Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Los Angeles Angels @ Chicago White Sox, 2:10 PM ET
LAA: Garrett Richards, age 28 (Season: 17.2 IP, 18 H, 9 R, 7 ER, 1 HR, 5 BB, 19 K. Last start: 6.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 HBP, 6 K – 104 pitches, 68 strikes, 24 BF vs. MIN on 4/15)
CHW: Chris Sale, age 27 (Season: 23.0 IP, 15 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 2 HR, 3 BB, 23 K. Last start: 9.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 9 K – 106 pitches, 71 strikes, 30 BF vs. TBR on 4/15)

Hannah Foslien & David Banks/Getty Images North America

Hannah Foslien & David Banks/Getty Images North America

Garrett Richards’ calling card as a pitcher is his exceptional velocity. In his career, his fastball has averaged 95.5 miles per hour according to PitchF/X, putting him in the upper echelon of major-league starters for that category. He put that velocity to good use in 2014, striking out a respectable 8.8 batters per nine innings. However, last season saw his K/9 drop to just 7.6, despite having the highest average fastball velocity of all qualified starters in the MLB. Last month, I wrote about his struggles here on Baseball Essential, comparing his 2014 and 2015 stats in an attempt to find out why he was striking out fewer batters.

In 2016, he’s gotten off to a good start in the strikeout department, fanning 19 batters over 17.2 innings of work. The biggest indicator I uncovered about Richards’ drop in strikeout rate was in his sinker, which was moving much less in 2015 than it had in 2014. So far this season, Richards’ sinker seems to be getting back to where it was pre-2015. Take a look at the numbers from his last three seasons:

richards sink comp

While the BABIP is up (8-for-16 so far), that is likely to normalize as the season goes on and the sample size of Richards’ sinkers increases. On a positive note, everything else looks good; he’s using the pitch more, the horizontal movement is much better, the vertical movement is even slightly better, and the whiff rate is up nearly three points. While he’s picked up just two strikeouts on the sinker so far, it’s clearly been more effective in setting up hitters and providing a complement to his arrow-straight four-seam fastball.

The other factor that one could contribute to Richards’ increased strikeout rate is the use of his changeup. In 2014 Richards threw just 15 changes, and last year he threw just one over 32 starts. This season, in just three starts, Richards has thrown 29 change-ups: eight in his first start, nine in his second, and twelve in his third. So far the pitch has been incredibly effective for him, going for strikes over 65 percent of the time and inducing an excellent 27.6 percent whiff rate. While his slider is still his off-speed pitch of choice, especially late in the count (accounting for 10 of his 19 strikeouts), the changeup has proven to be a very effective weapon, adding to what was already a formidable repertoire.

Opposite Richards on Wednesday will be the Chicago White Sox’ ace, Chris Sale. Sale’s first two starts were not as dominant as we’ve come to expect, as he allowed three runs and eight baserunners in each game, throwing seven innings apiece. However, Sale came back in his third outing and fired the American League’s first complete-game shutout of the year, one day after Vincent Velasquez and Jaime Garcia twirled masterful shutouts of their own for the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively.

Sale had everything working on Friday, pounding the strike zone at a 67.0 percent rate, using all of his pitches effectively. Of his fastball, changeup, and slider, the slider showed the biggest improvement from his first two outings. Over the first two starts, the slider induced just five whiffs on 47 pitches, and five of six sliders put in play went for hits. This was likely due to the relative mediocrity of his location on these pitches, the majority of which caught a good deal of the plate:

In his most recent outing, however, the slider was firing on all cylinders, inducing six whiffs on 25 pitches with all five balls put in play going for outs. This time around, Sale’s slider was located much better, mostly down in the zone and to his glove side, with many of those pitches actually ending up out of the strike zone:

While it may sound like a bad thing, those misses out of the zone are actually a good sign for Sale. The beauty of Sale’s slider is the insane amount of movement it gets. Due to Sale’s sidearm slot and incredibly long arms, Sale’s pitches are released nearly three feet to the right of home plate (from the batter’s view):

From the time Sale’s slider is released to when it gets to the batter, the ball has gone all the way across the plate and sunk over four feet from the release point, coming in at around eighty miles an hour. Due to all this movement, batters have a tough time laying off the pitch that ends up out of the zone to the glove side, as you can see from a chart of the whiffs on Sale’s slider from Friday:

In addition to the slider, Sale’s fastball was very effective against Minnesota. Of 69 fastballs thrown by Sale, eleven were swung at and missed, and another 13 were put in play. Of those 13, just two went for hits. Overall, Sale was as good as he gets, and we should see more of the same moving forward.

This matchup features a pair of pitchers with downright electrifying stuff, entertaining to both baseball nerds and casual fans alike. With the relative futility of both offenses in this game, there’s a very good chance that both hurlers could have dominant outings. The key for each will be to avoid getting damaged by the big swingers — Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Todd Frazier, and Jose Abreu —  in the opposing lineups. Should they be able to do that and keep the weaker batters at bay, we could be in for an old-fashioned pitcher’s duel on Wednesday night.

Honorable Mentions:

Seattle Mariners @ Cleveland Indians, 6:10 PM ET: Taijuan Walker vs. Danny Salazar – 23-year-old Taijuan Walker makes his third start of the season for the Mariners after turning in a pair of quality starts in his first two outings. Danny Salazar also makes his third start of 2016; he’s allowed just five hits and one run while striking out 16 in 11.1 innings so far, but he’s also walked three in each outing.

Tampa Bay Rays @ Boston Red Sox, 7:10 PM ET: Chris Archer vs. Rick Porcello – Rays ace Chris Archer has been uncharacteristically shaky so far in 2016, allowing 22 hits, eight walks, and 12 runs (11 earned) over 15.1 innings of work, picking up losses in each of his first three starts. Rick Porcello takes the mound for the third time in 2016 after picking up wins in his first two outings. Despite the 5.11 ERA, Porcello has been much improved this season, the only blemishes on his record coming from a pair of home runs in each of his first two starts (two to Jose Bautista on 4/09, two to Edwin Encarnacion on 4/15). Otherwise, Porcello has allowed just five hits and no runs, walked two, and struck out 15 batters in 12.1 innings of work.

Arizona Diamondbacks @ San Francisco Giants, 10:15 PM ET: Zack Greinke vs. Madison Bumgarner – After struggling mightily in his first two starts, Greinke found success against a weak San Diego lineup last time out, working 7.1 innings and allowing six hits, one walk, and two runs with five strikeouts. Madison Bumgarner looks for a bounce-back outing after allowing seven runs (four earned) on eight hits, a walk, and a pair of homers in five innings last week against the Dodgers.

About The Author

Matt Wojciak is a 20-year-old senior at St. Joseph's College of Maine, studying for a degree in Accounting. He is a lifelong Red Sox fan, born and raised in southern New Hampshire, with much of his extended family residing in South Boston. If you're a fan of quantity and not quality, be sure to give him a follow on Twitter @mwojciak21.

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