The Comeback: How Angels fireballer Garrett Richards regained his groove
With the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, the Angels selected an outfielder from Millville (N.J.) Senior High. Seventeen slots later they chose a pitcher out of Oklahoma. The outfielder's name was Mike Trout. The pitcher's name was Garrett Richards.
Although Trout was just 17 when the two met in 2009, and Richards was 21, they became fast friends. They began living together in '10 while playing Class A ball in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and five years later, after climbing up the organization in tandem—from Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) to Little Rock to Salt Lake City and then to Anaheim—they still do. "Every year their girlfriends are waiting for them to go, Well, we're not going to live together this year," says Richards's mother, Terri. "It'll happen one day."
Trout is, by all accounts, the less fastidious of the pair. "He's still a kid, and he didn't go to college," Richards says. "I've been picking up after him for five years now." Their cohabitation has otherwise been harmonious, thanks to a shared love of grilling every night after games, no matter the hour ("Fire it up, for sure," says Trout), and of competition. "We're always trying to beat each other," says Richards, now 27. "He pushes me to be better."
Richards's path to major league success was far rockier than his housemate's. Like Trout, the 2014 American League MVP, Richards was blessed, in his case with a right arm that could throw a baseball more than 95 mph by the time he was a senior at Edmond (Okla.) Memorial High. "That strength in the arm comes from his dad, Tommy, who is in construction," says Terri. "Maybe it's in the chromosomes."
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For most of his life, though, Richards couldn't effectively harness his gift. "The only thing that really kept my baseball career going was the fact that I could just throw," Richards says. "I was never the best player on any of my teams growing up. Even the paper in Edmond was never writing about me."
In his three years with the Sooners, Richards never had an ERA lower than 6.00, in part because he walked more than one batter every two innings. He thought about quitting as a sophomore, perhaps to go to culinary school. He always thought too much, especially on the mound. "There's a lot of guys that are like, no brains, no headache," says Ryan Heil, who was Richards's pitching coach in the Alaska Baseball League, where he played for the Mat-Su Miners after his sophomore year and rediscovered his love of baseball. "They're not thoughtful, so they don't feel the pressure. He's not like that."
Even as he advanced through the minors, Richards's mind would race during every outing as he tried to get command of not only the speed of his pitches but also their biting movement. His right pointer finger extends just to his middle finger's second knuckle, and that extra-long digit, he believes, gives his pitches unusual and unpredictable spin. "I haven't been able to figure out why my ball cuts the way it does," he says.
After parts of three major league seasons, he was still fighting himself on the mound, as evidenced by an 11-13 record and a pedestrian 4.42 ERA. The Angels had used him as both a starter and a reliever, but before the start of 2014, pitching coach Mike Butcher told him to prepare to make 33 starts. Richards internalized the club's confidence in him. "He was always one of those guys that just had great stuff," says Trout. "Last year he figured out every pitch."
As an entrenched starter, Richards stopped overthinking and simply let the ball go. He delivered his four-seam fastball, with its natural cut, at an average of more than 96 mph, which was nearly 2 mph harder than he'd thrown it the year before and also the hardest of any starter in the league. His two-seamer was almost as fast and even more wicked. "Most guys don't throw sliders at 88 miles an hour that break as much as his fastball does," says Butcher. He also baffled hitters with a biting slider and, once in a while, a slow curve. By Aug. 20, the day on which he was due to make his first start at Fenway Park, Richards had a record of 13-4 and an ERA of 2.53, third best in the AL.
As more than 35,000 fans filed into the old ballpark, Richards walked out to the bullpen with Butcher and allowed himself, for the first time all season, to reflect on what he had achieved. "Man, look what we get to do every day for a living," he said. "Isn't it amazing?"
"He was always one of those guys that just had great stuff," says Trout. "Last year he figured out every pitch."
Less than an hour later, in the bottom of the second inning, Richards lay crumpled on the ground in the dirt next to first base. He had raced to cover the bag to complete a potential double play, but he had taken an awkward step, and now, between screams, he was telling first baseman Albert Pujols, who was kneeling over him and holding his hand, that he couldn't feel his left leg. Even before a trainer sheared away Richards's pants, Pujols could see that the pitcher's kneecap had gruesomely retracted halfway up his quad. "I was trying to calm him down before the trainer got there," Pujols recalls, "but I knew he was done."
Richards had ruptured his patellar tendon, the inch-and-a-half-wide band of tissue that connects the kneecap to the tibia. His season was over.
Richards allowed himself a few hours to process the pain he was experiencing and what it signified. Later that night, though, as his teammates—including Pujols and Trout—filed into his hotel room to check in on him, he had already vowed that his first taste of success would not be his last. "It was kind of instant rehab mode," he says. "Started getting myself mentally prepared for what I was about to embark on."
The Aug. 22 surgery, which left him with a six-inch vertical scar on the center of his left knee, was the easy part. During a 90-minute procedure, Richards's surgeons drilled three holes in his kneecap, manually pulled it back down to its proper position and used wire to reattach it to the ruptured tendon.
After eight weeks of healing, Richards moved to Tempe, Ariz., to begin the grueling rehabilitation process under the supervision of Keith Kocher. The physical therapist has worked with injured major leaguers for a quarter century—his first Tommy John patient was John Farrell, who was managing the Red Sox on the night Richards fell to the Fenway dirt—but Richards's injury was rare for a baseball player, and rarer still for a pitcher.
Kocher's goals for Richards were to restore his knee's range of motion, rebuild his atrophied quadriceps and have him throw off the mound by spring training, which was three months away. "Some guys take a year," Kocher says. "But Garrett didn't come in with any woes—Gosh, why me? It was always, What's next?"
At first Richards was unable to bend his knee much past 90 degrees, so Kocher focused on that. "I don't ever want to have to count to 20 ever again," says Richards, of the typical length of Kocher's exercises. "You just count to 20 all day long." As the weeks wore on, Richards began working in a pool, and then on a deweighted treadmill, which supported most of his body to decrease the impact on his knee. The real test, though, came just before the Angels began spring training in Tempe. On Feb. 16, Richards threw off the mound for the first time. "He was apprehensive at first, and this [injury] is not something that has been tested with a pitcher a lot," says Kocher. "Is he going to be able to hold up? We did some predrills to let him know he was going to be O.K."
He was O.K., even if no body part, after it has been injured and repaired, is ever identical to what it was before. "Your tissue's never the same," says Kocher. "But your performance can return."
Richards spent his spring throwing in the bullpen and in simulated games of steadily increasing intensity, but he was not ready for the real thing until April 19. In his first start, against the Astros, he lasted five innings and allowed three earned runs. By his next one, against the Rangers in Anaheim, he seemed back to his dominating self: He gave up just two earned runs on three hits in seven innings and got the win.
The next day the visiting clubhouse attendant at Angel Stadium presented Richards with a sealed envelope. Inside was an invoice, signed by veteran Texas slugger Adrian Beltre, billing Richards for the three bats that Richards's pitches had broken the previous evening. "He charged me $100 each," says Richards. "No checks, cash only." Did Richards pay? "No!" he says. "That guy's making way more money than me."
Beltre, indeed, will earn $16 million this season, to Richards's $3.2 million. Anyway, the invoice was just a joke between frequent rivals—Beltre's way of welcoming Richards back and his acknowledgement of what the pitcher had been through over the previous eight months. At week's end Richards was 7-5 with an ERA of 3.66, more than a run higher than last year's. Even so, it took him 26 years to reach that standard, and neither he nor his housemate will permit one bad step to stop him from getting there again.
"To see him work hard, get back to where he is now, it's pretty awesome," says Trout. "I'm glad I'm in the outfield just watching behind him, and not in the box."