Red Sox starter Garrett Richards desperately needs a break to reinvent himself

FT. MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 28: Garrett Richards #43 of the Boston Red Sox reacts during the first inning of a Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves at jetBlue Park at Fenway South on March 1, 2021 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
FT. MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 28: Garrett Richards #43 of the Boston Red Sox reacts during the first inning of a Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves at jetBlue Park at Fenway South on March 1, 2021 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox pitcher Garrett Richards should take some time off

What are the Boston Red Sox going to do with Garrett Richards? One thing they can’t afford to do is send him out for his next start. At least not the current version of Richards. The right-hander desperately needs to reinvent himself before he can step foot on the mound again.

In his first appearance since MLB started enforcing a policy to crack down on pitchers using foreign substances, Richards imploded in a pivotal game against the Tampa Bay Rays. He failed to make it out of the second inning, allowing five runs (four earned) on three hits, four walks and a pair of home runs.

This abysmal outing came on the heels of another poor performance when Richards was tagged for four runs over four innings against the Atlanta Braves. Richards abandoned his curveball and relied almost exclusively on his four-seam fastball in that game. He later vented to the media about MLB preventing him from using any substance that helps him properly grip his breaking ball.

Against the Rays, Richards threw curveballs on only 11 of his 54 pitches and struggled to control the ones he attempted. Seven of those curves missed for a ball, one was a called strike and he hit a batter with another. Richards recorded one ground out with his curve while another batter reached on an error against it.

His slider was equally ineffective, resulting in only one called strike on nine attempts to utilize the pitch. The homer he allowed to Mike Zunino in the second inning came on a hanging slider.

Between those two pitches, only seven of his 20 breaking balls went for strikes and Richards failed to generate a single swing-and-miss with either pitch.

Richards is clearly struggling with the command of his breaking balls, which he blames on not being able to grip them properly without the aid of a foreign substance. This is why Richards was so outraged by MLB’s decision to start inspecting pitchers during games. However, the league would counter that they are conducting these checks to prevent pitchers from artificially enhancing their spin rates to gain an unfair advantage.

Whether it was his intention or not, it seems obvious that whatever Richards has used in the past pushed his spin rates to elite levels. He has ranked in the 100th percentile in curveball spin rate every year since 2015 when the metric started being tracked, per Baseball Savant. His curve has averaged 3255 RPM this season but dropped to 2750 RPM against the Rays. That’s a staggering -505.0 differential. Richards saw modest declines with his four-seam fastball (-255.0) and slider (-210.0) spin rates in this latest outing.

The breaking balls are useless if Richards can’t throw them for strikes or if the drastic dip in spin rate makes them far easier to hit when he does find the zone. He obviously can’t get by exclusively with his four-seam fastball, which historically has been his least effective pitch in terms of XWOBA.

If he’s incapable of gripping the breaking balls comfortably enough to use them effectively, Richards needs to find a new approach. He’s toyed with a two-seam sinking fastball but he’s used it sparingly in recent years and only thrown six of them this season. Manager Alex Cora indicated that Richards is also working on a changeup, a pitch he’s credited with throwing only once since 2016.

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It’s going to take some time for Richards to develop these pitches that he’s rarely utilized in recent years. That won’t happen overnight or in the few nights until his next scheduled start. In the meantime, the Red Sox can’t keep trotting him out to the mound as a work in progress.

That puts the team in a difficult position. They only have one off day before the All-Star break and it’s not until July 8, so there isn’t a convenient spot to skip a starter during the next two turns through the rotation. Boston may need to consider sidelining Richards with a phantom injury so they can replace him on the roster – but with who?

Tanner Houck impressed in a recent rehab start with Triple-A Worcester but needs to build up to more than three innings before the Red Sox can be comfortable recalling him for a spot start. The Red Sox don’t have another healthy starting pitcher waiting in Worcester who they can call up without requiring a 40-man roster move.

The bullpen game approach proved unpopular last year so the Red Sox will be hesitant to go back to it but it might be their best temporary solution. If they can get three strong innings out of Garrett Whitlock, they could make it work. It’s not as if they can expect Richards to last much longer than that in his current condition anyway.

Next. An idea to help fix umpire inspections. dark

It might only be for a couple of starts to get us to the All-Star break, after which a revamped Richards might be ready to contribute again. There’s no easy answer but the Red Sox need to do something with that rotation spot that doesn’t include sending Richards out with only a four-seam fastball in his arsenal.