Angels' Garrett Richards Notable For Durability And Velocity

LITTLE ROCK, ARK.—En route to his second career complete game —and first in the Texas League—Arkansas righthander Garrett Richards cleared the first eight innings in 81 pitches and then got a surprise when he returned to the dugout for his between-inning breather.

This was the last Monday of July, and pitching coach Brandon Emanuel had a little fun with him.

"I told him he had until 86 (pitches) to finish them off," Emanuel said, breaking into a chuckle. "But we gave him until 100."

Richards did Emanuel one better by finishing with a pitch to spare, and then emerged five days later to deliver an eight-inning, nine-strikeout performance.

In other words, it may be the year 2011, but Richards has had a knack of turning back the clock by going old school and pitching deep into games. Coupled with his progress and burgeoning ability to set up hitters, that means one thing: The Angels have a legitimate prospect on their hands.

Richards has burned through the minors since being drafted 42nd overall in 2009 out of Oklahoma. But to prove his readiness for the American League, he had to pass the litmus test of the hitter-stacked Texas League.

You can say he has. This year, Richards was a league-best 12-2, 3.06 in 141 innings. He had also pitched at least seven innings in 11 of his 21 starts.

"I don't let the little things get to me. My work ethic this year is a lot different," Richards said. "I don't know why. It's just something about being in Double-A and being one call away or something like that. Just something clicked."

An American League scout on hand for Richards' July 25 complete game said his fastball was consistently between 95-98 mph. The scout also noted Richards had nasty break on his slider, which sat around 89-90 mph, and that his sinker bore in on righthanded hitters.

Also impressive was his changeup. "It just disappeared at the plate," the scout said. "It was one of those that just kept having action."

Said Angels pitching coordinator Kernan Ronan: "What I'm most impressed with—and what I like to read in the (daily) reports—is when he doesn't have his best stuff, he's doing a good job of competing.

"I put a big emphasis on that because you're not going to have your really good stuff every time out. You've got to figure out a way to compete and get your team wins. That's what separates your really good pitchers from your .500 pitchers."

Richards had 98 strikeouts against 37 walks and a .224 opponent average. He also had coughed up only eight home runs in a league that's friendly to hitters, by and large.

Making Progress

Should Richards reach Anaheim, he will have plenty of stories to tell about his minor league days and all the interesting stops.

But none may be more significant than Arkansas' early June visit to San Antonio. That's where the club decided to quarantine his curveball and force Richards to breathe life into his sinker, sharpen his slider and shore up a changeup.

"The curveball was an inconsistent pitch," Richards said. "Later in my career, I can always come back to it, and I still throw it in my bullpen sessions. But it's given more time to my other pitches."

Because his bread-and-butter, four-seamer can be overpowering—and sometimes cuts glove-side—the sinker and slider could be tremendous weapons, especially against righthanded power hitters in the big leagues.

Richards could use his four-seamer either as a strikeout pitch or just for effect, and then work in the sinker to get a much-needed groundball out or as a set-up for the slider. And because the Angels have guidelines to guard against Richards' natural tendency to throw too far across his body, the results are quality pitches.

"This year, I'm really learning how to set up hitters, moving (batters') feet and pitching inside," Richards said. "I'm throwing my two-seam a lot more."

Looking Ahead

The Angels had yet to decide whether Richards would finish the season in Triple-A Salt Lake. But staying put in Arkansas could have its benefits.

Not only are the Travelers playoff bound, but Richards has an internal competition with teammate Matt Shoemaker, who was 9-2 with a league-best 2.22 ERA just three years after going undrafted out of Eastern Michigan.

The Travelers had also gone weeks without a lefthander in their bullpen, requiring both starters to deliver quality innings.

Emanuel, who also coached Richards last year in the high Class A California League, sees a pitcher who has adjusted to the cat-and-mouse game that exists in the higher levels.

"He's a guy that will check his pitch count," Emanuel said. "He'll say, 'That's too many. I'm not going to make it. The next inning, I've got to be quicker.' "

To Richards, he can't be any other way, explaining that the high minors require pitchers to think rather than just throw.

"I've accepted the role on this team as far as being a leader and leading by example," he said. "I can't really explain how it got into my head, but I'm taking the game a lot more seriously."

Kary Booher covers the Texas League for the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.