Free agent righthander Garrett Richards is one of the most successful “what could have been” stories of the past decade. Eye-popping stuff sabotaged by a lengthy injury history have made him a staple on lists of buy low candidates in fantasy baseball over the past few seasons. Yet despite it all, he’s still put together a nice career thus far in the majors. The Detroit Tigers are in a situation where they can afford to place a small bet here, and Richards may offer more bang for your buck than any free agent out there.
Of course, there’s a good reason why he’s potentially available to a non-contender like the Tigers at this point in his career. While he’d be a fascinating project to gift to new pitching coach Chris Fetter, Richards is something of a wild card at this point due to a mishandled elbow injury. He’s as likely to miss half the season as to give you 25 starts. Of course, you can pick up seemingly durable pitchers and get the same result, as the Al Avila led Tigers have proven repeatedly.
The odyssey of Garrett Richards’ elbow began in 2016. After three full seasons in the majors for the Los Angeles Angels, he was coming off a 2015 season in which he spun 207 1⁄3 quality innings and appeared to be coming into his own as a durable young starting pitcher who might be a tweak or two from stardom. Unfortunately, he suffered a partial tear to his UCL early in 2016 and missed most of the season. The solution would normally be Tommy John surgery, but Richards and the Angels, desperate to get back to the playoffs, elected instead to try platelet rich plasma injections. The hope was to use that treatment in combination with rehabilitation and get him back on the mound in 2017 rather than losing the whole season to surgery. This, like many decisions about pitchers the Angels have made in recent years, turned out terribly.
Richards ultimately made just six starts in 2017. He suffered a nerve issue in his biceps the first week of the season, and while imaging seemed to indicate that his UCL was undamaged, a string of related issues kept him off the field most of the season. Things seemed more promising in 2018. Richards came into the season apparently healthy, upped his breaking ball usage, and was posting the best strikeout rates of his career. It all came undone during a July 10th start against the Seattle Mariners. His UCL finally blew out and there was no other recourse than to finally undergo Tommy John surgery well over two years after the initial injury occurred.
Richards became a free agent after the 2018 season, and the San Diego Padres offered a two-year speculative deal hoping he’d be fully healthy in time for them to cash in with him in 2020. Richards got back on the mound for a few innings late in the 2019 season, and miraculously his stuff was intact. He wasn’t great for the Padres in 2020, but it’s par for the course to have some struggles returning from Tommy John surgery. What was encouraging was the fact that he was able to make 10 starts, stay healthy, and look pretty good at times. The Padres decided to put him in the bullpen in September in preparation for a super-reliever role in the postseason, but a 4.03 ERA, 4.28 FIP performance returning from Tommy John surgery is still fairly strong.
Richards can still bring it
One of the wilder parts of this whole saga is that Richards has basically looked unchanged throughout. His fastball velocity has held up consistently despite the injury issues. His calling card, and the reason he’s consistently of interest to pitching honks, is the elite spin rates he produces on his fastball, slider, and curveball, and those metrics have also remained elite throughout the injuries as well. His physical ability remains relatively undiminished.
Apart from the injury history, the one relative weakness for Richards has been the underwhelming movement on his fourseam fastball. In 2020, he averaged 95.1 mph, with a spin rate of 2626 rpms. Only 11 starters with 300 fastballs registered in Statcast this season threw harder. Only Trevor Bauer posted a higher average spin rate—which is a story in itself—than Richards did. Yet he’s never managed anything like the kind of whiff rates produced by the Justin Verlander’s and Max Scherzer’s of the power stuff set. Richards’ fastball spin is actually quite inefficient, as he checks in with well below average vertical and horizontal movement.
In an era when strikeouts rule, a fastball that doesn’t generate many whiffs just isn’t going to be highly valued, but in Richards’ case that can also be a little deceiving. His fastball does produce plenty of weak contact. Even in seasons when the average exit velocity of fastballs put into play spiked for him, he still gives up little power because his heavy, weird fourseamer is hard to lift with authority. Over the last four seasons combined, hitters have posted an ISO of just .155 and six total home runs against it. In some ways, Richards’ fastball is actually reminiscent of Spencer Turnbull’s heater, another fourseamer with above average spin rate, but which somehow moves more like a power sinker.
Richards backs the fastball with a nasty pair of breaking balls. The slider is his main out pitch, checking in at 88.5 mph with a spin rate of 2893 rpms, premium spin rate for that class of pitch. Over the years he’s really leaned into the slider and at this point he throws fastballs or sliders over 90 percent of the time. He does have a fairly monstrous curveball in his back pocket as well. He spins the curve in with an average of 3299 rpms, which is best in it’s class level spin rate as well. Each has well above average depth and Richards gets a lot of whiffs with each of them.
In recent years he hasn’t commanded either pitch quite as well, leading to the occasional meatball, but overall his control has never been a problem. He doesn’t issue that many free passes, but he hasn’t always had consistent command and bite on his stuff either. The hope would be that with Richards now finally beyond his elbow issues, his old home run suppressing ways may return with sharper command.
Should the Tigers be interested?
This is actually a pretty good time for the Tigers to take a risk on an oft-injured but talented pitcher. His case is a bit of an extreme, but betting on pitchers returning to form in their second season following a return from Tommy John is a smart move, assuming said team isn’t pinning their whole playoff hopes on it. Richards will still draw offers from contending teams, so it isn’t a particularly likely fit, but if Al Avila could manage to add him to the rotation for 2021, suddenly the pitching staff has a chance to be pretty interesting. If things went well, they’d also have a pretty good trade chip.
Of course, the issue we haven’t addressed is fitting Richards into the rotation. MLB Trade Rumors projects a contract of two years, $16 million. That should easily be within range of the Tigers budget even assuming they’d like to add a veteran to both the outfield, the infield, and to address the catcher position. On a yearly AAV basis, Richards would cost roughly as much as Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer would make in arbitration combined over the next two seasons. Of course he has more upside than either, and is less risky in terms of injuries than Fulmer.
Tigers manager AJ Hinch told @MLBNetworkRadio that the offseason priority is to "enhance" the pitching staff, adding a starter or two alongside Boyd, Fulmer, Turnbull.— Jason Beck (@beckjason) December 14, 2020
"If we're going to do this right in Detroit, we have to get the pitching right."
On paper, the Tigers 2021 rotation is Spencer Turnbull, Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer, Casey Mize, and Tarik Skubal, but apart from Turnbull there are questions marks with the whole group. And as we laid out a few weeks ago, even if all five current starters are healthy and perform relatively well, they’re still not going to provide the Tigers nearly enough innings to get through the season. Figuring out how to manage workloads is obviously now A.J. Hinch and Chris Fetter’s job, and they’re well aware the Tigers are going to need more pitching to avoid pushing their young prospects unwisely.
There’s been a lot of discussion among Tigers fans this offseason about what constitutes aggressive moves to get better versus simply spending on the top free agents. Sure, it could go wrong, but a minor two year investment doesn’t constitute any real financial risk either. Richards is a pretty good example of a player who isn’t particularly risky and has good upside. The Tigers will probably have to beat some other offers to land him, and they should.