The Red Sox are transferring right-hander Garrett Richards to the bullpen, manager Alex Cora told reporters (including Christopher Smith of MassLive). His rotation spot will be filled by Chris Sale, who is expected to make his first appearance in two years on Saturday against the Orioles.
The Sox signed Richards to a one-year, $10MM guarantee over the offseason. (The deal also contains a club option currently valued at $10.25MM — with potential escalators — for the 2022 campaign, but Richards’ struggles this year make it likely he’ll be bought out instead). The hope was that Richards would solidify a starting rotation that looked to be one of the weak points on the roster. Things haven’t played out that way, as the 33-year-old worked to a 5.22 ERA/5.02 SIERA over 22 starts before losing his rotation spot.
Few pitchers in baseball seemed more affected by MLB’s midseason decision to enforce the prohibition against foreign substances than Richards, who acknowledged he’d previously used a sunscreen/rosin combination. Through games on June 15 — the date MLB announced their impending crackdown — Richards had a decent 4.09 ERA/3.85 FIP over 70 1/3 frames. In his nine starts since, the righty has a 7.20 ERA/7.45 FIP. Along the way, he’s worked to incorporate a changeup while cutting back on the usage of his curveball, which saw a rather precipitous decline in spin (albeit from a top-of-the-league 3100-3300 rpm range to a still high 2800-3000 rpm band).
That’s not to say Richards’ disappointing few months was solely the result of the foreign substance crackdown — nor was his prior success specifically because of sticky stuff. Richards’ strikeout and walk rates were worse than average even early in the season. His strong run prevention was largely on the strength of his ability to keep the ball in the yard, but the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction of late.
Richards allowed just five home runs through his first 13 starts, with a tiny 8.2% HR/FB rate in that time; since then, he’s been tagged for thirteen longballs on a 24.1% HR/FB rate. It’s certainly possible his diminished stuff plays a role in that — his four-seam fastball has been much more hittable since its spin dropped in June — but he’s likely also been prone to some poor luck on fly balls after benefitting from good fortune earlier in the year.
Whatever the specific cause, Richards’ recent struggles became severe enough for the Sox to reduce his role for the stretch run. Boston also bumped Martín Pérez from the rotation last week in favor of Tanner Houck, shaking up the starting staff as the team continues to struggle. The Red Sox have gone just 9-14 since the All-Star Break, falling five games back of the Rays in the AL East (not including tonight’s near-certain win over Tampa Bay). Boston holds a 1.5 game advantage over the Yankees for the American League’s final Wild Card spot.