Trevor Richards: From the bushes to the show

I like to attend minor league baseball games. My favorite venue is Hagerstown, where the Suns, a “Low A” affiliate of the Washington Nationals, play.

I sit behind home plate so I can focus on the pitchers. Usually, two pitchers from the opposing team sit nearby. One clocks the pitches; the other charts them.

Late in 2016 season, the Greensboro Grasshoppers, a Miami Marlins affiliate, were in town. Seated right behind me were pitchers Trevor Richards and Ben Meyer, along with an employee of the team or the organization.

Listening to their conversation before the game started, I learned that Richards had been pitching in an independent league (for the Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League, I later learned) earlier in the season. That’s because no team had drafted him. He said that one big league club (I won’t name it) indicated it would draft him but hadn’t done so.

Richards excelled for the Grizzlies in 2015. The Marlins signed him in 2016 and he debuted in their organization when “short season” ball began in June. After three appearances for Batavia, in which he fanned 15 batters in 10 innings, Miami promoted him to Greensboro. He excelled there too.

Given his outstanding performance for Greensboro, Meyer and the scout were incredulous that Richards had gone undrafted. They were also shocked to learn that Richards had not been offered a baseball scholarship by a Division I program. He ended up at Drury University in Division II.

In his last year at Drury, Richards was 8-2 with 73 strikeouts and a 1.71 ERA in 84 innings — an impressive performance but not good enough, it turned out, to warrant selection in a draft that lasted 40 rounds.

Last year, I followed Richards’ performance. He began the season with Jupiter in the Florida State League (“High A”). There, he posted 7-4 record with a 2.17 ERA, a fine 0.93 WHIP (walks plus hits allowed per inning pitched), and 81 strikeouts in 70 innings. He then moved up to Jacksonville (AA) and pitched to a 2.87 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP, again with more than a strikeout per inning.

I followed Ben Meyer last year too, not because he seemed like a prospect, but because he seemed interesting. Meyer spent his college career at the University of Minnesota, for whom his father had played. Before the Hagerstown game started, Meyer entertained, and usually stumped, his companions with trivia questions, some involving Minnesota sports.

Miami selected Meyer with its 29th pick in the 2015 draft. In 2016, when I encountered him in Hagerstown, he was pitching okay — he finished the season with a 3.62 ERA and a WHIP of 1.18. But as a late round draft pick who, at age 23, was a little old to be pitching in Low A, Meyer didn’t seem like much of a prospect.

Yet Meyer prospered last year. He began the season with Greensboro as neither a starter nor a closer — not a good sign. However, he was so effective in relief — a 2.15 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP — that the Marlins promoted him to Jupiter, and eventually made him a starter.

Meyer was as effective for Jupiter as he had been for Greensboro. His ERA in “High A” was 1.98 with a WHIP of 0.93. In July, a Miami Marlins fan page named him Marlins prospect of the month.

Meyer followed up his fine season by playing in the Arizona Fall League. In an appearance against top prospects from several clubs, including the Washington Nationals top prospect Victor Robles, he struck out six in three innings of hitless ball. His fastball was consistently around 94 miles per hour.

Despite their successes in 2017, Richards and Meyer did not rate highly in Major League Baseball’s prospect watch. Richards was named the Marlins 22nd best prospect. Meyer did not make the top 30, though he received a mention from this site. I suspect these rankings are the result of the pitchers’ ages and their inauspicious treatment in the 2015 draft.

This Spring, Meyer made the roster of Miami’s AAA affiliate. He’s one station away from “The Show.” (Yes, players still call the major leagues that, at least the minor leaguers I hear talking do).

Meanwhile, Richards made the Marlins. Not only that, he’s in the team’s starting rotation.

Richards debuted on Monday night against the Boston Red Sox. He was losing pitcher, surrendering five runs in 4 1/3 frames after he retired the first seven batters he faced. He struck out five and walked one.

Major League Baseball’s account of his performance found much to like:

Richards showed good mound presence and command, and he effectively mixed in his changeup. But in the fourth inning, he allowed three two-out runs. A swinging bunt by Xander Bogaerts started the rally. Eduardo Nunez followed with an RBI double off the third-base bag and Christian Vazquez added a two-run double off third baseman Brian Anderson’s glove.

“He had some tough breaks,” catcher Bryan Holaday said. “Infield hit to Bogaerts, and a ball that hits the bag. If that’s a foot away, maybe BA gets to it. If it’s the other way, maybe it’s a foul ball. That stuff happens. But other than that, he made some good pitches.”

In the fifth inning, Hanley Ramirez crushed a two-run homer, and Richards’ night ended on Rafael Devers’ single after 93 pitches (55 strikes). . . .

“I thought he did a great job today,” Holaday said. “He made two mistakes, and both of them cost him: the breaking ball to Vazquez, up in the zone a little bit and didn’t quite get it out there. And then the breaking ball to Hanley Ramirez.”

The case of Trevor Richards shows that even with extensive scouting, fancy tools, and advanced metrics, good prospects still fall through the cracks. Given Richards’ success in college, I suspect that more reliance on less advanced metrics, like keeping the other team from scoring, might have resulted in him at least being drafted.

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