Garrett Richards and the Quest for Strikeouts

Garrett Richards was good in 2015 — don’t get me wrong. In his age-27 season, the six-foot-three righty logged over 200 innings for the Los Angeles Angels in 32 starts, finishing with a 15-12 record, 3.65 ERA, 3.86 FIP, and 1.240 WHIP. After a frightening knee injury prematurely ended his breakout 2014 campaign, Richards’ status for Opening Day of 2015 was in jeopardy, as the injury reportedly would take six to nine months to recover from. This time frame meant that after undergoing surgery in late August, he could be back as early as late February or as late as June. Luckily for Richards and the Angels, he recovered quickly and thoroughly enough to enjoy a relatively full season last year.

Regardless of the quality of Richards’ season, one can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed given his level of pitching in 2014. Before the injury on August 20 in Boston, Richards had pitched 168.1 innings to the tune of a sparkling 2.61 ERA, 2.60 FIP, and 1.038 WHIP in 26 starts with Los Angeles. In 2014, Richards also struck out batters at a far higher rate than he ever had in his career – fanning 164 batters for a respectable 8.8 K/9 mark. He also tied his career low in BB/9 at 2.7, making his K/BB 3.22, good for seventh in the American League among qualified starters with at least 8.5 K/9. While he’d never posted a K/9 above 6.3 in his three seasons prior to 2014, many people with the Angels and around baseball foresaw him becoming a good strikeout artist due to his lively fastball and wipeout slider.

Interestingly enough, Richards’ strikeout numbers dropped in 2015, down to 7.6 per nine innings. His velocity wasn’t the issue, though, as he led all qualified starters in the MLB with an average fastball velocity of 95.7 mph. However, among the top-20 qualified starters in fastball velocity, Richards ranked just 15th in K/9:


Reading from the left, Richards is the first set of values – for contrast, look at Clayton Kershaw‘s numbers at the far right.

While his fastball velocity was down from 96.4 in 2014, losing more than a full strikeout per nine was still an eye-opening statistic. To add even more confusion, Richards’ first-pitch strike percentage and swinging strike percentage, two things you’d assume would be conducive to good strikeout numbers, were actually better than they were in 2014. His plate discipline numbers were relatively constant as well, with none of his swing or contact percentage numbers changing by more than 1.5 percent in either direction. Why, then, did Richards have more difficulty striking people out in 2015?

Given the fact that his plate discipline numbers in 2015 were nearly identical to — even a bit better than — his 2014 marks, the first logical thing to look at is his individual pitches. Was there any one offering that was different in the two years that made it less effective? On paper, Richards looks like a two-pitch guy, leaning on his fastball and slider. However, something that the broad data doesn’t reflect is that Richards actually throws two different fastballs: a four-seam and a sinker. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the usage, trajectory, and movement numbers from all of Richards’ pitches in 2014:

Richards Traj Mov 2014

This is somewhat of a “baseline” to go off of moving forward. Seeing as Richards’ best season was 2014, we can assume that this is Richards’ best collection of pitch data so far in his career. Certainly, the results reflect such an assumption. With that in mind, we’ll see how it compares to 2015:

Richards Traj Mov 2015

So there’s certainly a lot of information to look at here, but let’s try and isolate only the most relevant stuff from the plethora of numbers we have in front of us. If we’re looking from left to right, the first thing we might notice is Richards’ pitch usage. In 2014, he threw nearly 28 percent sinkers compared to 36 percent four-seamers. In 2015, the difference in usage changed greatly, with Richards throwing his sinker less than half as often as he did in 2014, down to just 13 percent. The increase went almost directly to his four-seam, increasing to 48 percent in the past season. Certainly, this is notable. The next thing that stands out is Richards’ HMov (horizontal movement) numbers. Every single number moved in the positive direction, meaning that they moved more from left to right from the catchers’ perspective. In context, this means that his fastballs tailed less, and his breaking pitches broke further. When this happens to every pitch in a pitchers’ arsenal, it usually means that they did something new or different mechanically — consciously or unconsciously — that produced those results. As a quick way of sniffing this out, we can look at Richards’ release point data.

Before we get into release point discussion, it’s important to know the context of the numbers. For PITCHf/x, “release point” is the location of the ball when it is 50 feet away from the plate. Given that Richards’ “extension” according to Statcast was right around five-and-a-half feet, this means that the ball was actually out of Richards’ hand for more than four feet before it was marked at “release point” by PITCHf/x. With this in mind, it’s not a true release point, but it’s a consistent way to track about where the pitch is leaving Richards’ hand from year to year. The horizontal release point from PITCHf/x is measured in feet from the center of home plate – positive values mean the ball was released on the left-hand batters’ side of the plate, negative values the right-hand side. The vertical release point is simply the number of feet above the ground that the ball was released.

In looking at Richards’ data, we can see that on all his pitches, the horizontal release number is higher (in absolute value) in 2015 than in 2014. This means that Richards released the ball farther from the center of the plate than he did previously. His vertical release number is lower as well, which shows that Richards didn’t simply move over on the rubber last year, his arm slot actually changed, by a fair amount. In this case, it seems that Richards dropped his arm slot down a good amount in the new season. Throwing from a more sidearm position, it makes sense that his pitches moved away from his arm side more than they had previously. With his new delivery, pitches were having more sideways force imparted on them by his arm action. Here’s a visual of Richards’ release points in 2014 and 2015, broken down into monthly averages.

Richards Release Point

Richards’ four-seam is an exceptionally straight pitch, deviating less than an inch from its projected location according to PITCHf/x (remember, PITCHf/x movement values don’t record “actual” movement; they record the movement of the pitch relative to what a gravity and air-resistance free sphere would do, given the trajectory and velocity of the pitch). Due to the exceeding straightness of his four-seam, the added one-and-a-half inches or so of “cutting” movement aren’t all that important. Similarly, because the slider and curveball both are intended to move that way anyway, adding an inch or so of horizontal movement probably isn’t a bad thing. However, where Richards suffered greatest is in his sinker. A good sinker not only sinks, but fades in on the hands of a similar-handed batter, and Richards’ did so well in 2014, moving an average of 6.33 inches in towards right-handed batter. Because of the opposite force of Richards’ new arm angle, the pitch moved considerably less in 2015, an average of just 4.80 inches, down nearly 25% from the previous season.

The other interesting observation in this data is that Richards’ 2015 four-seam had considerably more depth than it did in 2014. Because of the backspin nature of a fastball, they actually “rise” relative to what PITCHf/x’s physics-defying sphere would do. In 2014, his four-seam had a VMov of 7.48, which is relatively high, meaning that Richards’ fastball had very little sink at all. In 2015, the VMov dropped precipitously to 6.09, meaning that he got an extra one-and-a-half inches of sink on his fastball relative to the prior year. In all likelihood, this is due to the lower arm angle as well – when he threw the ball more over the top, the ball had a more upright spin, meaning the vertical spin force was many times greater than the horizontal spin force. In 2015 he dropped his arm down, giving the ball a more “tilted” spin, giving it a lower vertical-to-horizontal spin force ratio, which led to less “rise” on the pitch.

In looking at the results of such changes, we’re going to go backwards in order, first looking at the outcomes of his “new” four-seam versus the “old” four-seam. First, the results of his four-seam in 2014:

Richards 4S Outcomes 2014

As with the first set of tabular data, this is sort of a “benchmark” against which we’ll judge the difference between the two years. Now for the results from 2015:

Richards 4S Outcomes 2015

In this set of data, there’s certainly some changes, but interestingly enough most of them are good. He threw fewer balls with the pitch in 2015, generated more swings, more swings-and-misses, more ground balls, fewer line drives, fewer fly balls, and more pop-ups (his HR% increased, but it was unconceivably low in 2014 so the slight jump is not totally material to the situation). However, the one change in this situation that is somewhat of a concern is the “BIP” stat, which represents “balls in play”. Opponents put nearly one percent more of Richards’ four-seams in play in 2015 than in 2014. While it may not sound like much, because of the vastly increased usage of the pitch, we’re looking at 155 more four-seams in play in 2015 than in 2014. That’s not a whopping amount given the extra 40-or-so innings that Richards threw, but it’s enough to give us some idea of why Richards got fewer strikeouts this season. So, with that out of the way, we’ll move on to look at the results of Richards’ sinkers, first in 2014:

Richards SI Results 2014

Relatively similar numbers to his fastball in terms of swings and whiffs, with an increase in ground balls as would be expected. Now, the 2015 numbers:

Richards SI Results 2015

This is the big difference we’ve been looking for. As we previously discovered, Richards threw his sinker significantly less often in 2015, and for seemingly good reason – it was far less effective than it was in the year prior. The pitch was thrown for more balls, fewer called strikes, generated fewer swings, fewer ground balls, as well as more line drives and fly balls, not to mention the over 44 percent decrease in swings-and-misses! In terms of total numbers, Richards saw his whiffs decrease by over two thirds from 62 in 2014 to just 20 in 2015, and his called strikes dropped by nearly half from 166 in 2014 to 86 in 2015.

So while these numbers are pretty surprising, it doesn’t quite add up just yet. Because of the decreased use of Richards’ sinker, even though it was much worse a pitch, it shouldn’t have affected him so significantly. The difference in sinker use was made up for with fastball and slider use, and we’ve already seen that his fastball was about the same pitch as it was before, so let’s take a look at the slider. He’s the outcomes of Richards’ sliders in 2014 and 2015 side-by-side:

Richards SL Results Comp

This gives us even more insight into Richards’ strikeout problems in 2015. While his slider did get a fraction of a percent more whiffs, it was actually put in play at a significantly increased clip than it had been in 2014. It also was called a ball more often and called a strike with much less frequency. So, we now know that Richards’ two main offerings were a bit less effective in total last season, and they were used significantly more – not good news. In short, Richards dropped his arm slot, his sinker tailed less and got worse, so he used his four-seam and slider more often, without any increase in their effectiveness. He went from having three solid pitches to two, essentially.

While it’d be lovely to end the post there, it doesn’t really explain why he got so many fewer strikeouts. His four-seam is pretty good, his slider is very good, so why did his strikeout results dip so much when he substituted them for his sinker? This prompted me to look at Richards’ pitch usage charts. Was his sinker an important two-strike or setup pitch that, in its decreased effectiveness, led to fewer strikeouts? Before we evaluate what I actually found, let’s look at Richards’ usages for the past two years:

Richards Usage 2014

Richards Usage 2015

So, there are two big takeaways from this visual. First, we see that Richards used his fastball and slider more often against both lefties and righties in 2015, which is something we could’ve assumed from previous examination. The second takeway, which is far more relevant to the actual issue, is Richards’ approach against lefties and righties. As is seen, Richards approaches the two types of hitters very differently. Against left-handed hitters, Richards works all four of his main pitches. In 2014, he used his sinker a ton against these hitters, using his four-seam and slider next, and then mixing in his curveball fairly frequently when ahead in the count. In 2015, he used his four-seam much more, his sinker a little less, his slider a little more, and his curveball a little more. While this all seems very interesting, it’s largely irrelevant. Richards struck out lefties at nearly the same rate in the two years, 8.71 K/9 in 2014 and 8.45 K/9 in 2015.

Now that the approach against lefties had been eliminated as a cause for concern, we turn our attention to Richards’ approach against righties. Traditional thinking would say that Richards should have better success against similarly-handed batters, but alas, the statistics show that to be untrue in 2015. In 2014, Richards struck out righties at a very similar rate as lefties, with 8.80 K/9. In 2015, that number took a nosedive, as he struck out righties to the tune of just a 6.65 K/9. What’s even more perplexing is that, given his struggles with the sinker, he rarely even threw the sinker to righties to begin with! In both years, Richards threw right-handed hitters almost exclusively four-seams and sliders. So, then, let’s look at Richards’ results with the four-seam and slider against both types of hitters in 2014 and 2015.

Richards Outcomes 2014

Richards Outcomes 2015 (2)

Here we finally see where the issue is with Richards’ strikeout numbers. In 2014, Richards’ slider was relatively similar in results against both right-handers and left-handers, with slight advantage against lefties. However, in 2015, Richards’ slider was exceedingly less effective against right-handed hitters, especially compared to lefties. The pitch generated far fewer swings-and-misses as well as much more balls in play, compared to his 2014 numbers versus righties and his 2015 numbers versus lefties.

In summation, looking at Richards’ overall numbers doesn’t tell all of the story. His total results show that Richards pitched relatively similarly in both seasons. His pitch-by-pitch results show that his sinker was the issue, due to his new lower arm slot. However, when looking deeper, the real issue was his slider, which was incredibly less effective against righties in 2015. Because of the reduced usage of his sinker, his slider was his only secondary pitch against right-handers last season, and it being less effective led to him failing to strike righties out at a consistent rate.

So, looking ahead to 2016, what does Richards need to do to fix his issue? Well, he’s going to need to start by figuring out his sinker. If he can’t get it to be a viable option as a secondary offering against righties, like it was in 2014, he will continue to feature just two pitches against similar-handed hitters. If his slider doesn’t get more effective against those hitters, he’s going to struggle against them again. With Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson aging and becoming less effective, the Angels are going to need Richards to make strides back towards where he was in 2014 against righties. Should he fail to increase his effectiveness against them, he may not get his strikeout numbers back up to the impressive rate he showed in 2014.

All graphs and data provided by Brooks Baseball, statistics provided by Baseball Reference & the Play Index as well as FanGraphs.

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