It is no fun to be Garrett Richards right now. Not too long ago, the 33-year-old Red Sox starter seemed well on his way to putting together a perfectly solid campaign. He had a 3.72 ERA after his 11th start of the season, on June 1; perhaps just as important for a pitcher who missed huge chunks of every season between 2016 and 2019, he was healthy. While he is still healthy, all the other good news has soured. Richards has started four games since June began, and now his ERA has ballooned all the way up to 4.74. His last start came two nights ago against Tampa Bay, and Richards couldn’t make it out of the second inning after getting tagged for five runs, two homers, and allowing four walks. There’s a reason why Richards is struggling lately, and he isn’t afraid to just come out and say it: He misses that sticky stuff.
“It’s changed pretty much everything for me,” Richards said to reporters after Wednesday’s start, in which he only managed to throw 28 of his 54 pitches for strikes. “I feel like I need to be a different pitcher than I have been for the last nine-and-a-half years.”
The change that Richards is referring to in that quote is MLB’s recent, sudden, somewhat obnoxious crackdown on the use of grip- and spin-enhancing sticky substances by pitchers. So far, the league’s enforcement has mostly just created spectacle—we’re all having fun watching guys drop their pants and laugh and throw fits when the umpires come to inspect their gear for substances—but it has also, as Richards demonstrates, created a real problem for a certain class of major-league pitcher.
It’s easy to think of any performance-enhancer, be it steroids or Spider Tack, as being most noticeable in the game’s more extreme outcomes. You see a swollen all-star slugger hit 63 homers and you think, “Steroids did that!” You see an ace pitcher throw a 94 mph slider and you think, “Spider Tack did that!” But those substances have always had just as much of an effect, if not a far greater one, on the players who populate the game’s lower and middle classes. Take sticky stuff out of the game and it’s likely that Shohei Ohtani is still going to figure out a way to blow people away with his stuff. Take it away from Garrett Richards, though, and you might have just authored the tweak that bumps a perfectly solid middle-of-the-rotation starter out of the league.
Richards is the exact sort of pitcher for whom experimenting with sticky stuff would be an attractive option. He’s always had solid stuff, but his struggles with consistency and control have been severe enough to prevent him from developing into a top-line starter. For a guy like Richards, who lives on the line between Decent Pitcher and Bad Pitcher, adding just a little more spin or just a little more accuracy to his pitches can make or break a season, or a career. As The Athletic points out, Richards’s repertoire has shown signs of breaking down since the sticky stuff raids have begun:
Richards’ spin rate on his curveball was down 534 rpm from his average while the slider was down 216 rpm. The sticky substances MLB has banned were used to help pitchers improve their grip on the ball and therefore make it spin faster. That makes the ball harder to hit, a big reason this season has been one of the worst offensive seasons across the board in major-league history.
Over his past three starts, Richards has allowed 15 runs, 12 earned, in 11 innings to the tune of a 9.82 ERA.The Athletic
There’s an argument to be made that those are just the breaks for a guy who was already a borderline player and had to rely on something other than his natural talent to keep his head above water. Sometimes the game changes, whether through natural evolution or the enforcement of a new rule, and those changes are always going to make life harder on players who are unable to adjust to the new normal. To Richards’s credit, he’s not really complaining about this, and seems to acknowledge that if he wants to stay in the league he’s going to have to make some mechanical adjustments and somehow figure out how to be an effective pitcher without sticky stuff. From The Athletic:
“I’d like to think I’m going to be able to get over this and figure out a way to get it done,” he said. “Like I was saying, it’s kind of, this just got brought on us real quick, so I’ve only had about a week to work on it. Some guys are figuring it out sooner than others, but for me, it’s taken a little bit more time so I’m just trying to figure it out.”The Athletic
And still, this sucks for Garrett Richards! It mostly sucks because Rob Manfred, who is always looking for ways to make baseball look as shabby as possible, decided to begin the sticky stuff inquisition in the middle of a damn season, rather than waiting until the offseason and giving pitchers time to make necessary adjustments to their grips and deliveries. Whether or not you think gunking up balls is a heinous act of cheating, there is no denying that the elimination of sticky stuff from the game will require a great many pitchers to essentially reinvent themselves. Those reinventions could have happened during the offseason, in pitching academies and on spring training fields, but now they are being forced to happen on the fly, in meaningful games. Guys like Richards have to suffer the humiliation and potential career damage that comes with that.