Trevor Richards, the Blue Jays’ pocketknife reliever, cherishes his unusual rise to MLB

TORONTO — After getting ahead 0-2, Trevor Richards missed with a few pitches to the Los Angeles Angels’ Mickey Moniak. He was now facing a 3-2 count with the bases loaded, two outs in the sixth inning and the Blue Jays leading by one. Richards knew what he had to do.

The right-hander dotted the upper outside corner of the strike zone with a changeup that froze the Angels’ outfielder. The usually stoic Richards bounded off the mound, punched his fist into his glove and strutted towards the dugout.

“It’s a good feeling when you get out of it,” he said, reflecting on the July 29 game.

Richards would come back out for the seventh inning that evening and strike out the side. Four batters. Four strikeouts. It’s the sort of commanding and efficient outing that’s been commonplace for the right-hander during a season in which he’s gone from on the bullpen bubble to one of the Blue Jays’ most reliable relievers. He’s also been the pitching staff’s jackknife, willing to make spot starts, pitch multiple innings or step into high-leverage opportunities and deliver.

“He’s been the glue to our pitching staff,” said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “He’s done everything that we’ve asked of him, and he’s done extremely well. So I just think he’s been one of our most valuable pitchers this year when you look at it from a numbers standpoint, obviously, but also just from the ability to keep our bullpen healthy at times and to pick up some big innings for us.”

Richards, on track to come off the injured list during the series in Cincinnati after missing time with neck inflammation, has a 2.98 ERA in 54 1/3 innings pitched this season. He’s slimmed down his pitch mix, dropping his breaking ball to focus on his wicked changeup-fastball combination that’s made him one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game. His career-best 36.9 percent strikeout rate ranks in the 98th percentile in MLB, per Statcast, while his chase rate is in the 99th percentile.

Richards has that changeup to thank for the fact that he’s even pitching in the big leagues. From pitching in independent ball in midwestern America to holding down leads in an MLB playoff chase, Richards’ path to the majors is one of perseverance, and yes, a little luck thanks to a scout being in the right place at the right time. His story is fit for a Hollywood script and that’s why it’s made Richards and his family keenly aware of savouring every single minute of it.

“We have a different outlook than a lot of people,” he said. “We didn’t think we’d be here and we are, and just grateful for it and enjoy it. Try to enjoy the ride as best you can because it very easily could have gone a lot different.”

Richards grew up in Aviston, Ill., a small farming community that sits about an hour outside of St. Louis. An active, sports-loving kid, Richards excelled at baseball, basketball and soccer. His favourite of those three? That depended on what season he was in.

“If it’s summer, it’s all baseball. If it’s winter, it’s all basketball. If it’s fall, it’s all soccer,” he said, sitting in the Blue Jays dugout last month. “That’s how I was.”

When Richards was 12 years old and first started pitching, his coach didn’t allow the kids to throw curveballs, so a young Richards — much like the current Richards — threw a fastball and a changeup, and only a fastball and a changeup. And it worked.

“I got to high school and tried to start throwing curveballs and stuff but couldn’t,” said Richards, who’s waged a life-long battle with throwing the breaking ball. “I just stuck with what I was doing. And along the way, changeup tweaked here and there a little bit, but overall it’s the same thing and I just stuck with it and kept throwing it.”

As a high school senior, Richards had a 1.07 ERA, but he didn’t possess big velocity or a nasty breaking pitch. He was more concerned with college scouts seeing him than catching the eye of someone wearing an MLB team logo. He got a scholarship to pitch at Drury University, a NCAA Division II program in Springfield, Mo. But when his senior year of college rolled around, Richards wasn’t among the 631 pitchers drafted by MLB teams in 2015. This hadn’t necessarily come as a surprise to Richards, either.

“I wasn’t getting a bunch of scouts or anything at games, I wasn’t getting phone calls. I didn’t have crazy stuff. I threw 88 (mph) probably on a good day,” he said. “I wasn’t too concerned about it.”

But Richards still wanted to pitch. And he believed there was a chance — however slim — that he could still make it to the big leagues a different way. So, after he finished college, earning a degree in criminology, he signed a contract with the Gateway Grizzlies, of the independent Frontier League.

Richards lived with his parents and made the 30-minute drive to the Grizzlies ballpark. Independent league players don’t make a lot of money, but Richards didn’t need much. As long as he had enough money to pay for gas, he was going to pitch.

“I was free to play baseball,” he said. “My parents allowed me to do that and I’m grateful for that. I just wanted to play a little longer and see what happened.”

David Espinosa made the mistake all scouts dread. He read the schedule incorrectly.

The former Miami Marlins scout was in Kansas City, Kan., in the summer of 2016, planning to watch a Frontier League game between the Evansville Otters and Gateway Grizzlies, which he thought was based nearby in Sauget, Ill.

Except the Grizzlies weren’t at home. They were playing in Evansville, Ind. What Espinosa expected to be a simple four-hour drive had become an eight-hour trek.

But Espinosa felt obligated to go. Two Evansville relievers had specifically been slated to pitch in that night’s game because he would be in attendance. So, he got in his car, stopped only for the McDonald’s drive-thru and made it for the first pitch.

His dedication would be rewarded, although not in the way he anticipated. Those two relievers didn’t pan out, but Espinosa noticed Gateway’s crafty starter who was throwing a fastball and changeup and making guys look bad.

“After the first inning, I was like, ‘Wait a second. This looks really good. That’s a nasty changeup,’” Espinosa recalled of his first time watching Richards.

Espinosa is a former first-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds, who reached as high as Triple A. When he switched gears to pursue a bachelor’s degree, Espinosa played independent baseball and was impressed by the quality of the competition. That’s why, when he made the transition to scouting, he took an interest in finding hidden gems.

“People think indy ball is like a glorified men’s league,” he said. “And there’s legitimate major-league talent in those leagues and (it’s) just not really being tapped into.”

In Richards, Espinosa immediately saw legitimate major-league talent.

“When I saw Trevor I thought, ‘Man, that reminds me of Fernando Rodney’s changeup,’” he said. “It just looks like it spins fast, but it has action and it’s late.”

Not long before Espinosa saw him pitch, Richards had contemplated quitting. After one summer of independent baseball, he felt it might be time to get a better-paying job. He began the application process to become a U.S. border guard, but after discussions with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Aunna, they both decided he’d pitch another season.

When Espinosa sent video of Richards to decision-makers in the Marlins organization they all agreed Richards was worth pursuing. About two weeks later, after a trade led to a need for a multi-inning pitcher in their minor-league system, the Marlins purchased Richards’ contract.

When Richards got word from his indy ball manager, he was stunned.

“We weren’t anticipating it at all. And it all happened really fast,” he said.

In the deal, Richards got a free flight to Jupiter, Fla., and, more importantly, the opportunity he’d been waiting for. After a few days of working out at the Marlins spring training facility, they sent him to their short-season Low-A team in Batavia, N.Y.

Richards was 23 years old. He was a mature prospect — and not just because of his greying hair — and he rocketed up the Marlins’ system. He was still a starter then and in 2017, he was the Marlins’ minor-league pitcher of the year. By April 2018, he’d made his MLB debut.

Richards made 45 starts for Miami in 2018-19. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

After Richards joined the Marlins, Espinosa got a call from legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons, who told Espinosa he thought it was ironic that a former first-round pick who never played in the big leagues had signed a guy out of independent ball who did.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, that’s so true,’” said Espinosa who still keeps in touch with Richards periodically. “I never thought that a first-round pick should automatically play in the big leagues. I never thought like that. I don’t think like that now, I never thought like that then. I always thought the best players play in the big leagues and the most deserving that earn it. And I felt like this kid had enough.”

Even after six years in the big leagues, Richards and his wife, who had their first daughter, Tallulah, earlier this year, think about the very different lives they could have led. Perhaps somewhere, in alternate universes, Richards works at a brewery or an elementary school or a U.S. border crossing. It makes them especially appreciative of the life they are living.

“Baseball is a game and no matter what happens, I go home, she doesn’t know if I did bad, great, good,” Richards said of his daughter. “She’s a six-month-old baby that yells and screams when she wants to talk. She’s awesome. She definitely changed our lives. Just day-to-day, she keeps us busy and keeps us in the moment a little bit more.”

Staying in the moment and appreciating each day has helped Richards excel in the Toronto bullpen, too. When he made the transition from starter to reliever in 2021, first with the Rays, then the Brewers and finally the Blue Jays, he learned he liked the adrenaline of short-burst outings. He also liked that as a reliever, he could keep a short memory.

“You give up one or you have a rough one or whatever, you could throw again tomorrow. If not, you’ll probably throw the next day. Whereas (as a) starter you have a rough one, you got to sit on it for four or five days. And that is never fun,” he said.

This season, there haven’t been many rough ones for Richards, though.

Remember that life-long battle he’d waged with the breaking ball? He finally waved the white flag and dropped it from his repertoire. (Asked if he called it a curveball or slider, Richards said with a laugh, “It was neither.”) In theory, the third pitch gave batters another look. But a year ago, during a season in which his underlying numbers looked good but his results did not, Richards wasn’t landing the pitch for strikes.

The Blue Jays and Richards determined this season that he would only throw two pitches and he would throw his best one, his changeup, more often. At nearly 57 percent usage, Richards is throwing his changeup more than ever, and yet batters still can’t hit it. Per Statcast’s Run Value, his changeup stacks up as one of the best in all of baseball and opposing hitters are batting just .127 against it.

Working in tandem with the changeup, which is equally effective against righties and lefties, is his four-seam fastball, which averages 93 mph, but plays up as it interacts with his 83-mph offspeed pitch. Both pitches look the same coming out of his hand, but as his fastball rises, his changeup tumbles, leading to plenty of ugly swings and misses. While Walker said Richards’ feel for his changeup is elite, Walker credits his 2023 success to attacking hitters and improved fastball command, locating it at the top and bottom of the strike zone consistently.

“When he’s sticking his fastball and he’s getting ahead in the count, and he’s getting his fastball to the right locations, the changeup is going to play,” Walker said.

Richards’ team-high strikeout rate and ability to take the ball in any situation this season have led to manager John Schneider calling him “as big as a contributor that we’ve had.”

“He’s really unique,” Schneider said. “He’s almost better the more he pitches. It’s really cool to see him evolve and answer the bell, but he’s been so valuable for us.”

A bullpen tends to be its own little ecosystem with its mix of pitchers with different stuff, unique methods and distinct personalities who all work together to create a harmonious state. In a Blue Jays’ pen that’s putting up elite results, Richards is the even-keel guy. He’s quiet, speaks softly, but is intensely competitive. He takes public transit to and from games sometimes, has a sweet tooth — AirHeads is a personal fave — and is an avid fan of the Premier League club, Everton F.C. On plane rides, he enjoys playing a simulated computer game where he acts as a soccer general manager in a fictional league.

“I don’t know anything about soccer,” said closer Jordan Romano. “But I’m always like, ‘Hey Trev, make any moves today?’ He’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I put this guy here. He wasn’t performing. I traded for this guy.’”

“I know some guys will look over and maybe see what he has going on, but you don’t really bother him too much,” lefty Tim Mayza said. “He goes into his alternate universe of being a soccer general manager.”

And when he returns to this universe, Richards is a father and a successful major-league pitcher, living a life he’s truly grateful for.

“We just take it a day at a time and just are grateful that we’re here, that we get to experience the things we do. We’ve seen a lot of places and a lot of different things and have loved the ride,” Richards said of his family. “As a pitcher, I think it’s just kept me in the moment a little bit more … to not worry so much about what’s going on outside of the field and know that if all goes wrong, worst-case scenario, I have to go home and I have a family that I love and a family that loves me.”

(Top photo of Richards: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

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