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Eight thoughts on the Rays debut of Trevor Richards

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The recent acquisition made his Rays debut, catching Pitching Ninja’s eye, but not all his pitches were gif-worthy.

Detroit Tigers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

1. First impressions get remembered, and that’s not good for Trevor Richards. He walked his first batter, Victor Reyes. Then he struck out his second batter with Dawel Lugo swinging under a changeup up in the zone that didn’t drop—if it had dropped as Richards intended it to, Lugo might have hit it a mile. Then he fell behind his third batter, Harold Castro, and doubled up on fastballs in the zone. Castro did hit the second one a mile, giving the Tigers a 2-0 lead.

But you know what? Let’s zoom out a little bit. Richards, who’s still in the process of being stretched back out into a starter’s workload, pitched 3.1 innings, throwing 71 pitches. Those first two runs were the only ones he gave up. He struck out six batters of his 18 batters faced (going two times through the order), walking only one. It wasn’t always pretty, but that’s a healthy enough stat line. If you swapped the first and second innings, I bet Rays fans would perceive the debut differently.

2. If you were expecting to see a changeup with more drop, then, well, you weren’t the only one. According to Brooks Baseball, Richards’s 36 changeups had an average of 5.04 inches of vertical rise (lower numbers mean more drop) on Sunday, which is the third least drop his changeup has had in any single game, ever. Basically, his changeup fell more in 2018, and has been getting flatter as 2019 has worn on, with all of the most flat performances coming recently.

And remember, that five inches of vertical movement is an average, not the result of every single pitch. Sometimes, with good sequencing and location, five inches can be nasty, as in the pitch below.

But some pitches will always be better than average and some will be worse. For a pitch to be elite, the below average versions need to still be nasty, and there were moments Richards change was not.

Overall, the flattening of the changeup is a little bit concerning, but I think the Rays and pitching coach Kyle Snyder are pretty good at marrying pitch tracking analytics with mechanics to help pitchers optimize the spin and movement on their offerings, so we’ll see if they’re able to get it to trend back in the other direction.

3. There’s more than one dimension. Now seems like a good time to remind people that Richards’s changeup isn’t just about drop. It has a lot of armside run, and he throws it to areas where that run helps it play. In the Pitching Ninja video above, Richards got Dawel Lugo swinging on a changeup both low, and also six inches off the inside. It’s a pitch shape that acts almost like a back foot slider.

Of course the plus-plus changeup would have killer drop and run, and in the “Is this a great changeup or just a good one?” debate, yesterday was an argument for “good.”

4. Looking at pitch shape isn’t the only way to evaluate a pitch, though. Usage levels and results matter. Richards threw his changeup 51% of the time, got a strike out of it 80% of the time, and a whiff 22% of the time. That’s a pitch that’s carrying a heavy load, and one that’s still working even when it wasn’t “on.” By comparison, the fastball was thrown 41% of the time, less often for strikes, and had a similar swinging strike rate.

5. The Tigers only had two lefties in their lineup, and that may have done Richards no favors. Over his career, depending on which stat you’re looking for, Richards has a reverse split. As an opposing manager, I might Danks Theory him (meaning, stack my lineup with same-handed batters rather than opposite handed batters, to try to make the changeup less effective). It’s a trend to look for moving forward.

6. Against the Tigers seven righties that he faced, Richards used only one approach. He primarily worked his changeup down and in.

Then he countered that with high fastballs.

It was clear by the good results on his unassuming fastball that this approach works. He gets batter looking down and in, and then made them have trouble reading and reaching the high fastball. But I do wish he was able to threaten the outer side of the plate more. An average slider off the outer edge would absolutely play up against right-handed hitters who are looking for the changeup down beneath their hands.

7. While improving Richards’s repertoire long term could have real payoffs, I’m not sure now is the time to tinker. The Rays need help with pitching length right now in 2019. Richards can throw two below average breaking balls. Should he throw very many of those, or just work on perfecting his changeup? What happens if he backdoors the changeup to righties—would it catch hitters looking or would it get walloped? For that matter, we can ask the same question for fastballs down and away. Richards is full of known unknowns.

8. The good news is the Rays don’t need a ton from Richards; just something. I’ve been saying this every time the question comes up: The Rays don’t need an innings-eater. They just need another end-of-the-rotation, bulk guy. The recent injury to Yonny Chirinos, coming after the trade deadline, has complicated the innings need and stretched the rotation closer to its breaking point, but the goal then was to be able to pitch Richards and Jalen Beeks in the same game, making the job easier for both of them.

There are going to be a few more scrambly starts, both for Richards and Beeks, and possibly Austin Pruitt while the Rays sort injuries out. But once the Rays frontline starters start to return, those will go away. And even if Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow, and Yonny Chirinos aren’t ready to go long right off the bat, once September arrives and rosters expand, the Rays will have more than enough major-league arms, and will be able to manage them both aggressively and optimally. For the Rays playoff push, Richards will do just fine.

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Previously: What kind of pitcher is Trevor Richards?