The Houston Astros had been in the midst of perhaps the only hot streak in their recent history when June 4th began – they had won eight of their last 10 games – but by the end of the evening they sat around their home clubhouse looking stupefied by what the opposing pitcher had just done to them. “He was super nasty,” they kept saying.
“Some nights you just got to tip your cap to the other guy, and this is one of those nights," their manager, Bo Porter, conceded after his team was shut out, 4-0, by the Angels.
The pitcher who provided the first eight of those scoreless innings was not Los Angeles' No. 1 starter, Jered Weaver, nor its No. 2, C.J. Wilson, but a 26-year old who began the season as the rotation’s shaky No. 3, and who had prior to 2014 bounced between the rotation and bullpen without finding much success in either place. His career record entering the season was 11-13 with a 4.42 ERA and a pedestrian strikeout rate of 6.1 per nine innings.
On that Wednesday night in Houston, though, he was virtually untouchable. He threw 32 of his first 35 pitches for strikes. He required just nine pitches to strike out the side in the second inning – an immaculate inning, as it is known. In all he allowed no runs on four hits, with nine whiffs and no walks. It was, quietly, one of the most dominant starts any pitcher has made this season.
Garrett Richards has always had that kind of stuff. He wouldn’t have been the 42nd pick in the 2009 draft if he didn’t – especially considering the numbers he put up in three years at the University of Oklahoma. “He was not too attractive to our analytics department,” says an executive of one rival club. “Our scouts liked him, but his college stats sucked.” Indeed, Richards’s bio page from the OU website amounts to an exercise in euphemisms: What nice things can we say about a pitcher whose cumulative college ERA was 6.23?
This year, though, Richards has finally put everything together, and he has emerged as the unexpected ace of a club that at 42-33 has baseball’s fifth-best record. Richards’ start in Houston represented the beginning of a stunning month. Heading into his final scheduled start of June on Wednesday night against the Twins, Richards has posted an ERA of 0.67 with 30 strikeouts in 27 innings pitched over his four starts this month. On the season, he is 7-2 with a 2.79 ERA, 94 strikeouts in 93 2/3 innings and .206 batting average against that is baseball’s fourth best. He also leads L.A.'s starting staff in winning percentage and ERA and the entire American League in fewest hits per nine innings.
One reason for Richards’s breakout is that his stuff, as impressive as it has always been, has been better than ever. His fastball has averaged 96 miles an hour, which not only represents an increase of 1.2 mph from last season – when he was often throwing out of the 'pen – but makes him the hardest thrower of any big league starter, just above Royals’ rookie Yordano Ventura.
More important, though, has been his improved command. Such as it is, anyway. “I was talking to another scout the other night and we were both giving him a 35 command,” says one rival evaluator who has watched several of Richards' outings this season. Given that the scouting scale runs from 20 to 80, that does not sound very good. “But he’s now effectively wild, and his stuff’s filthy, with this crazy arm action," continues the scout. "He’s throwing 97, 98, and you don’t even hear him grunting. It’s never a comfortable at-bat.”
While Richards is still prone to wildness – his 3.17 walks per nine innings ranks him 69th among 95 qualified starters, and his 13 wild pitches are the most in the majors – he has deployed his primary pitches (a fastball, which he often cuts, and a slider) efficiently enough to keep hitters guessing, often incorrectly. According to Fan Graphs, opposing batters are swinging at just 60.7% of the pitches Richards throws in the strike zone, the seventh-lowest percentage for any starter. When they swing at pitches he delivers outside the zone, they don’t make contact with them very often: 52.9% of the time, the league’s second-lowest success rate.
A Garrett Richards start remains far from a sure thing for the Angels, because of its potential for volatility. “You see so many of these guys with these big arms that just never learn to throw strikes,” the scout says. “He’s toeing the line right now, and I’m going to enjoy the ride, but I’m not going to bet my house that he’s figured it out.” Richards, in fact, has allowed five earned runs in three separate outings this season, most recently on May 30 against the A's, a game in which he lasted only 2/3 of an inning. Just two starts later, however, he went seven innings against Oakland and permitted a single run. Though Richards might rarely piece together evenings as complete as the one he did on June 4th against in Houston, he has emerged as the Angels’ best starter and, if he continues his recent form, as an unlikely Cy Young contender.
Richards hasn’t been the only starting pitcher who has this season unexpectedly become his team’s best. Here are five others who have similarly exceeded expectations:
The 24-year-old groundball pitcher, who was part of the massive haul of prospects the Marlins received from the Blue Jays in exchange for Mark Buerhle, Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes (among others) in November of 2012, has helped to mitigate the loss of ace Jose Fernandez to Tommy John surgery. He has allowed a total three earned runs over his last six starts.
Scott Kazmir, Oakland A’s (9-3, 2.66 ERA)
While Kazmir experienced a major hiccup against the Mets, the team that drafted him in 2002, on Tuesday night (he yielded seven runs on eight hits over three innings), his two-year, $22 million free agent deal has otherwise proved a bargain for the A’s. He had permitted two earned runs or fewer in 11 of his first 15 starts. “His changeup is better than it has ever been,” says a rival scout. “That’s been the difference.”
While teammate Jeff Samardzija is considered the prime pitching asset whom the rebuilding Cubs might move at the trade deadline, the 31-year-old Hammel has been even better in several respects. The former Oriole has a slightly superior strikeout rate (8.50 to 8.48) and WHIP (1.02 to 1.14).
Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros (8-5, 2.78 ERA)
“Keuchel had a five ERA last year,” says Bo Porter. (It was 5.15, to be precise.) “There were games he didn’t make it out of the fourth inning. But you know you had to go through that process in order for guys like him to gain valuable experience to be where he’s at right now.” The 26-year-old lefty has pitched at least five innings in each of his 15 starts for the modestly ascending Astros, with two complete games. His 3.6 WAR is the game’s second-highest among pitchers, according to Baseball Reference, after Masahiro Tanaka’s 4.1.
On a staff that includes Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the 27-year-old Roark, a 25th round pick by the Rangers in 2008, has reigned supreme, thanks in large measure to his late mastery of a mystifying two-seam fastball. It has been nearly eight weeks since he’s allowed more than three runs in a start, a span of nine outings.