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What kind of pitcher is Trevor Richards?

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A starter? A bulk guy? Good enough?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

What do the Rays want with a starting pitcher who has a career 4.46 ERA, 4.37 FIP, and 4.77 xFIP in 45 starts over 238 major league innings?

That’s the question on Trevor Richards, who the Rays picked up as a part of the deadline deal that also brought Nick Anderson to Tampa Bay, and sent the injured Ryne Stanek and the outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez to Miami.

The short answer is “length,” as Richards is a starting pitcher, averaging a bit over five innings per start. Right now, especially with Yonny Chirinos headed to the IL with finger inflammation and with Jacob Faria traded to Milwaukee, the Rays need his length. But inconveniently, right before trading him, Miami converted Richards to relief, so the Rays won’t be able to access that length until Richards has a chance to stretch back out, which is what he’s currently in Durham doing.

The long answer is always more interesting.

How Good is the Changeup?

The conversation about Richards starts with his changeup, which comes in 8 mph slower than his fastball, on average: “Is it a good changeup, or a great one?”

I think it’s more good than great, in part because I have a preference for changeups with a lot of vertical drop, relative to their speed. Think Brad Boxberger or Matt Andriese as recent Rays examples, or think Felix Hernandez, Carlos Carrasco, or Chris Devenski from around the league—Richards’s changeup doesn’t quite do that, falling a bit over half a standard deviation more than average per Brooks Baseball’s numbers. That’s good, but it’s not silly.

Richards did get a little bit more drop on his change in 2018 than he’s been getting this year, though, and pitchers don’t just mechanically reproduce their average pitch every time they throw it. When Richards has found his best changeup, the ball does disappear. This pitch to strike out Bryce Harper was plenty silly.

To be fair, Richards’s changeup isn’t just about vertical drop. He’s produced almost a full standard deviation more armside run than is average on a changeup, and he’s put that run to good use. Remember, one of the mandates of the original “Rays Way” approach to pitching, proven effective by changeup artists like James Shields, was to throw one’s changeup inside to same-handed hitters.

Richard does that plenty, and effectively, like in this example where he uses the armside run to take this changeup down and in within the zone, under the plane of Wilson Ramos’s swing.

That’s a brave pitch, in a location where Ramos has pull power, but Richards had Ramos fooled, swinging early and at the center of the zone, while the changeup darted to the corner.

Of course, sometimes the batter isn’t fooled.

This is a mistake, intended to be down and away but in reality starting on the inner third and darting directly to the heart of the zone.

Brad Miller knew that the changeup is Richards’s best pitch so he was sitting on it. When a changeup arrived in a hittable location, he was ready to hit it a long way.

That’s the relationship between pitch quality and pitch mix—is Richards’s changeup good enough to beat hitters, even when they knows it’s coming? Is it good enough to miss with?

How you answer to those questions determines how good you think Richards can be, and for how many innings you think he should be allowed to pitch.

The Changeup-Fastball Ratio

The corollary question to “How good is Trevor Richards’s changeup?” is “How often should he throw it?”

Pitch mix is something we can analyze based on results. Very simply, if a pitch is getting great results, throw it more. If it’s getting poor results, throw it less. Theoretically*, the optimal pitch mix for overall effectiveness is the one at which all pitches have equivalent individual results.

*so many caveats

Richards has already played a bit at the mix optimization game. In 2018, he threw his fastball 55% of the time and his changeup 32% of the time. His fastball produced a whiff on 13% of swings against it, while his changeup produced a whiff on a ridiculous 41% of the swings against it, while counting as a strike more than any other pitch.

So in 2019 Richards threw his changeup more.

Trevor Richards Pitch Mix
Brooks Baseball

The results were as you would expect. His changeup got less effective, while his fastball got more effective.

Trevor Richards Whiffs/Swing
Brooks Baseball

The biggest testament to the quality of Trevor Richards’s changeup is the whiffs/swing he’s getting on his fastball right now. That number, at 27%, is more than two standard deviations above average for a fastball. The qualities of the fastball itself? Very average. Maybe even below.

There are caveats. Richards has not thrown his fastball for a strike as often as one would like, and fastballs outside the zone don’t draw a ton of swings, so the swinging strike numbers are less impressive with a per pitch denominator than they are with a per swing one. A 10% walk rate is too high for someone who doesn’t strike out much more than 20% of the batters he faces. Overall, his total results have not improved.

But considered, in isolation, as a two-pitch system? The fastball-changeup combo really does work of each other for Trevor Richards.

The Search for a Third (and Fourth!) Pitch, and a Secure Starters Role

In 2018, Richards threw a hard curve, at 80 mph, that didn’t have a ton of movement. It didn’t really work, so this year he’s scrapped it and now throws a soft slider and a less-hard curve.

They’re . . . not great.

Both pitches have average or below movement and velocity combinations. Neither gets good strikeout numbers or groundball numbers for their pitch type. But you can understand why Richards and the Marlins went looking for a breaking ball.

Can you think of any starting pitchers with one average pitch (the fastball) and one plus pitch (the changeup) who have succeeded long-term? A two-pitch mix can turn a lineup over once, maybe even twice if it’s very good.

But:

Trevor Richards, Times Through the Order

TTO IP ERA FIP xFIP
TTO IP ERA FIP xFIP
1st 93.1 3.76 4.31 4.43
2nd 96.2 3.54 3.48 4.41
3rd 45.1 8.14 6.48 6.21

For his own sake, Richards should keep working on those breaking balls. But the Rays, as they try to win games in this stretch run, will be wise to limit his exposure, and not let him turn an opposing lineup over more than twice unless absolutely necessary.

The Man for this Team; the Team for this Man

Trevor Richards arrives in Tampa Bay as a starting pitcher who either needs to evolve, or who needs to be shielded from overexposure in order to produce good rate stats. The Marlins decided to shield him by moving him to short relief, but the Rays will do it differently.

Once he stretches back out, he’ll be up to give the Rays one or two times through the order—4-6 innings—every five days. The Rays want pitchers like this, and they’ve developed a whole philosophy to bullpen management and team construction so that they can get the most out of the Trevor Richards of the world.

The original plan would probably have been for Richards to take over for Jalen Beeks as the fifth starter/headliner. He can probably go through an order two times better than Beeks has done this year, and his addition would have allowed Beeks to swing back into his early season role of occasional long man/occasional short man. The injury to Chirinos means the Rays won’t get to use their preferred pitching plan, and will instead need to pitch Richards and Beeks on separate days, and stretch for innings out of the rest of the bullpen as required.

That’s not ideal, but it can work. When Richards arrives in Tampa Bay, let’s hope he brings the silly version of his changeup.