This is an especially important question for the Angels, who have injuries in their starting rotation and who will have their pitching depth tested early this season. The Angels need Richards to be not only very good, but to be a stabilizing force. And in the case of this pitcher, that's not asking too much.
"He has top-notch stuff," a former Major League pitching coach said. "Velocity, breaking ball, it's all there. Just a question of harnessing it."
According to FanGraphs, over the past two years, Richards has the highest average velocity (96.1 mph) of any pitcher who has worked 200 or more innings. Richards has already hit 100 mph in a Cactus League game this year.
He was on the way to a superlative 2014 (13-4, 2.61 ERA) when a left patellar tendon tear ended his season in August. He followed with full-season success in 2015. He was sixth in the AL in victories (15), ninth in innings pitched (207 1/3), 10th in strikeouts (176) and 10th in home ERA (2.92). On the other hand, he led the league in wild pitches and was second in walks.
Richards pitched Friday for a split-squad version of the Angels against the Rockies in what ended as a 6-6 tie. The quality of his work was probably better than his line. Richards worked five innings, giving up three earned runs on six hits. He walked none and struck out three. Two of the three runs scored on a bloop single. He threw 73 pitches, 45 for strikes.
"I felt great," Richards said. "There were a couple of sequences that I probably could have thrown different pitches in. There were a couple of pitches that I didn't execute, and they happened to put a bat on it. I was happy with my location. I was ahead of a lot of guys. My body feels good, and I'm progressing. I didn't walk anybody, and I threw a lot of strikes."
Richards is working on a changeup, which is another piece of bad news for hitters.
"That's going to be a pitch that I'll throw in every game," he said. "I'm still continuing to work on it, still continuing to get a good feel for it, but I have a lot of faith in it. That's going to be a pitch that's going to help me out this year."
Richards frequently was effective with off-speed pitches Friday. At Richards' level of ability, the question is not whether he can get people out. The question becomes what would be the best way to get people out.
"I would like to establish the zone with more fastballs," Richards said. "I believe in my fastball. I just need to pick and choose when I go to the breaking ball. There's a lot of times when I can beat guys with just the fastball, and I do them a favor by throwing the breaking ball.
"I'm still learning that. I think that's something that will come with maturing and getting more innings. I took a lot of positives out of today and stuff to work on for the next one."
The Angels need Richards at his peak. They will have at least two starters on the disabled list when the regular season begins. Tyler Skaggs is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. C.J. Wilson has been shut down with inflammation in his throwing shoulder.
Jered Weaver contends that he can be ready for the regular season, but he has been troubled by tightness around his neck. An MRI has revealed "mild degenerative changes in the cervical spine." Weaver has also been troubled by diminished velocity.
If Weaver is not immediately available, the Angels' season-opening rotation would be Richards, Andrew Heaney, Matt Shoemaker, Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano.
That could be a very talented group, although it wouldn't be an especially experienced group. Richards would be the presumptive No. 1 starter, but he says that sort of designation is definitely not his focus.
"I'm going to take the ball every fifth day," Richards said. "It doesn't matter if I'm No. 1 or No. 5. And I think everybody in the locker room agrees with that. Everybody in there is working together and to put a label on a guy, you're just one of five. When it's my turn to pitch every fifth day, I'm going to do my best, and that's all you can do."
Richards' best ought to be something worth seeing.