The number of pitches better than Trevor Richards’ changeup this season can probably be counted on the 10 long fingers that let the starting pitcher throw his signature pitch so effectively.
Heading into the Miami Marlins’ three-game series against the Washington Nationals, which kicks off at 7:10 p.m. on Friday at Marlins Park, Richards’ changeup has been one of the toughest pitches to hit this MLB season. So far this year, Richards has induced 46 total swinging strikes, 15th most in the majors, and the 28 against his changeup, making the pitch he throws most frequently a top-10 pitch in terms of getting swings and misses. Both lists of pitchers ahead of him are populated with familiar names like Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole.
On a starting staff loaded with formerly heralded prospects, Richards is an exception. The 25-year-old didn’t have Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school and went undrafted out of college, landing with the Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League, his devastating changeup always overlooked because of his below-average fastball and lack of a breaking ball.
He’s a more complete pitcher for the Marlins (4-15) than he was when he spent a year and a half in an independent league in Sauget, Illinois, but his 3.51 ERA and 21 strikeouts are still possible because of one of the filthiest changeups in baseball.
Where it came from
The changeup probably would have always come along for Richards, but he can thank its origins to a rainy day in Aviston, Illinois. Richards was a sixth-grader at Aviston Elementary, pitching for the school’s new middle school baseball team and with the field unusable one of the first days of practice was spent improvising.
“I remember teaching the changeup to all these pitchers on the blacktop because the field was all muddy,” said Jason Rakers, who coached Richards at Aviston, then at Mater Dei High School in Breese, Illinois. “There was nothing we could do but get some footwork in on ground balls and work on changeups.”
Immediately, Richards’ stood out. The right-handed pitcher always had the basic frame you would expect — he was tall for his age and he still is lanky at 6-2 — and his long fingers let him throw pitches that moved more than his peers’. His changeup was the perfect example, always down and in on right-handed batters like some confused slider.
“One of my coaches just taught me the basics of the change, and I just adjusted it from there,” Richards said. “I moved it around in my hand and started getting downward movement on it, and I really kept it ever since.”
He stuck with it all through high school and college, maybe even to his detriment. The pitcher had to settle for playing at Division II Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, because he had no reliable breaking ball. Even in college, Richards could get by with just his fastball and changeup, so he went undrafted.
All the while, he perfected this evil pitch, which dove in on righties like he was a left-handed pitcher throwing a breaking ball. As a senior at Mater Dei, he struck out 92 batters with a 1.07 ERA in 58 2/3 innings. He finished his career at Drury second in program history with 230 strikeouts and a 2.96 ERA.
“They just see, ‘Oh, you’re throwing a bad slider and you’re 91, I’m not going to draft you.’ They want that breaking ball to swing and miss, but what they missed was the changeup was better than most guys’ breaking balls,” Panthers coach Scott Nasby said. “It was like recruiting a guy who’s got great command of a fastball and a slider, but has no changeup. Well, they’re going to take that guy, but unfortunately they didn’t do that with the fastball-changeup guy.”
How he throws it
Richards insists there’s nothing strange about the way he grips his changeup and, for the most part, he’s right.
Not much has changed from the circle grip he was taught more than a decade ago, except for the position of his thumb, which has drifted to the bottom side of the ball because his hand is big enough to let his middle and ring fingers do most of the work.
“You don’t visually see the circle,” Richards said. “It’s a little bit different, but it’s nothing weird.”
The natural result of this hand placement is rotation of his wrist — pronating, as it’s called by pitchers and pitching coaches. The righty ends up releasing the ball with his right palm facing away from his body, and because his fingers are so long and strong he can remove his pinkie from the equation almost entirely. Richards whips the ball toward the plate with the middle and ring fingers, which leads to his unusual spin rate and the unusual movement.
“He can get that middle finger and keep that on there a little longer than most guys, and get that rotation,” Rakers said, “so his acted as more of a breaking ball than a changeup.”
At Drury, Nasby likes to let his catchers call games, so the coaching staff would chart pitches from the dugout. No player was tougher to chart than Richards.
“If you watch him from the side, really even now, you don’t know he’s throwing a changeup,” Nasby said. “We’re trying to chart pitches, it’s like, Is that a slider or changeup?”
Why it’s great
The Marlins weren’t in Evansville, Indiana, to watch Richards pitch on the day they discovered the intriguing right-hander. As the story goes, Miami sent a scout to Bosse Field, coincidentally located at 23 Don Mattingly Way in the manager’s hometown, to watch the starter for the Evansville Otters, and Richards caught the scout’s eye.
After the game, the scout asked about some of Richards’ metrics.
“When they found out his spin rate was that they were like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good,’” Grizzlies pitching coach Randy Martz said. “They were willing to take a chance.”
He moved up through four levels to Triple A New Orleans in less than two seasons and got the call to the Marlins after just six starts for the New Orleans Baby Cakes. Now it’s easier to access the data of just how good his pitch is.
The key is the spin rate. Heading into his fifth start Sunday against the Nationals (8-8) in Miami, Richards’ average spin rate of 2,392 rpm is almost 100 rpm more than the next closest changeup from a pitcher who has thrown the pitch at least 50 times in 2019, and would rank in the top 50 for fastball spin rates and top 100 for breaking balls.
Richards’ four-seam fastball spins at 2,193 rpm.
“His index finger isn’t really on the baseball when he throws it, so he’s able to generate that type of spin,” Nasby said. “No one can recognize it until 46 feet or 50 feet.”
As good as his changeup is, his whiff rate of 35.9 percent on his fastball is actually higher than the 34.5 percent on his changeup because the two can be so difficult to distinguish. Largely, it’s because his changeup spins as fast as most fastballs, but it’s also in his delivery. There are no tells in his wind-up, no change of arm speed to watch for.
“You can’t tell because his arm speed’s the same as his fastball. That’s what was really the tell tale that this guy’s got a signature pitch. You don’t see many guys like that,” Martz said. “I’ve had a bunch of guys sign, pitchers sign, but he was one of the better guys because that signature pitch is one of the best pitches in baseball now.”