How Woods Richardson boosted his velocity

March 3rd, 2024

Unless a person watching deliver the pitch to Juan Soto on Monday was one of the pitching development staffers who had already been working closely with him for a month, or his pitching coach, or perhaps a prospect enthusiast, the roughly six-inch drop in his release point might not have been immediately apparent.

What would have been apparent, though, was the reading on the radar gun: 94.5 mph.

That matched the hardest Statcast-tracked pitch Woods Richardson had thrown at any point during the 2023 season, and his two pitches thrown at 94 mph or harder in just one 17-pitch outing already surpassed his total of such tracked pitches from all of last season.

That’s not just the product of an offseason of rest perhaps providing the young right-hander some extra zip in that arm. It’s the result of an offseason of meaningful work and a key tweak to the delivery, a slight lowering of the arm slot that the Twins hope will get Woods Richardson’s stuff closer to the high-end stuff that had once made him such a tantalizing pitching prospect.

“At some point along the line, I think, being so far up top [with the release], that kind of hindered velocity potential and hindered almost just being able to move properly down the hill,” Woods Richardson said.

After the Twins and Woods Richardson identified that his arm slot had slowly crept up over the course of two years, to a nearly fully over-the-top delivery that perhaps helped his deception but lowered his fastball velocity, he made the necessary subtle tweak to bring that release point back down, to a more natural and athletic arm angle.

He followed that up with the necessary physical work to start locking it in, arriving at the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers, Fla., in mid-January, a month before he needed to report to camp, to start building muscle memory and strengthening his body to accommodate the new action. The velocity naturally ticked up in his bullpen sessions -- and now, the Twins are watching his numbers in his actual starts with renewed intrigue.

“This change with him buying fully in and coming down early has been a huge testament to him,” said Triple-A pitching coach Peter Larson. “When I came in mid- to early January, he was already here rocking, and he was in a great spot and bought in on all the drill work.”

At one point, before Woods Richardson’s fastball velocity noticeably dipped to the roughly 90-91 mph it averaged in his final few starts of the 2023 season in Triple-A, he’d been a highly regarded Top 100 pitching prospect, coveted to the point that he was one of the centerpieces of not one, but two major trades: the 2019 Marcus Stroman trade and the 2021 José Berríos trade.

But that velocity dip from the 92-94 mph range slowed his prospect momentum a bit -- as did the 7.47 ERA he posted through the end of June 2023 as he greatly struggled with hits and control while pitching out of the Triple-A rotation in St. Paul, only making one big league appearance despite being on the 40-man roster all season long.

He finished 2023 having fallen all the way to the No. 17 slot in the Twins’ prospect rankings -- and a pivotal offseason that awaited after he righted the ship in the second half. To Woods Richardson’s credit, he took advantage.

“I think the cool part was, this offseason, we heard that maybe more so than any other offseason, his focus about the things he wanted to do from a strength and conditioning standpoint and making sure his body was right where it needed to be, and the work that he's trying to do on the pitching side, it was all syncing up,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said.

The 93.1 mph that Woods Richardson averaged with his fastball in that outing against the Yankees on Monday -- including an impressive strikeout of Soto -- was a good start, and he replicated that mark with another 93.1 mph average and an even better 94.8 mph peak in two innings against the Rays in Minnesota's 4-4 tie on Sunday.

Now, the Twins need to see him maintain that across longer outings, with the hope that this helps him get back to the consistency he had before the COVID-shortened 2020 season and before the trade to Minnesota.

It didn’t help that Woods Richardson had a long layoff in 2021, when he traveled to Tokyo for the Olympics as part of Team USA but did not pitch, then had another long layoff in 2022, when he spent a month on the IL with COVID-19.

“He would flash [it], we would see peaks, even when I had him in ‘22, we’d see some good velo, and then he just wasn't able to consistently maintain it,” Larson said. “I think this just frees up his arm path and allows for that to come a little more naturally to him.”

Not only does added velocity give Woods Richardson more margin for error, but the changed arm slot perhaps takes some cut off his fastball, adds a bit more depth to the good changeup, and tweaks the movement profile a bit of the curveball that the Twins hope will be more of a factor for the young right-hander this season in addition to the slider.

It’s easy to forget that Woods Richardson is still only 23 because he entered the picture so early, but this will be a pivotal year for him, especially because there could be opportunity given the relative lack of depth in the rotation behind Anthony DeSclafani and Louie Varland.

Could this be what pushes him firmly back into that picture?

“If he can hold that kind of stuff, then I think he's got a real shot to make and impact the big leagues,” Falvey said. “He was always on our board as a 'depth starter.' … He looked at himself and said, like, ‘I've got to do something to push that forward.’ And he went and did it.”