Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Garrett Richards was an unusual case as prospect; a reader recently requested a Prospect Retrospective on him, so here it is.
Garrett Richards was a college pitcher at the University of Oklahoma from 2007 through 2009. He was NOT a very successful one. Despite a fastball clocked in the mid-90s, he was over-matched by Big 12 hitters more often than not, running up a 6.21 ERA in 126 innings over three college seasons. He did average a strikeout per inning, with 127 whiffs in the span, but he was vulnerable to command failures and control issues, walking 69, giving up 138 hits and 20 homers. Even accounting for the elevated nature of offense in college baseball at the time, his career for the Sooners was disappointing.
Why? He had plenty of arm strength, but his secondary pitches were erratic. At times he had little to off-set the fastball, enabling college hitters to jump on him. His command was spotty and while his control was not terrible, his ability to locate pitches to specific spots was not very impressive.
I had a chance to see him pitch in some Big 12 games and,well, he was a mess. Even on days when his secondary pitches were working well, he seemed snake-bit by bad luck. Nevertheless, many scouts felt his problems were fixable and he was still drafted in the supplemental first round in '09, 42nd overall.
It didn't take long to improve. Sent to the Pioneer League to begin his career, he posted a 1.53 ERA with a 30/4 K/BB in 35 innings for Orem. This was an incredibly rapid turnaround given his track record, but everything was better in pro ball than it was in college. His command within the strike zone was much sharper and his secondary pitches (slider, curve, change-up) all took at least one step forward. This literally happened within the space of a couple of months, and in the high-offense Pioneer League no less.
Sent to Cedar Rapids in the Low-A Midwest League to begin '10, he posted a 3.41 ERA with a 108/34 K/BB in 108 innings with 92 hits allowed. Promoted to the High-A California League in late July, he continued to pitch well with a 3.89 ERA and a 41/9 K/BB in 35 innings for Rancho Cucamonga, with 38 hits allowed. Scouting reports from MWL and CAL sources praised his command and noted a full and strong arsenal of secondary pitches to go with the mid-90s heat. The only negative was some concern about his mechanics putting stress on his shoulder, but the difference between Richards as a professional pitcher and Richards as a college thrower was stunning.
Richards made 21 starts for Double-A Arkansas in 2011, again with strong results: a 12-2 record, 3.05 ERA, with a 103/40 K/BB in 143 innings with 123 hits allowed. He was promoted to the majors late and had some trouble with a 5.79 ERA in 14 innings, 9/7 K/BB, but that wasn't unexpected. He split 2012 between Triple-A and the majors, then took over a full time slot on the pitching staff in 2013, pitching decently enough (4.06 ERA, 101/44 K/BB in 145 innings).
As you know, his 2014 campaign was quite good (13-4, 2.61, 164/51 K/BB in 169 innings, 4.5 fWAR). In a nice article this past March, Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs pointed out how difficult it is for hitters to square up Richards' stuff. Richards still needs to show that he can handle a 200-inning workload, but there's no question about his ability to dominate hitters when his command is working, which it usually is these days. Pitching in front of pro-quality defenses helps, too, especially for a ground ball pitcher like Richards, plus the difficult experiences in college taught Richards how to deal with adversity.
So that's Garrett Richards, a not-too-successful college pitcher who has developed into a strong major league starter. This is one case where the scouts were right. A fresh start in pro baseball unlocked the talent that was always present but not fully realized in college