Monday, April 4, 2016

Richards out to prove 2014 was no fluke

It was Garrett Richards' sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma and he was pretty much over this whole baseball thing. His job as closer had been taken away, leaving Richards in collegiate-pitcher purgatory. He made one spot start, intermittently pitched out of the bullpen and was basically cast aside that spring. He was going to quit baseball. He was going to go to culinary school.
"I was done, bro," Richards said. "I'm going to sit out here and invest all this time and effort and just get forgotten about? It just didn't seem worth it to me."
Richards recalled that moment Tuesday, the day Angels manager Mike Scioscia announced him as his Opening Day starter, thus cementing a long-held belief that Richards has established himself as the ace of his pitching staff.
He broke out in 2014, recovered admirably in 2015, and now, at 27 years old and a full season removed from major knee surgery, Richards is a no-hitter in waiting and a potential Cy Young winner.
"I've gone through a lot of things," said Richards, who will oppose Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, at Angel Stadium on Monday at 7:05 p.m. PT. "It's been a long road."
Asked to describe himself in college, Richards smiled and said, "Grip it and rip it, man."
Richards left the University of Oklahoma with a 6.23 ERA, but was still the 42nd player drafted in 2009. His stuff was that good. He possessed a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, but he posted a 6.30 ERA as a closing freshman, a 6.97 ERA as a little-used sophomore and a 6.00 ERA as a starting pitcher in his junior season.
His leg kick corkscrewed his entire body, a la Tim Lincecum. His delivery swayed him toward the third-base side, and his pitch selection determined his arm slot.
He had little sense for what he was doing.
"I had a fastball and I had a slider that I threw as fast as I could," Richards said. "That was it. Finesse wasn't there, feel wasn't there. I literally was just trying to throw the ball over the white thing."
Richards' ascension is yet another example of why you never give up on raw stuff. It's why scouts are so wowed by radar-gun readings, why general managers put such a premium on strikeout rate and why the game has become so obsessed with velocity.
Former Oklahoma pitching coach Mike Bell, now with Florida State University, recalls "the endless possibilities" Richards possessed because of his ability to throw hard and spin well.
"He'd show you flashes throughout games or intrasquads, but you never saw the complete package," Bell said. "You saw glimpses of it, and you got excited about it."
Richards' collegiate career ended with a taste of what could be, with nine innings of two-run ball and 10 strikeouts to send his Sooners to the championship game of the Norman Regional. Former Angels scouting director Eddie Bane, who loved to gamble on high-ceiling prospects, was in the stands that day and saw enough to make Richards the fourth player he would select in an epic haul nine days later -- after Randal GrichukMike Trout and Tyler Skaggs.
Richards skyrocketed through the Angels' system, pitching in the Major Leagues before the end of his second full season, but it was mostly a product of natural talent.
"His physical ability said he was ready to pitch in the big leagues," recalled Erik Bennett, pitching coach at Triple-A Salt Lake. "But the repeatability, and the execution of the pitches, still needed some work."
Bennett finally got an up-close look at Richards in 2012. He continued the work of former organizational pitching coaches Zeke Zimmerman (rookie-level Orem) and Brandon Emanuel (Class A Advanced Inland Empire), trying diligently to get Richards' delivery in a direct line toward home plate.
He had Richards throw from behind the mound -- "up the slope," as they call it -- which would cause him to tip over if his landing leg fell too far toward the third-base side. Meanwhile, Richards began to imagine himself pitching in a narrow hallway with only four inches to each side of his shoulder.
It gave him more momentum toward home plate, improved his location and helped him identify the right arm slot.
In 2013, Richards made his first Opening Day roster and entrenched himself in the starting rotation down the stretch, replacing a struggling Joe Blanton and posting a 3.98 ERA over the final two months.
When he arrived in 2014, he seemed different.
"Just the way he presented himself around camp, on the mound, it was noticeably different," Bennett said. "It was like he got to the point where he believed that he could pitch in the big leagues. He was calmer, wasn't overthrowing as much; he was staying in his mechanics."
Richards quickly established himself as one of the game's most devastating starting pitchers in that 2014 season, posting a 2.61 ERA and allowing only a .261 slugging percentage, until he tore his left patellar tendon on Aug. 20. He spent an entire offseason rehabbing, then stayed healthy and pitched well in 2015, with 15 wins and a 3.65 ERA in 207 1/3 innings.
Now, with an entire offseason of building strength and a fully healed left leg, more is expected.
"This is going to be a big, big year for him," said former Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher, now with the D-backs. "He's going to show everybody that 2014 wasn't a fluke."
Richards threw the hardest fastball among qualified starting pitchers last year, at 95.7 mph, and produced the game's highest spin rate with his curveball, per Statcast™. His slider has generated an opposing OPS of .538 throughout his career, 178 points below the Major League average. This spring, Richards talked about reintroducing his two-seam fastballand beamed about the development of his changeup.
When Butcher saw Richards face D-backs Minor Leaguers on March 13, he saw someone who had finally regained trust in the stability of his landing leg and wasn't trying to compensate by pitching across his body.
"I'm like, 'He's ready to go,'" Butcher said. "There's no fear, there's no hesitation."
Richards always had good stuff, but only recently learned how to use it. His biggest improvement, Trout believes, came "mentally." He learned to slow down his delivery, began to trust his stuff, stopped overthrowing and started to grasp his ideal arm slot.
"He's got a feel for where his hand needs to be, the extension," Bennett said. "He can feel that now. He can actually talk to you about his delivery."
This could be the year he finally puts it together.
"The sky's the limit for Garrett," Butcher said. "Garrett can be whatever he wants to be in this game. He has undeniable stuff."

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