The Red Sox’ offseason addition of right-hander Garrett Richards to their rotation didn’t pan out quite like chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, general manager Brian O’Halloran and the rest of the Boston front office hoped. Richards got out to a solid start, pitching to a 3.75 ERA through his first 11 trips with a 20.2 percent strikeout rate, an 11.6 percent walk rate and a 48.9 percent ground-ball rate. Richards wasn’t exactly dominant, but for a pitcher who’d signed a one-year, $10MM contract with a club option, the results to that point were a bargain.
Things spiraled downhill rapidly for Richards from that point forth, however. Over his next 11 starts, from June 6 through Aug. 8, Richards was clobbered for a 6.97 ERA. He went from averaging just over 5 1/3 innings per start to 4 1/3 frames, and his strikeout rate plummeted to just 14.3 percent.
This isn’t intended to serve as some form of exposé on pitchers utilizing foreign substances, but it’s important context to note that Richards, a traditionally high-spin-rate pitcher, saw his decline coincide with the league’s memo on the forthcoming foreign-substance crackdown. Richards didn’t shy away from acknowledging that he’d used foreign substances, though he insisted to Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic that he’d only ever used a combination of sunscreen and rosin. (Both McCaffrey’s June 24 and June 30 interviews with Richards are well worth a full read for context.)
“(I’m) going through a little transition period right now,” Richards told McCaffery in late June. “Changing some grips on some of my pitches, learning new pitches, just trying to figure this whole thing out.”
That “transition” period didn’t exactly pay dividends for Richards, as evidenced by the previously referenced plummet in his results. The Red Sox gave him some runway to try to sort things out, but on Aug. 11, they pulled him from the rotation and plugged him into the bullpen. So far, it’s proven to be a game-changer for both the Sox and for Richards himself.
Since moving into a short-relief role, Richards has dominated. He’s tossed 20 2/3 innings of relief, pitching to a 0.87 ERA with a 29.4 percent strikeout rate, a 9.4 percent walk rate and a 48.1 percent ground-ball rate. Richards’ fastball averaged 94.2 mph out of the rotation, and that’s jumped to 95.0 mph in the ’pen — 95.3 mph since Sept. 1.
Richards has also seen gains in swinging-strike rate (from 9.4 percent to 10.8 percent), opponents’ chase rate (27.9 percent to 34.5 percent), opponents’ average exit velocity (91.6 mph to 89.4 mph) and an overwhelming drop in his opponents’ barrel rate — from 9.3 percent all the way down to 1.9 percent. Since moving to a relief role, he’s allowed just one “barreled” ball, as measured by Statcast, and he has yet to surrender a home run.
It’s true that we’re only looking at a sample of 20 2/3 frames right now, but Richards’ dominance is going to give the Red Sox a decision that as recently as early August looked to be a foregone conclusion. The 33-year-old’s one-year, $10MM contract carries a $10MM club option for the 2022 season, which comes with a $1.5MM buyout. The Red Sox will effectively have to make a net $8.5MM decision on him for the 2022 season, and while that looked like an easy option to buy out when he was floundering in the rotation, the price tag suddenly looks much more palatable.
Some may raise an eyebrow at the notion of doling out an extra $8.5MM based on a few weeks of work in the bullpen, but there’s pretty recent precedent of a reliever being paid at that level following a similar late shift to the ’pen. When the Brewers acquired Drew Pomeranz from the Giants in 2019, they did so by somewhat surprisingly sending a fairly well regarded prospect to San Francisco in return: Mauricio Dubon. Pomeranz had made just four relief appearances when the Brewers took that plunge.
It proved to be a terrific decision for Milwaukee, as Pomeranz worked to a 2.39 ERA with an overwhelming 45 percent strikeout rate in 26 1/3 innings down the stretch. He rode that wave of momentum into free agency, where he cashed in on a four-year, $34MM contract with the Padres.
Pomeranz was excellent through his first 44 1/3 innings of that contract before undergoing season-ending surgery, but the results of his contract aren’t really consequential with regard to Richards. The mere fact that Pomeranz was able to command a four-year deal in the first place certainly suggests that the market could bear a nice multi-year guarantee for Richards, assuming he sustains this pace for the season’s final couple of weeks. Richards hasn’t quite as dominant in terms of missing bats and limiting walks, and it’s critical to point out that he’s two years older now than Pomeranz was when he hit free agency. Still, even if a four-year pact isn’t on the table, a two- or three-year contract could be feasible.
The Sox have just shy of $104MM in guarantees on the books for next season. They’ll have to make decisions on club options for catcher Christian Vazquez ($7MM) and left-hander Martin Perez ($6MM). Boston also owes $16MM to the Dodgers under the David Price trade. Even with those additional financial considerations, this is a former luxury-tax payor who came close to paying the tax in 2021. Payrolls in the $200MM range aren’t out of the norm in Boston. A net $8.5MM decision on a reliever who has looked largely unhittable late since moving out of the rotation is something they can afford if they’re sold on Richards’ renaissance in the bullpen.
If the Sox ultimately decide to buy Richards out and pursue other bullpen options, that could work out even better for the right-hander. He’d suddenly be one of the more interesting options in a free-agent class of relievers that doesn’t feature many high-end names. Whatever path the Sox choose, the decision to move Richards out of the rotation looks like a good one for all parties at this point.