There are two very obvious reasons to watch the Los Angeles Angels right now. In Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the Halos have the best player in MLB and the most fascinating player (who is also truly incredible), and it’s awesome. They’re also in first place in the AL West and off to a franchise-best 13-4 start.
The Angels are more than just those two players, though. Amid all the Ohtani excitement, no one is talking about the potential impact of a healthy and effective Garrett Richards.
It’s been two years since we’ve seen Richards at peak capability. Admittedlym he’s thrown less this year than in either of the previous two injury-shortened campaigns, so one could be blamed for jumping the gun on this. But bad luck can only haunt you so much, and after a stem cell injection to repair a partial UCL tear in 2016 and more right arm trouble in 2017, Richards — and most baseball fans* — hopes those troubles are behind him.
*Well, outside the AL West.
Richards has dazzling talent. This year, his fastball is averaging 96.2 miles per hour, third-highest among all starters, which is good enough to catch anyone’s eye on its own. Even better, it also has the fourth-highest spin rate of any four-seamer thrown this year, at 2617 RPM on average. Above him on that list are Justin Verlander (2619 — basically tied), and two relievers in Carl Edwards, Jr. and Luke Bard.
The fastball alone is lethal, but as Richards diced up the Royals on Saturday — before suddenly imploding in the fifth inning — he paired it with quite the slider:
In case you were confused by the suddenly shifting hitter, yes, that is two different at-bats. The individual hitter is immaterial here, though — we’re only talking about Richards’ arsenal.
This pairing is a good example of what Richards can do with that slider when paired with his fastball. Since the heater has that high spin rate, it drops less than an average four-seamer, meaning to a hitter it seems to almost “rise.” Hitters have seen fastballs their entire lives, and their brains are programmed to expect it to drop at a certain rate; high-spin fastballs refute that.
Richards has also shown steadily increasing velocity on his slider. In 2015, when he started 32 games and threw 207 innings, it clocked in at 87.4 mph. This year, it’s at 90.2 mph, about six miles per hour harder than league average. It’s still early, and the velo might be sample size, but the movement is real, and it’s spectacular. When his spinning fastball is paired with his hard-biting slider, it’s downright unfair.
Richards has another pitch, a slower curve that he uses sparingly yet judiciously to cripple hitters. Paired again with that fastball, it’s quite the hammer:
Unlike with Clayton Kershaw or Trevor Bauer curves, which drop seemingly seven or eight feet when they break, this hard, snapping curve is actually quite akin to Richards’ slider. It has less lateral movement, though, as it simply tumbles straight down. With the curveball in his arsenal, he has a range of 12-16 mph that can just mess with hitters as he works up and down in the zone with pitches that defy physics.
While that one was at the top of the zone, he has the ability to bury one, too:
This is more what you expect with a curveball, and regularly paired with a four-seamer in the lower half of the zone, it’s just as good a weapon of batter embarrassment as that breaker from heaven seen earlier.
Richards was excellent in 2015, and his stuff has seemingly improved since then (though sample size is something we must remind ourselves of constantly), so the raw material is still there for Richards to be a dominant pitcher. Health remains the question mark that will loom all season. He threw a combined 62 1⁄3 innings the last two seasons, and that stem cell treatment is still new and not as proven as simply doing Tommy John surgery.
The Angels do need him, though. Even if Trout continues to be Trout and Ohtani doesn’t slow down, they can’t win games with those two alone. A durable ace with three plus pitches that work in concert with each other is a vital tool for LA. That durability thing is still up in the air, but the talent hasn’t gone anywhere.