Trevor Richards resorts to his old method of attack
During this past offseason, Trevor Richards developed his curveball and added a cutter. Both were unsurprising advancements in his repertoire given his heavy fastball-changeup usage in 2018. “Last year it was all fastball-changeup, everything going [arm side],” Richards told me on May 8. “So it was really important for me to get something going glove side.” Right around that point in early May, Richards four-start rolling average of pitch usage broken down like this: 38% fastball, 34% changeup, 16% cutter, 13% curveball. For the first time in his career, he profiled as a four-pitch pitcher. And coincidentally, for the only time this season Richards had trouble getting his FIP below 5.00. By presenting multiple pitches to a hitter, one would assume better results and the ability to turn over lineups with more success. But what if a pitcher’s third and fourth pitches don’t grade out well? Does the simple introduction of more pitches balance the equation out or does the quality of the pitch matter?
Richards usage in his recent starts seems to have answered this question. After peaking with his cutter and curveball, he has turned away from both pitches, navigating back to fastball and changeup usage totals, which currently sit near 90% in his last four starts. As a result, his performance has improved. In his five most recent starts before his outing in St. Louis June 19, Richards posted a FIP and ERA under 3.00, with 25 strikeouts to seven walks and minimal damage via home runs. While some peripheral metrics that apply a league-average home run rate (xFIP) see him more as an average starting pitcher, it’s clear Richards has shied away from using either of his new offerings in 2019.
The issue with Richards’ curveball might be the lack of movement. For pitches around his average velocity (79 mph), his curve is well below average in both vertical and horizontal break. He primarily uses the pitch early in counts as well, 20% of the time as the first pitch of an at-bat and rarely with two strikes. As pitchers usually turn to their best offerings most often with two strikes, maybe we can infer Richards doesn’t have ample confidence in his curveball? He even tweaked the pitch from 2018, where it moved less vertically and slightly more horizontally and still hasn’t found the spin. “Last year it was more like a slider, like a slurve ball almost,” Richards said. “This year I’ve just focused more on getting downward movement--it’s not straight 12-6 but it’s more down than slider-ish.” Based on the pitch’s performance, however, it might be worth going back to the drawing board and discovering why Richards isn’t able to achieve an amount of movement that allows the pitch to generate an average swing-and-miss rate.
Richards cutter is a pitch with more overall usage than his curveball and one which he displays more confidence in by throwing it in two-strike counts. The pitch’s horizontal movement for his velocity (86 mph) grades out slightly above average, an encouraging sign for the pitch’s overall health. He developed the cutter with just a slight tweak off his bread-and-butter fastball. “It’s not that different from my fastball grip,” Richards said. “I turn the ball [horizontally] a little bit but not that much… it just comes out a little bit differently.” This pitch has some more development to do, given hitters’ .548 slugging percentage against it, but a blueprint shouldn’t be impossible to create for a pitch with a natural amount of glove-side movement. He has been effective locating the pitch in the zone and succeeding against left-handed hitters. Against right-handers, however, the pitch is getting hammered at the bottom of the zone. It might be better served to locate the pitch even further off the plate which can be achieved by simply spotting the pitch further away from right-handed hitters, or the more intriguing option, more horizontal movement on the pitch.
“With new pitches you can expect not to have complete control the whole time,” Richards said of his curveball and cutter back in May. And it seems because of that, Richards has opted to return to his fastball-changeup roots in recent starts. Hitters will eventually catch on and adjust back to his tendencies if this continues. At that point, we’ll see if Richards has the confidence to feature either of his refined offerings more. If his cutter can become a viable third pitch, with more horizontal movement or altered location, there’s a real chance the 26-year-old takes a leap forward into something more than just an average starting pitcher.
On June 19 in St. Louis, Richards used his cutter 23 times, tying his season high raw usage of the pitch. His strikeouts in that game matched a season high of eight, and he allowed only one run over 5 2/3 innings. He starts against the Nationals today and his cutter usage should be a focus for many attempting to project his 2019 and beyond.