels, the cursed Angels, had him. He was, it seemed, going to make Rangers’ fans lives miserable for years to come.
As you know by now, he did not, in fact, make Rangers’ fans lives miserable for years to come. And he’s an object lesson in the fragility and unpredictability of pitchers.
Did you know...Garrett Richards was a first round pick (well, supplemental first rounder, but still) in 2009, despite being an objectively bad college pitcher? As a reliever for the University of Oklahoma in 2007 and 2008, he put up ERAs of 6.30 and 6.97. As a starter in 2009 for OU, he lowered his ERA all the way down to...6.00. But despite the poor performance, the stuff was good enough that he profiled as a potential top of the rotation starter if he could ever get his command figured out.
I’m not sure Richards’ command was ever all that great — he led the majors in wild pitches in 2014 and 2015, his two successful seasons, and led the American League in wild pitches in 2018 despite pitching just 76 innings — but it wasn’t the command issues that derailed him. It was injuries.
About a decade ago, Bill James noted that, while ground ball pitchers should be the most successful, they generally aren’t — fly ball pitchers generally are. One of the big reasons for this, he suggests, is that ground ball pitchers can’t stay healthy. He rattles off a number of ground ball pitchers who were briefly great and then had injuries stymie them, and says that the frequency of these sorts of career-killing injuries is much more prevalent among ground ball pitchers than fly ball pitchers.
This is not something that I think has been conclusively established, but it is something that has always stuck in my mind. James mentions Brandon Webb and Chien-Ming Wang, because those were the guys who had just gone down at the time, but Josh Johnson is the guy who sticks in my mind, a ground ball pitcher with terrific stuff who was dominant for a few years and then fell off a cliff and disappeared because of injuries.
Bringing us to Garrett Richards. As I noted above, he allowed just five home runs in 2014. In 2014-15, his two good seasons, he had a 53.1% ground ball rate, 8th highest out of 84 qualifying pitchers in that time frame. Among those with a higher rate form 2014-15 are Tyson Ross, Felix Hernandez and Sonny Gray, all of whom have been dogged by injury issues. In 2015, the highest ground ball rate was from Brett Anderson, who has never been able to stay healthy. Also high on the list is Carlos Martinez, whose last full season as a starter was in 2017, at age 25, who had a couple of nice seasons as a reliever, who was bad in 2020 and 2021, and didn’t pitch in the majors in 2022. He’s currently out of baseball at the age of 31. After putting up 12.6 bWAR from 2015-17, his age 23-25 seasons, he’s been sub-replacement-level since.
Richards made six starts in 2016 and six starts in 2017. He made 16 starts in 2018, but only went 76.1 IP, putting up a 3.66 ERA and a 4.13 FIP, along with recording the A.L.-high 15 wild pitches, before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Signed by the Padres to a two year deal after the 2018 season, Richards logged 8.2 innings over three starts for San Diego in 2019, then put up a 4.03 ERA between the rotation and pen in 2020. Signed by Boston for the 2021 season, he again split the year between the bullpen and the rotation, and again was not good, logging a 4.87 ERA in 136.2 IP.
The Rangers signed Richards in large March to a one year, $4.5 million deal that included a $9 million 2023 team option with a $1 million buyout, and said he was being added as a multi-inning reliever. The signing and role seemed odd, but maybe they figured Richards’ stuff would play up if he came into the year as a reliever and spent the whole season in the bullpen, rather than moving between roles.
It didn’t work out, obviously. Richards’ fastball velocity was down from prior years. After being in the top 10% in MLB in fastball velocity (per Statcast) in 2015-17, then in the 89th percentile in 2018, he has steadily dropped in the rankings. In 2022, he was in the 64th percentile in fastball velocity, the lowest of his career.
That’s not supposed to happen when you move from the rotation to the bullpen. Moving to the bullpen is supposed to result in an increase in velocity, since you aren’t having to throw as many pitches, don’t have to pace yourself the way you do as a starter. But after throwing 96 mph on average as a starter from 2016-18, then dropping to 95 mph in 2019 and 2020, then 94.3 mph in 2021, Richards only averaged 94.4 mph on his four seamer in 2022.
With the lower velocity, his four seamer has simply not been effective. After allowing a .378 wOBA and .397 xwOBA on fastballs in 2021, he allowed an incredible .494 wOBA (and xwOBA) on them in 2022. Perhaps not coincidentally, Richards used his fastball much less in 2022 than in previous years — after throwing his four seamer over half the time in 2021, he used it only a quarter of the time in 2022, relying mostly on his slider/changeup combination, both of which were effective.
Richards started the year on the injured list with a blister, but when he was activated six games into the season, Chris Woodward initially leaned on him heavily, using him in seven games from April 14 through April 29, including as an opener twice. After that, however, Richards’ appearances started being fewer and farther between, in incresingly low leverage situations. In early July he got a few opportunities in close games — four straight appearances came in one run games — but as the summer progressed he started being used in only a mop-up role.
Richards actually had a 3.13 ERA (with a 3.46 FIP) after picking up a save against Oakland on July 13, though things went to hell after that. Richards gave up multiple runs in his next six outings, and as the team continued its collapse and shifted more into looking to 2023 mode, Richards, as an ineffective veteran in a pen that had a number of arms it could look at, seemed like his time was coming to a close.
He made his last appearance for the Rangers at home on August 16, closing out a 5-1 loss to the A’s, throwing two shutout innings. The next day he was designated for assignment. Richards cleared waivers, was released, and to date, has not signed elsewhere.
Richards wasn’t good in 2022, but he perhaps wasn’t quite as bad as his 5.27 ERA would suggest. He had a 4.40 xERA on the year, with the difference appearing to be attributable to his performance with runners on base. With the bases empty, Richards allowed hitters a .202/.306/.255 slash line, versus a .338/.351/.581 slash line with men on.
The drastic difference resulted in Richards stranding just 57.3% of runners who reached base. To put that in perspective, out of 409 pitchers who threw at least 40 major league innings in 2022, only four pitchers had a worse LOB%, per Fangraphs. Oh, and two of those pitchers were Dennis Santana and Dallas Keuchel, so...
Richards will get an opportunity to pitch in 2023, if he wants to. Teams will have interest in him on a minor league deal, will look to bring him to spring training, see if they can unlock some of that old magic. And if he can straighten out his issues with runners on base — if it is a mechanical issue, if he’s having issues out of the stretch — he might be able to contribute to a major league pen.
But he’s not the pitcher he once was. That guy is gone for good.