Angels' ace has four pitches near top of spin rate leaderboards
By Mike Petriello
Garrett Richards is known as something of a flamethrower. That shouldn't be a surprise to hear; last year, his 96.4 mph average fastball velocity was the highest among qualified starting pitchers. So far in 2015, it's tied for second among starters with at least 30 innings pitched at 95.8 mph. He throws exceptionally hard. If you've seen him pitch, you know this.
But lots of guys throw hard. Right now, Nathan Eovaldi (95.8 mph) and Gerrit Cole (95.3 mph) are averaging nearly identical fastball velocities as Richards is. So what sets those heaters apart? Let's dig into Statcast™ to explore something that baseball people have known about for years but have only recently been able to quantify: spin rate.
As you can see, Richards' fastball spin rate -- measured in RPM, though it of course doesn't take a full minute for the ball to get to the plate -- is considerably higher than either of his two counterparts:
That fastball spin rate is the seventh-highest of any four-seam fastball that's been thrown at least 40 times, although among starting pitchers, it's second behind only Max Scherzer. When you look at Richards' full repertoire, you can see that he's actually got several pitches that rank near the top in spin:
When the ball leaves Richards' hand, it's got just a ton of spin to it, almost no matter what he's throwing.
That sounds impressive. It is impressive. But so what -- why, in other words, should you care about spin rate? Because recent research has shown that spin rate actually has a higher correlation to swinging strike percentage than actual velocity does, and that actually makes a lot of sense. Pitches with a high spin rate resist gravity longer, making them appear to "rise," which is another way of saying "they don't drop in the way that the batter expects them to." It's how relievers without elite velocity like Yimi Garcia and Koji Uehara have racked up solid strikeout totals in recent years, by releasing the ball with outstandingly high spin.
It works the other way, too. Eovaldi is throwing just as hard as Richards is, but his fastball spin rate is considerably lower. He's got just a 5 percent swinging strike rate on his fastball, less than half of Richards' 10.7 percent rate (which is equal to that of Matt Harvey, who also has above-average spin). Joe Kelly, who throws harder than anyone, has an 8.6 percent swinging strike rate. Spin rate alone doesn't account for that -- control and having other good pitches certainly help -- but it's clearly something that sets Richards apart from other high-velocity starters.
Although Richards took the loss on Sunday as the Angels fell to the Orioles, 3-0, he was still sharp, allowing just two runs in 7 2/3 innings, striking out seven to go with one walk. He showed off his special skill in the sixth, when he fanned Delmon Young on a slider with a spin rate of 2951.143 to end the frame.
Spin rate is also worth noting because it's already affecting the way that some teams are building their rosters. Collin McHugh showed little in 15 games for the Mets and Rockies before the Astros took a chance on him, reportedly because they'd liked what they'd seen in the spin rate of his curveball. Nearly 200 innings later, McHugh has a 2.90 ERA as an Astro and at 27, is viewed as a big part of the team's future.
Back to Richards, he's not just getting by on that fastball. Along with his deadly slider -- which he spun low in the zone far more in 2014, to great effect -- he's become the ace of the Angels staff. Last year, no qualified pitcher in baseball allowed a lower slugging percentage against than Richards' .261. Just about no one throws as hard. Of those who do, just about no one spins the ball like Richards. He's a unique pitcher, and he's the best the Angels have.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.