During a first full professional season in which he's tried to solidify his routine and make his mark on the hill every five days, Woods Richardson had a wrench thrown into his plans to keep everything as consistent as possible. But when he broke the news to his family that he'd be switching organizations, there wasn't any sullen tone in the conversation. In fact, he and his parents were pretty upbeat about the transition.
"I love that they were there with me, instead of by myself, because I had all of my stuff. It played out perfectly, for them to just turn back around and drive to Dunedin," Woods Richardson said. "I said, 'Hey, this is nothing bad, but I just got traded.' And they're like, 'To who?' I said, 'The Blue Jays.' They said, 'That's not necessarily a bad thing. You were in the Marcus Stroman trade, so take it as a great honor.'
"So that's something that I look at the bright side of. Like, hey, the trade isn't a bad thing -- it's actually a great thing. It's a new opportunity for something else. This is what I've been given so far."
In a way, Woods Richardson saw the move to the Blue Jays organization as meant to be, although it happened a little later than expected. In the days leading up to the 2018 Draft, the Sugar Land, Texas, native was talking with Toronto's Houston-area scouts and other members of the organization, who said they planned on selecting him if they had the opportunity. But it was the Mets that used their pick to take the 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-hander out of Kempner High School in the second round.
Video: Fireflies' Woods Richardson fans career-high eighth
A little over a year later, though, and Woods Richardson has found himself with the Blue Jays, on a Dunedin squad that won the North Division's first half and will compete in the postseason.
"Perfect -- they loved me before I got drafted by the Mets," Woods Richardson said. "I knew this was a great organization, so I knew everything was going to be set in stone. It was a blessing in disguise."
The feeling was mutual for the Blue Jays, who were excited to add the confident strike thrower who can rear back on his 60-grade fastball and reach the mid-to-high 90s.
"Going off of his background and getting some information from some of our scouts and other sources, just for one thing, [he] is a great guy," Blue Jays pitching coordinator Jeff Ware said. "He's a very professional kid, especially for being so young. There are so many good things about him. He's got a lot of energy, he's a coachable guy, he can pound the strike zone and he's athletic. It's a long list of good things."
Still 18 years old for another month and a half, the newly minted No. 7 Toronto prospect doesn't want to have his youth equated with inexperience or unpreparedness for the moment. Sure, he's one of three players (along with top overall prospect Wander Franco) to compete in the FSL during an age 18 season this year, but he knows he has the arsenal and tools to be a top pitcher on the circuit, even if he's only there for the next month or so.
"People tell me I'm such a kid here and there. Well, I can't help it, man. I can't help it," Woods Richardson said. "It's been a whirlwind, but finding my routine has definitely been the biggest thing for me this year. Finding myself as a pitcher, developing stuff I need to work on."
And from the outset of the season, Woods Richardson had the chance to showcase why the Mets took had enough confidence in him to start his year at Class A Columbia. Last year, in his first 17 1/3 innings as a professional between the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues, Richardson leaned on his impressive fastball and whiffed 26 batters while keeping his ERA down at 1.56.
He easily could have been kept in Rookie Advanced or Class A Short Season Brooklyn to start 2019, but Woods Richardson displayed enough progress to warrant a shot at the South Atlantic League. Even if a full season might seem daunting to a teenager one year removed from high school, Woods Richardson has competed year-round as a baseball player since he was 15 and was athletic enough to be a two-way player until becoming a full-time pitcher. So this wouldn't be much different, in terms of what he'd be asking of his body.
Woods Richardson had a 4.25 ERA in the South Atlantic League. (Columbia Fireflies)
His first month with the Fireflies nearly mirrored his Rookie ball performance, as Woods Richardson owned a 1.23 ERA and 0.75 WHIP with 22 strikeouts in 14 2/3 frames. Someone who considers walks one of his biggest pet peeves, Woods Richardson made sure to not allow a single free pass in his five starts. April made it proof-positive that the young starter was ready for Class A hitters.
Yet May brought its own set of challenges, and Woods Richardson had his first extended period of rocky outings. He began the month with four consecutive starts of allowing five earned runs and eventually saw his ERA balloon to 10.89 over six May outings.
It can be tough to judge basic counting stats and numbers such as ERA and WHIP with developing defenses behind young arms at the lower levels of the Minors, but Woods Richardson could tell things got a little wonky without looking at the statistics. It didn't take any epiphany or major overhauls to get him back on track, though. He stayed focused on the little things that would benefit him in the long run.
"Just allowing myself to trust all my pitches and mechanics and stuff like that. It wasn't anything I was doing behind the scenes," Woods Richardson said. "It was just simple stuff that I overthought. ... And once I started having trust in it, I'm starting to put away pitches, now I'm starting to strike out more guys, I'm trying to create more early contact. If I pitch my game, I'm pretty damn good."
Good was all he was after that month, considering that during his final nine starts in the Mets system he struck out 53, owned a 2.09 ERA and walked only 10. Although May elevated his total ERA to 4.25, his peripheral numbers painted a rosier picture. According to Fangraphs, Woods Richardson kept a tidy 2.56 FIP and 2.28 xFIP with Columbia. With a 5.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio, he held his own despite some bad luck (.356 BABIP).
But the rocky May put Woods Richardson's need to further develop his breaking stuff into even clearer focus. His curveball and slider tended to blend together as one offering, so his main point of emphasis has been to define each pitch as its own, giving him a more potent four-pitch mix (fastball, changeup, curveball, slider). He's still in the process of refining it all, but he's taken steps toward making this repertoire more of a reality.
"It's very important, because you can't get away with 'just fastball.' You have to spot all your pitches," Woods Richardson said. "Developing that and making sure that I throw it for a strike with all four of those pitches is a big deal for me."
Toronto's goal is to reign in his "work-in-process" breaking stuff with the resources available in Dunedin and throughout the organization. Ware said the ideal scenario involves incorporating the data -- from Trackman and the like that they have set up at all their facilities -- and using all the possible information to make Woods Richardson's strengths even better.
"He's got a great fastball, and to be able to throw strikes at a young age, at a high level in professional baseball... And when I say 'high level,' ... at 18, 19 years old, the Florida State League is a relatively high level," Ware said. "We're looking forward to seeing him grow, learn how to pitch, understand professional routine and things like that -- understanding his pitch data, getting our staff to understand his pitch data, so they can work together and he can be the best pitcher he can possibly be."
Woods Richardson fanned 97 over 78 1/3 Class A innings. (Columbia Fireflies)
Moving away from home to play pro ball as a teenager can be a tough enough transition in of itself. Add in a trade and whole new group of teammates to get acquainted with, and there's another layer of adjustments to make. But Woods Richardson is familiar with Texas natives in the Toronto system in Kacy Clemens, Jordan Groshans and Adam Kloffenstein, and they've help him learn the ins and outs of the organization.
"It's great, because you have a home away from home," he said. "You get to pick their brains, talk the same lingo, just share funny stuff and have a great time and not just worry about baseball 24/7. ... You can have a nice conversation with them."
The Blue Jays try to foster those relationships among all of young players, and especially those like Woods Richardson who have come over from another team. As Woods Richardson is learning about the Blue Jays and vice versa, Ware's goal is to have the pitcher get more comfortable with his surroundings.
2019 MiLB include
"Being great teammates, helping each other and great work ethic... I think that's part of our strength as an organization," Ware said. "And we're going to make him feel as welcome as possible and build a relationship with him."
Woods Richardson did his part to ingratiate himself with Dunedin, striking out five in his first 3 2/3 innings in the FSL. He dominated through three scoreless frames but then was touched up for three runs before being removed in the fourth. Ware said it was a case of Woods Richardson using too many secondary offerings and maybe straying away from the game plan in that last inning. The hurler was pleased with holding Bradenton to one hit, but he walked four in that brief FSL debut.
"That's something that I hate doing, walking people..." Woods Richardson said. "But that'll be fixed next outing [Wednesday]."
Consider that a goal achieved. Up against Clearwater, he didn't walk anybody while fanning eight and shrugging off three runs over the first two frames to turn in five solid innings.
As the regular season winds down with the postseason right around the corner, Woods Richardson figures to pitch in September and compete for a title with Dunedin. But a win-or-go-home scenario at a new level won't shake the confidence of the FSL's youngest pitcher.
"That's something that I want to contribute to and give everything I have in that playoff push," Woods Richardson said. "I pitch my best games under pressure. Anything high leverage, high pressure, I do my best work."