PORT CHARLOTTE — Baseball always knew where to find Trevor Richards. It just didn’t necessarily care.
He had a 1.07 ERA as a high school senior in Illinois, but didn’t get drafted and didn’t get a Division I scholarship offer. He went 24-12 at Drury University in Missouri but was not among the 631 pitchers drafted by Major League teams in 2015.
“You go to a small, Division II college and see a guy throwing 88 mph with one off-speed pitch, you’re not going to pick up the phone and call the front office about it,’’ Richards said. “And I understood that. I was okay with that.’’
Which is why springtime meant something totally different to Richards in 2016. He was living with his parents, filling in as a substitute for a fourth-grade teacher on maternity leave, and pondering whether to follow through on his application with the United States Border Patrol.
That’s when his soon-to-be wife told him he really should keep playing baseball if that was where his heart was, and so Richards re-signed for chump change with an independent league team in a suburb of St. Louis. As fate would have it, a Marlins scout went to watch the pitcher on an opposing team in a Frontier League game and came away more impressed with Richards and his wicked changeup.
Two years later he was pitching in the majors for the Marlins, three years later he went 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA for the Rays down the stretch and now he could be a valuable insurance policy as a hybrid long reliever/starter/bulk guy for Tampa Bay.
As for those 631 pitchers who were drafted instead of Richards in 2015?
Only 62 have made the majors. And only two have won more big league games than Richards.
“It doesn’t sound like a long road,’’ he said, “but there were a lot of stops along the way.’’
Some of the journey is explainable, some of it is not. For instance, Richards is not going to make radar guns hum. His average fastball last season was 91.2 mph according to fangraphs.com, which puts him near the bottom of the heap for starting pitchers. And yet he throws his fastball more frequently than most.
What scouts failed to recognize was the potential of his changeup. He threw it on 38.3 percent of his pitches in 2019, which was the most in the majors among starters. And while there’s only about a 7-8 mph discrepancy in speed between his fastball and changeup, the pitch tumbles down-and-in on righthanded hitters (away from lefties) and gets an unusually high number of swing-and-misses.
“We’ve had some guys here at different points, (Jeremy) Hellickson and (James) Shields and even (Alex) Cobb, with different variations of that pitch,’’ said Rays general manager Erik Neander. “It’s not always about the speed differential, but also the action, being able to set it up and getting the thing to turn over. He finds a way. And he (disguises) it good. It’s been his bread and butter.’’
At 26, he seems older. And maybe that’s due to the prematurely grey head of hair, but it’s also the way he pitches. Entering what should be the prime of his career, Richards has the aura of a weathered veteran tiptoeing his way past hitters. There are times, when teams lay off the changeup, that he looks like he could be one misplaced fastball from disaster.
And that explains why he is ready to expand his repertoire. He threw fastballs and changeups on 82 percent of his pitches last season, which is a ridiculously high amount for a guy throwing multiple innings with below-average heat.
So Richards spent the off-season refining his slider and threw a handful of impressive pitches in his spring debut on Saturday against the Red Sox.
“The slider is what we’ve taken notice of in his bullpens and we feel it’s going to be a bigger weapon for him going forward,’’ pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “Historically, he’s had that 1-2 punch with the fastball and changeup and this will just give hitters something else to consider. I’m encouraged by where Trevor is.’’
What cannot be overlooked is that Richards has always succeeded. From the time he was taught the changeup as sixth-grader in Illinois, Richards has been able to keep hitters off-balance. His stats in college were good but not eye-popping, just like in independent ball and just like in Miami’s minor league system.
“I’ve never over-powered guys. I’ve had to mix up counts and pitches and keep the hitter off balance. That’s how I’ve pitched my whole life and it’s what worked for me,’’ Richards said. “Now I’m facing the best hitters in the world. So I have to get better and better. I can’t be the guy who just throws fastballs and changeups. I want a full arsenal. The changeup is still my go-to pitch, but if I have other pitches they have to keep in their head it’s going to make it a little harder for hitters.’’
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.