MLB Buy or Sell: Garrett Richards' Hot Start
The numberFire MLB crew has been - and will be - posting feature articles in a series entitled "Buy or Sell."
The concept of this feature is simple: We will examine something currently interesting in baseball, such as a player, team, or statistic and discuss whether we, as a baseball community, should be buying or selling them or it.
There may not always be an easy or clear-cut answer to this question, as streaks and fluke performances are abundant in the game we know and love. With this exercise, we intend to examine such performances and make a case that a performance is either the result of a player getting better at baseball (buy) or mere good fortune (sell).
Not all articles in this series will deal with analyzing a small-sample size performance or a hot streak. Some will deal with the promotion of a top prospect, while others could deal with a specific stat with a specific player, such as Jose Abreu's absurd amount of home runs or Troy Tulowitzki's performance with runners in scoring position.
We will be selecting players and topics that we think are most interesting and relevant, but if you have a player or topic that you would like examined, hit us up on Twitter (@friarNU29, @DanWiggles38 or @numberFire) and let us know.
Without further ado, here is the latest edition of Buy or Sell, featuring Angels' starting pitcher Garrett Richards.
Drafted 42nd overall in the 2009 draft, the hard-throwing right-hander out of Oklahoma dominated the low minors and was immediately put on the fast track to the Major Leagues.
Richards struggled in his MLB debut, a 14 inning cup of coffee at the end of the 2011 campaign, so he was sent back to Triple-A Salt Lake to begin the 2012 season. He spent roughly half of the season in Triple-A before being recalled, and has been in the show ever since.
During the remainder of 2012 and entirety of 2013, Richards split time between the Angels’ rotation and pen. The results were mixed, as he posted respective ERA’s of 4.69 and 4.17 over 77 appearances, including 26 starts.
This season, however, Richards has made the jump from mediocrity to dominance. His ERA has dropped all the way to 2.90, his WHIP dipped from 1.34 to 1.14, and he has increased his K rate by over two batters per nine innings. Not only has this allowed Richards to solidify his status in the Angels’ rotation, his breakout has placed him among the best pitchers in the league to start the season.
This leads to ask whether we can expect Richards to continue his torrid pace. Is his hot start a fluke or has Richards made significant improvements as a pitcher?
While some early season surprises are easy to diagnose, the curious case of Garrett Richards is not among them. He has shown many signs of improvement, but these are coupled with many warning signs indicating that regression is in his immediate future.
Reasons to Believe
Richards isn't the same pitcher as last year. The first and perhaps most important difference is that the hard throwing righty became an even harder throwing righty; increasing his average fastball velocity from 94.8 to 95.8 MPH. This difference was consistent across all of his pitches, and even though velocity is not everything, if a pitcher is able to maintain his profile while adding velocity, the result will be positive.
The increase in velocity has indeed made each of his pitches better. This is demonstrated by the stats wFB/C, wSL/C, wCB/C, which stands for weighted fastball, slider, or curveball runs above average per 100 pitches. His fastball has gone from a merely league average pitch in 2013 (exactly 0.00 wFB/C) to an above average 0.81 wFB/C in 2014.
Likewise, his breaking pitches have seen similar increases in effectiveness. While both his slider and curveball were above average pitches in 2013, both have bordered on elite status in 2014. The slider, which he uses 20.1% of the time, has increased from a wSL/C of 0.32 to a wSL/C of 2.14 in 2014. In similar fashion, the curveball, used 7.4% of the time, has gone from a good wCB/C of 0.90 to a great 1.57 this season. His changeup has also improved drastically, but since he only uses the pitch 0.1% of the time, it is not worth examining in any detail.
Have these improved pitches resulted in an improved pitcher? In many ways, the answer is yes. This is demonstrated by the increase in his K rate and the decrease in his Batting Average Against. The former has gone from a rather pedestrian 6.27 Strikeouts per Nine to a very good 8.39 K/9 this season, while the latter has dropped from .263 to .209.
Reasons for Concern
There is definite improvement from Richards this season, but there are also a few reasons to pause before slapping the “buy” label on this player. These concerns are almost all found in his batted ball data, which is shown in the chart below.
The decrease in average against is supported by the increased K rate, the increased fly-ball rate, and the decreased groundball rate. But it's not supported by the increased line-drive rate. It's possible that these factors even out to support the drop in average against, but more fly balls result in more home runs and extra base hits, right?
The answer is yes, but this has not been the case with Richards thus far. His 2.1% home run per fly ball is well below his career average of 9.9%, and the league average of roughly 10.5%. This is extremely unsustainable. Once the ball is put in the air pitchers exhibit little control of whether fly balls turn into home runs, so we can expect Richards’ 2.1% mark to be nothing more than a fluke in a small sample size.
Once Richards’ HR/FB rate normalizes and if his fly-ball rate stays up, we can expect him to surrender substantially more home runs and extra base hits. His walk rate has also increased this season to 3.39 per nine innings, so we are left with a pitcher giving out more free bases and fly balls than before. That is a poor combination that will result in an ERA higher than 2.90 over the course of a season.
This assertion is confirmed by the metric SIERA (Skill Interactive ERA), which is a metric on the ERA scale created from a pitcher’s numbers in the three true results (Strikeouts, Walks, and Home Runs) and batted ball data. This metric shows that his early career struggles were justified, but also tells us that while Richards has been a slightly different pitcher this year, his effectiveness is roughly the same.
Though SIERA can't and shouldn't be used as a tell-all statistic, his identical 3.63 marks in 2013 and 2014 are surprising. According to this metric, Richards was unlucky in 2013 but lucky in 2014, despite having roughly the same effectiveness. If his luck has evened out, this pitcher would have posted roughly a 3.63 ERA both seasons. Instead, his ERAs have been far from this number at 4.19 and 2.90 respectively.
Buy Or Sell?
There are good arguments for both buying and selling Richards: He is clearly an improved pitcher, but he is also a pitcher bound for regression. How far will he regress? What does this mean is the context of a question of buying or selling?
Although you likely read this article with the intent of receiving a clear answer, I'm unable to offer a justified answer for either side. Assuming his peripheral statistics stay the same, a pitcher with Richards’ skill set can be expected to post an ERA in the mid-3s. He will continue to have strong strikeout numbers and limit hits against him, but his fly ball tendencies will result in a susceptibility to the long ball.
I buy the improvement, but only to an extent. Regression is imminent and will take him from his current elite status to a solid mid-rotation starter. That is improvement from his status in 2013, but the profile is still much less than what he has shown thus far in 2014. Buy the improvements, but sell his hype as an elite pitcher.
Verdict: Buy the mid-rotation starter, sell the elite starter.