When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player. Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense. Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question. But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out. So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.Embed from Getty Images
Garrett Richards was a 1st round pick (42nd overall) by the Angels in the 2009 draft out of the University of Oklahoma and he was expected to help out the big league club sooner rather than later. See what I did there? He showed some glimpses of becoming a mid to top of the rotation starter while he was in the Minors, but as he advanced to the upper levels his walk rate went up and strikeout rate went down. The same trend continued when he reached the Major League level in 2011 working as a spot starter and reliever down the stretch. Things did not get much better when he continued that same role in 2012. From 2011-12, Richards had a 4.87 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 5.93 K/9, and 4.34 BB/9 in 85 IP. When a pitcher’s strikeout rate is barely higher than his walk rate that poses as a serious problem, especially when that pitcher has a fastball that sits at 95 MPH on average.
In 2013, Richards pretty much split his time evenly as a reliever and a starter and ended up showing some decent improvements in his peripherals. Though his end of the season ERA sat at 4.16, his xFIP was at 3.58 and he gave up home runs at a decreased rate, induced a lot of groundballs, and both his strikeout and walk rates trended in a positive direction (6.27 K/9 and 2.73 BB/9). The strikeout rate still wasn’t what one would expect out of a pitcher with Richards’ gas, but at that point any positive change in his profile was worth taking and it was a combination of all those things that made him a deep sleeper for 2014.
In his age 26 season in 2014, Richards was able to put it all together to become a complete pitcher. His velocity saw a big bump going from 94.8 MPH on his average fastball in 2013 to 96.3 MPH in 2014. The increased velocity and better command of his slider led to his strikeout rate skyrocketing to 8.75 K/9. Also a big reason for his breakout year was his impressive ability to keep the ball in the park. Richards led the Majors with a miniscule HR allowed rate of 0.27 HR/9. Perhaps Richards was a bit on the lucky side regarding the balls that were put in play against him as his BABIP was well below the league average (especially for a groundball pitcher) at .264, but his FIP at 2.60 was nearly identical to his actual ERA at 2.61. Unfortunately for the righty, his season came to an abrupt halt when he tore his patella tendon covering first base on a ground ball. Though the injury was a devastating occurrence for Richards, the Angels, and fantasy owners round the world, all parties should have been very pleased with what he was able to accomplish. Richards finished the season establishing himself as the ace of a division champion team and going 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.75 K/9, and 2.72 BB/9 in 168.2 IP.