Take a look at the top-10 pitchers by WAR this year, and you'll see a lot of the same guys who were among the first pitchers selected in most fantasy drafts. Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, and Adam Wainwright are there. So are Masahiro Tanaka, Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez. Mild surprises such as Jon Lester and Corey Kluber are on the list, but those guys were both thought to be mid-tier starters at worst.
The one name that might come as a bit of a surprise is Garrett Richards. The 25-year-old righty (he turns 26 the last week of May) has always had the potential to be a frontline starter, but had yet to put it together before this season. Some of that had to do with the way the Angels yo-yo'd him between the bullpen and rotation over the last two seasons, but Richards himself gets plenty of blame, too. Despite a fastball that regularly sat at 95 mph and a slider that always had bite, Richards could not miss bats with any sort of consistency. In 2012 and 2013, his strikeout rate was below 17 percent. That is no longer the case.
Thus far in his breakout 2014 campaign, Richards has a 23.1-percent strikeout rate and 10.2-percent swinging-strike rate. Opponents are hitting just .209/.286/.270 against him with one home run and 55 strikeouts in 59 innings. He also has a 47.2-percent ground-ball rate, which, when taken in tandem with his strikeout rate, helps explain why he has given up so few runs this year.
Another major part in Richards' success this season has been his performance against left-handed batters. With that in mind, let's take a look at a Richards 2014 highlight reel to date:
We see him setting down hitters with his overpowering fastball, both the four-seamer and the sinker, the nasty slider, and the occasional curveball. Something else to notice, however, is just how many of the batters featured are lefties. In that clip alone he fans Robinson Cano, Bryce Harper, Jose Reyes (a switch-hitter hitting lefty), Ichiro Suzuki and Ryan Howard, among other lefties. In 2013, Richards allowed a .276/.341/.410 slash with 10 homers in 80 2/3 innings when he didn't have the platoon advantage. This season, Richards is allowing lefties just a .184/.263/.255 line.
To what can Richards' newfound domination of lefties be attributed? More than anything else, it's because of his reliance on his devilish sinker. Richards has thrown the sinker to lefties 56.9 percent of the time, up from 43 percent last year according to Brooks Baseball. They've managed just a .218 batting average and .299 slugging percentage against it, after hitting .312 with a .447 slugging percentage on the sinker last year.
If we again go back to looking at his charts against righties and lefties, we see a few obvious factors in Richards' leap. The first is the most fundamental. He's throwing the ball harder this year. The chart, again, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
Another is how frequently he has been able to stay down in the zone. The first chart below is this season. The second one is from 2013.
Richards has been in one of those bottom two rows 54.8 percent of the time last year. In 2013, just 51.3 percent of his pitches were that low. Moreover, he has hit the box that is just off the plate down and away to a righty and down and in to a lefty with more than 10 percent of his pitches. That's a nasty spot for a setup pitch or a put-away pitch in a tough count. In addition to his stuff improving, Richards appears to be maturing with his command, as well.
There might be a temptation for fantasy owners to sell Richards high given this unexpected level of success, but he has earned every bit of it this year. If you do try to sell, you should hold out for a price that reflects what Richards is: one of the most promising young pitchers in the game.