June 10 was a mystery. The Toronto Blue Jays hemmed and hawed about their plans to replace Alek Manoah’s starting spot until, in true Tampa Bay Rays fashion, the club announced Trevor Richards as the starter just hours before first pitch.
And, given a golden opportunity, the right-hander shoved, striking out seven Minnesota Twins hitters in just three innings. As you can imagine, that outing got the people going. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli raved about how Richards’ changeup, which is among the best pitches in baseball, was simply impossible to lay off.
So, as Manoah’s absence forces another bullpen day Saturday, it’s time to promote the idea of Richards as the bona fide fifth starter going forward. Yes, the 30-year-old won't be throwing 100 pitches any time soon because he didn't have a full spring training as a starter. But why not stretch Richards out to four or five innings of work? That’s a wise decision.
Here’s why the Blue Jays should make Richards the permanent fifth starter.
Richards has starting pitching experience
This one seems simplistic, but there’s a reason Richards has opened five games for the Jays over the last two seasons. The Illinois native began his career better than most reliever converts, pitching 261.2 innings in 2018 and 2019 with a 4.23 ERA (96 ERA+). That’s some tidy business from a back-end starter.
So, when his number was called as a starter this year, he didn’t need to shake up much.
“I still do my normal routine,” Richards said after his three-inning outing on June 10. “I throw with the relievers. I keep it as normal as possible and adjust to the game time, really.”
That coolness has translated into game action, too. In fact, there’s evidence suggesting the righty gets better as the innings drag on. From pitches 1-25, batters have a .669 OPS against Richards this season. From pitches 26-50, however, hitters drop down to a .551 OPS, and, as a sweetener, the Jays reliever has yet to allow a home run with his pitch count between 26-50 pitches.
Beyond that, Richards has been efficient, averaging 18.3 pitches per inning (15 is the gold standard) while leading all Blue Jays hurlers with a 27.8% K-BB rate.
The stuff is on fire
Richards is pitching better than he ever has in his major-league career thanks to absurd strikeout numbers. His 14.7 K/9 leads the club and ranks fifth in MLB, with most of those whiffs coming as a product of his changeup. Opposing hitters are batting just .127 on the off-speed offering and swinging and missing at an absurd 50.9% clip.
The late, arm-side run on the changeup consistently makes hitters jockstrap themselves at the plate. Much like Kevin Gausman’s fastball-splitter combo, Richards’ changeup prevents hitters from sitting fastball and teeing off. Also of note, Richards ditched the curveball entirely after hitters spanked that pitch for a .515 SLG a year ago. He’s now throwing 57.6% changeups, the highest usage of his six-year career.
But how does this all play out in a starter’s capacity? You’d think hitters would time things up after an at-bat or two. Nope.
Granted, the Twins are one of the heaviest swing-and-miss clubs in baseball, but Richards was still killing it into the third inning using the same simple recipe.
And that simplicity lends itself well to the repetition of a starting outing, more so than it does to the intensity of a high-leverage relief appearance. Furthermore, Richards will have a more gradual introduction as he feels out hitters. Since he only possesses two options – fastball or changeup – him and his catcher must read swings and decide, for example, when to pitch backwards or go off-speed in a 3-2 count.
All to say, Richards’ one-two punch could be just as effective as a starting pitcher in a four- or five-inning sample.
Richards reduces chaos in bullpen, reliever churn
This logistical consequence is also important, as Richards’ semi-permanent move neutralizes the chaos of organizing a bullpen day every turn through the rotation.
The Blue Jays' roster churn appears to be sustainable given the back-and-forth movement of Jay Jackson, Thomas Hatch, and Bowden Francis from Triple-A. But this next-man-up strategy only works if each player is replacing an MLB player on the injured list. Otherwise, a pitcher optioned to the minors must remain there for a minimum of 15 days.
The mass bullpen days can’t last forever. The Jays will always need a bulky opener, and by stretching Richards out as the go-to guy, Toronto spares some other key pitchers plenty of angst. With Richards confirmed as the fifth guy, Nate Pearson, for example, won’t need to fret about whether he’s opening or not. And remember, part of Pearson’s resurgence this year came from tunnel-visioning into his role in the bullpen.
Overall, adding Richards to the rotation makes things so much smoother. And if he’s locked in for four innings (or, say, a 70-pitch max), Toronto can follow with one weaker middle reliever – a Mitch White or Adam Cimber – and then break into the late-inning big boys.