Red Sox

Garrett Richards is reinventing himself on the fly for the Red Sox

Richards has changed his pitching arsenal, including introducing a new changeup, while adjusting to MLB's new substance rules.

Garrett Richards Red Sox
Garrett Richards. Jeff Chiu/AP
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Major League Baseball’s crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances for grip has made life tough on pitchers everywhere since the rules were more stringently enforced on June 15. But arguably no pitcher has struggled more publicly with the changes to the substance rules than Red Sox starter Garrett Richards.

Calling the 10-year veteran’s four starts since the rule changes an “adventure” would be charitable. He’s visibly struggled not just with his command — he’s failed to complete six innings of work since June 15 — but also with his mounting desperation to find himself out of the wilderness.

Even his own teammate Hunter Renfroe came out and said the struggles are “in Garrett’s head more than anything” after his disastrous start against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 23. Dipping his arm in cold water to stop himself from sweating on the mound probably suggests something to that effect.

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Richards’s confidence issues have manifested themselves in a constantly shifting pitch array and a lack of belief in the pitches that got him to this point. Here’s a timeline of the Red Sox starter’s evolution over his last few starts, and why his latest outing provides some hope ahead of Friday’s home appearance against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Losing his grip

Since that June 15 start, Richards has seen his spin rates dip for each of his main three pitches (fastball, slider, curveball), according to Baseball Savant. This is notable because he ranks among the league leaders in average fastball and curveball spin rates, which affects the perceived velocity of his pitches in the eyes of hitters.

While his manager doesn’t buy that spin rate is his biggest problem, it can’t be doubted that Richards hasn’t been fooling anyone with anything he throws. Baseball Savant places the Red Sox pitcher in the bottom-tenth percentile among MLB pitchers in average exit velocity allowed, percentage of hard hit balls surrendered, and expected batting average on contact.

He’s also struggled to generate swings and misses, sitting at just the 15th percentile league-wide in that stat. Since June 15, Richards’s percentage of swinging strikes earned sits well below his season average while throwing far more pitches in the strike zone than usual.

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His apparent grip problems have also led to some wild discrepancies in his pitch usage each game as he tries to figure things out.

On June 16 – the first start after the rule changes – Richards completely abandoned his curveball, only throwing his fastball (76.2 percent of pitches) and slider (23.8 percent).

His next start on June 23 saw him rely on the curveball (20.4 percent) more than the slider, but it seemed like nothing he threw was effective in his brutal outing against the Rays. For instance, the Rays only swung and missed twice at Richards’s 54 pitches that day – neither of those whiffs came against a breaking ball.

With his feel for breaking pitches failing him, Richards then heavily used a changeup he’d never thrown before and a very slow curveball — about nine miles per hour slower than his average curveball velocity for the year — against the Royals on June 28. Oddly enough, it was his most effective pitch that day, and his curveball and slider command improved over the previous week as well. But his fastball was still far from crisp.

In short, Richards has been all over the place for the last month in a way you don’t want to see from a guy taking the ball every fifth day.

Reasons for hope

But his last start on July 3 against the Atlanta Braves showed he might slowly be gaining some comfort.

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His fastball, slider, and curveball each posted the best runs above average per 100 pitches since the rule changes, according to FanGraphs. Though Richards earned a no-decision over his five innings pitched, he also posted his highest game score in a month of action.

He struggled more with his changeup against the Braves, which isn’t shocking given that he invented it about a week ago. But the slightly resurgent effectiveness and control of his top three pitches is arguably much more important.

Of course, it’s impossible to know if that performance will carry over to Friday. After all, very little about Richards has been consistent from outing to outing in the last month.

Also, his seemingly increased comfort last week still didn’t translate into him missing bats, though the Braves didn’t generate much hard contact off him in spite of that.

The Red Sox can only hope Friday’s start can give Richards some positive momentum heading into the All-Star break and that he comes out of the hiatus with a better understanding of how to attack hitters under the new substance rules.

After all, how much weirder can the Garrett Richards experience get?

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