As Los Angeles Angels pitcher Garrett Richards threw a 93-mph fastball out of the zone to Nelson Cruz on Tuesday, catcher Martin Maldonado noticed that something was off. Maldonado quickly signaled for a mound visit and glanced over to the dugout to garner the attention of Angels manager Mike Scioscia and trainer Adam Nevala.
After a quick discussion, Richards walked off the mound for what turned out to be the last time this season and quite possibly his last as a member of the Angels.
Richards announced on Thursday that he has elected to undergo Tommy John surgery. He was given the option by Angels GM Billy Eppler to go for a more conservative approach or to just go with the surgery. Richards is expected to miss the rest of this season and a large part of the 2019 season. There is an outside chance that he could pitch late in the 2019 season, but team officials are aiming for Richards to be ready to pitch for the 2020 season.
Richards will become the eighth Angels pitcher since 2015 to have Tommy John surgery, joining Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Nick Tropeano, Keynan Middleton, J.C. Ramirez, John Lamb, and Blake Wood. Last year, the Angels and Richards discussed the possibility of Tommy John, but he opted instead for stem-cell therapy in hopes of making a full recovery without having to undergo surgery.
This is yet another major blow to an Angels team that has been decimated by injuries. In just under four months this season, the team has already had 21 players on the disabled list, which ranks in the top five in MLB this season. For the most part, the Angels have not had much luck with injuries to starters and relievers as it has forced the team to rely heavily on minor league call-ups and available players on the waiver market. Overall, the Angels have used 29 pitchers this season, which is the most among all teams.
As they have done over the past couple of seasons, the Angels will now have to rely on some unsung heroes to save their season and push the team into a late run for a Wild Card berth in the American League.
For Richards, this is just yet another chapter in the recurring theme of injuries in his career. The nagging issue of injuries has prevented him from truly reaching his full potential as a starting pitcher.
The hope for him was to become the next great ace for the Angels. After the Angels drafted him in the first round of the 2009 draft, the team was patient and optimistic that he would turn into a generational starting pitcher. As Jered Weaver began to decline at a rapid pace, the Angels turned to Richards to be the long-term ace that would develop into a perennial All-Star and a consistent candidate for the Cy Young Award. But as seen over the years, his quality and potential was never on display on a consistent basis due to injuries.
During the 2014 season when he was a Cy Young Award candidate, Richards was carted off the field at Fenway Park after an unfortunate leg injury that he suffered while trying to cover first base. In the past two seasons, Richards was able to make just 12 combined starts due to a nerve irritation in his biceps and the constant UCL injury issues.
Even during his 15 starts this season, Richards did not look like his old self. At times, he was erratic with his command and struggled with his control when he needed to finish off an at-bat. Richards averaged 18.3 pitches per inning this season, the fourth-highest average in the big leagues. This is a main reason why Richards was only able to pitch at least six innings in four of his 16 starts this season.
Richards’ fastball was suddenly not a pitch that opposing batters feared anymore. Opponents hit .287 against his fastball with a career low swing percentage of 41 percent. His sinker has been even worse — opponents hit an astounding .365 against it, which is a significant turnaround considering Richards held batters to a solid .176 batting average last year.
Even when healthy, Richards struggled to live up to the expectations as the Angels ace.
Now Richards is at a crossroads in his career. He will be a free agent after this season and will now spend the next year rehabbing. But when he returns for spring training in 2020, there is no guarantee that the Angels or any other team will be aggressive in signing him a multi-year deal.
From the Angels perspective, they might not need Richards’ services even if he is healthy and if the UCL injuries are not an issue anymore. The Angels will have Shohei Ohtani, Heaney, Skaggs, Jaime Barria, and Matt Shoemaker all under contract for at least the next three seasons. The Angels’ two most promising pitching prospects, Griffin Canning and Chris Rodriguez, will be sure to receive opportunities soon, and both pitchers have the potential to be long-term starters for the team.
While a reunion with the Angels could be ruled out, several other teams will show interest but nothing is guaranteed. In this day and age in MLB, teams do not show much patience to injury-prone players and under-performers. Richards will be 31 by the time he fully recovers and will need to immediately prove that he is still capable of being a reliable starter while having a relatively healthy season.
But ultimately, what matters the most is that he will receive an opportunity once again to show his true potential. Although he is not at the level of either of these pitchers, Richards should look to pitchers such as Patrick Corbin and Carlos Carrasco as motivation. Both pitchers elected for Tommy John surgery and not only were they able to successfully recover, but they each have gone on to produce All-Star type seasons.
As Rich Hill has proved over the years, it is never too late for a turnaround in baseball. After he makes a full recovery, Richards will have opportunities to prove himself and to the teams across the league that his talent is much more than just potential.