A year ago, Clay Buchholz went to the Arizona Fall League and reinvented himself as a prospect, emphasizing his fastball and developing his slider and and rebuilding a confidence that had taken a serious hit in his first full-time stint in the major leagues.
Dustin Richardson won't need the Arizona Fall League to reinvent himself. What his stint with the Mesa Solar Sox might do, though, is put him on the map as a prospect.
The 6-foot-6 lefty right now ranks No. 25 among Red Sox prospects at SoxProspects.com -- behind Kyle Weiland, Stephen Fife, Alex Wilson and Madison Younginer. He's done something that's difficult to do when you're drafted in the fifth round by the Boston Red Sox: He's climbed to within a step of the minor leagues without becoming a household name in New England.
A big season in Arizona, though, could change all that.
"I'm trying to hold myself back on this guy because I've really been writing down some nice stuff in the game reports, but it's been well-deserved," Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson told broadcaster Dan Hoard. "You're looking at an explosive fastball from the left-hand side from a very large human who also has what they call a slider, but to me, it's a power curveball. He's been so dominant that you almost have to make a Daniel Bard comparison from the left side. He's a pretty impressive guy."
Part of the reason Richardson has flown under the radar is because he has one important thing in common with Bard: He completely washed out as a starter. He went 7-10 with a 6.33 ERA in 22 starts at Double-A Portland a year ago, and while he struck out more than a batter an inning, he allowed 19 home runs in 22 starts.
Like Bard, who had his disastrous year in 2007, Richardson embarked immediately for Hawaii. It was with the North Shore Honu that fall that he converted to the bullpen, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio immediately jumped from 2.24 to 4.33.
(Bard pitched for the Honolulu Stars in 2007 and had a 1.08 ERA in 16 2/3 innings pitching out of the bullpen. He didn't quite harness his stuff until the next spring, as evidenced by his 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but his stint in Hawaii was the first indication the Red Sox didn't just have another hard-throwing washout on their hands.)
Richardson isn't the same type of pitcher as Bard. For one thing, he doesn't have the same raw stuff: His fastball tops out at 92 miles an hour when he's pitching out of the bullpen. His curveball, though, reportedly is coming along, and there's no reason a relief pitcher can't get by with just a fastball and a curveball -- especially when he still can miss bats like Richardson can.
Here's why a Bard-Richardson duo in the bullpen, a towering lefty-righty one-two punch, has to be making Red Sox decision-makers giddy:
Bard in 2008: 12.3
Richardson in 2009: 11.5
(Richardson faced 109 lefties this year. He struck out 45 of them.)
Bard in 2008: 3.35
Richardson in 2009: 5.30
Batting average against
Bard in 2008: .159
Richardson in 2009: .186
Home runs allowed
Bard in 2008: 0.45 per 9 IP
Richardson in 2009: 0.25 per 9 IP
Richardson, like Bard, cut his ERA almost in half this season after moving from the starting rotation to the bullpen. He earned a late-season call-up to Triple-A Pawtucket and allowed just one run in 8 2/3 innings, striking out 13 and walking just two.
He's no lefty specialist, either. Righties hit just .190 off him, and he struck out 46 of the 183 batters he faced -- about 25 percent. He even had a better walk rate rate against righties (4.9 per 9 IP) than against lefties (6.0).
Buchholz rediscovered himself in Arizona a year ago, and several other pitchers made the leap from top prospects to can't-miss, get-me-to-the-majors-now prospects -- including Atlanta phenom Tommy Hanson, whose 0.63 ERA in seven starts launched him to the major leagues this season and into contention for the National League's Rookie of the Year award.
Richardson will be pitching against some of the top young players in baseball starting in early October. Names like Dustin Ackley, Yonder Alonso, Jason Heyward and Buster Posey already have appeared on preliminary AFL rosters. (Richardson won't have to throw to Florida megaprospect Mike Stanton simply because he'll be sharing a dugout with him.)
If the big lefthy can acquit himself well against competition like that, he'll be a household name like Bard before too long.