After long journey, Richards coming into his own
Angels right-hander has developed into one of MLB's best young arms
ANAHEIM -- So many of them throw hard, but so few ultimately translate it into success as a Major League starting pitcher.
There's so much more to it up here. You need deception in your delivery, you need to repeat pitches from the same arm slot, you need to command counts, you need to put hitters away, you need to learn the art of generating early contact and you need to compose yourself when perfect pitches leave ballparks.
The cruel thing about it all is that you don't realize it until you actually get here, and the 12-to-6 breaking ball is fooling nobody, and the high-90s fastball is getting pummeled, and the humility starts setting in.
Angels right-hander Garrett Richards can tell you all about it.
"It's been a long, long road," he said. "I feel like I've done nothing but prove people wrong since."
Richards has come into his own now, at 25 and in the early stages of his sixth professional season.
The Oklahoma product is 3-0 with a 2.84 ERA while averaging 6.3 innings in his first six starts. Richards' walk rate (4.3) is a little high, but he's throwing his fastball more than a full tick faster (94.8 mph in 2013, 96 in '14), is striking out 9.5 batters per nine innings (compared to a rate of 6.1 from 2011-13), sports the lowest hits-per-nine rate in the American League (5.9) and has allowed only one home run in 38 innings.
Chris Iannetta, Richards' primary catcher over the last three years, called all of that "a general progression from the beginning of last season to the end, which continued through Spring Training and into now."
But it dates back so much further for a hurler who wasn't even a successful amateur, with ERAs of 6.30, 6.97 and 6.00 in his three years at the University of Oklahoma.
"I only had a fastball, man," said Richards, who will start Friday's series opener in Toronto. "I could throw 100, but it was belt-high, and they were using the good bats. The ball wasn't cutting, I didn't have a sinker. It was like throwing BP, pretty much."
Richards -- taken with the 42nd overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft by former Halos scouting director Eddie Bane, who loved to take chances on high-upside talent early in the Draft -- can't even recognize that guy anymore.
With the help of Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher, Richards has refined his curveball, added a potent slider, worked on a changeup, developed cutting action on his four-seam fastball and learned how to execute a glove-side sinker, creating the necessary movement for a pitch designed to tail away from left-handed hitters.
"I look at where I was then and I look at where I am now," Richards said, "and I've worked very, very hard and made some major, major adjustments."
The biggest adjustment?
"Not overthrowing the baseball," he said. "Discovering that you can go 90 percent, have a clean delivery, and the ball is still going to come out the same, if not better. That's something the special ones figure out early on, and some guys blossom a little bit later."
Richards categorizes himself with the latter group, even though he's still relatively young in the game. For a while, he had no idea where he stood.
Richards got a little seasoning in the Majors down the stretch in 2011, starting three games, relieving four and finishing with a 5.79 ERA in 14 innings. He came up again in late May of the following season, when a back injury sent Jered Weaver to the disabled list. Richards posted a 4.42 ERA in a nine-start tryout, went back to Triple-A for a couple of weeks and spent the last five-plus weeks of '12 as a Major League reliever, sporting a 5.82 ERA in 20 appearances.
Richards remained in the bullpen for the first week of 2013, then moved to the rotation when Weaver broke his left elbow. Richards then moved back to the bullpen and posted a 5.54 ERA in four starts, then spent almost three full months as a reliever, then moved to the rotation again when Joe Blanton finally wore out his welcome.
Then something happened.
"When he got in our rotation for the last time last year, I think there was a confidence that you could see building in Garrett," Halos manager Mike Scioscia said of Richards, who posted a 3.72 ERA in 13 starts to finish out the year. "I think he found out his stuff really plays as a starter."
It didn't happen overnight, though. There was no proverbial light switch that went off in Richards' head, no epiphany that finally allowed him to harness some of the best raw stuff in the game. It was part of the progression, of learning what it takes at this level and realizing why it was that he kept failing.
Also, it was continuity and job security.
"When he's got a role and a position that's secure, he knows what he's doing and he's not just flipping from starter to the bullpen, I think that really helps him out a lot," said center fielder Mike Trout, Richards' good friend.
"I've always believed in my ability," Richards said. "It's just getting the repetitions and getting the full-time job and just going out and pitching every five days; not having to wonder if I'm getting sent down after the game."
Every time Trout reaches first -- and that happens a lot -- he asks the opposing first baseman about his own starter, and they're usually most impressed by Richards' stuff.
"I haven't had one person say it was pretty easy to hit," Trout said. "It's nasty."
Of all the pitchers Iannetta has caught over nine years in the big leagues, only one has had comparable stuff -- 2010 Ubaldo Jimenez, who finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting as the ace of the Rockies. He caught Richards in Spring Training of 2012 and knew he had the makings of a dominant starter.
"But," Iannetta cautioned, "there are no gimmies. You never know if a guy's going to be able to do it or not. It's a credit to him, and it's a credit to the people around him that have worked together to get him where he is right now."
When Weaver first laid eyes on Richards, he saw "a thrower." A guy who "just kind of throws stuff up there and hopes for the best."
"But now," the Angels' ace said, "he's relying more on locating and stuff -- not only his fastball, but his offspeed pitches, too."
Richards worked around five walks to pitch five innings of one-run ball and get the win in Houston on April 4. He shut out the Mariners through seven innings in Seattle on April 9. Richards gave up five runs in seven innings to the A's on April 15, then came back with six innings of one-run ball against the Nats on April 21, went toe-to-toe with Masahiro Tanaka while giving up two runs in seven innings at Yankee Stadium on April 27 and beat Texas with six innings of three-run ball Saturday.
"I think we saw signs of what he was capable of doing early on," Weaver said, "and now we're seeing this year that he can be one of the best pitchers in the league, if he puts his mind to it and puts his heart into it."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.