All that time he spent with his parents, listening to oldies and making his own fun as an only child, facilitated a quick maturation. Woods Richardson started school a year early and aced the annual tests he’d take to stay a grade-year ahead. That meant he reached Kempner High School as a five-foot-four, 120-pound 14-year-old who couldn’t crack Marcus Jones’s varsity baseball team. “He was pretty non-descript as a freshman. Good player, hustled, but not a standout,” the former Kempner head coach says. “But then he comes back as a sophomore and it’s like he’s a different person. I said, ‘Sim, is that you?’”
A sudden growth spurt in the summer between freshman and sophomore year shot Woods Richardson up eight inches and added more than 40 pounds. The new size boosted his fastball nearly 15-m.p.h., allowing him to touch 90 at area code games that summer. When Woods Richardson told Jones how hard he was throwing, his coach didn’t believe it. Then he watched Woods Richardson throw his first bullpen of the season. “That was my middle son’s senior year and coming in he was going to be our No. 1 starter,” Jones says. “Then I watched Sim throw and had to tell him, ‘Son, you just lost your job.’”
There was no denying him. In his first varsity start, a 15-year-old Woods Richardson threw a complete game against a team of mostly seniors, allowing one run while striking out 13. The next time out he did one better, striking out 13 again, but this time in a shutout. Woods Richardson went on to give up only that lone earned run through his eight regular-season starts that year, striking out 79 over 42 innings while competing against players three year’s older than him.
It was around then that baseball got pretty serious, with Woods Richardson playing nearly year-round between high school, summer travel ball, and various showcase circuits. Often, the Woods Richardsons would load up their RV on a Thursday to travel hundreds of miles for a weekend tournament, packing Monday’s clothes with them so they could drop their son off directly at school when they returned Monday morning, before continuing on to work themselves. Wendy and Arthur own and operate a home healthcare agency. Wendy would complete the business’s billing and accounting in the RV’s passenger seat as Arthur navigated highways between baseball towns.
As Woods Richardson grew toward the six-foot-three he stands today, that fastball kept getting heavier, reaching 94-m.p.h. as a junior when he struck out 133 batters in 69.1 innings. During one complete-game shutout, 16 of his 21 outs came via strikeout. By his senior year, every one of his starts was heavily scouted. Even his bullpens would draw a crowd 20-deep with radar guns clocking 96 and 97-m.p.h. fastballs. When he wasn’t playing or practicing, Woods Richardson was talking baseball during home visits with representatives from MLB franchises — the Cardinals, Padres, Royals, Red Sox, Twins and White Sox were all in constant contact — or undergoing physicals as clubs searched for warning signs in his arm. A mid-season bout of tonsilitis came at the worst possible time, holding him out of action for two weeks while he recovered from surgery. His velocity was down when he returned, scaring a few teams off and hurting his draft stock significantly, but it didn’t impact Woods Richardson’s results. In his first game back after surgery, the first time he’d picked up a ball in weeks, he struck out 13 in a complete-game shutout, while going 2-for-2 at the plate with two homers and two walks.
Right — he hit, too. The clubs scouting him never had much question as to which position he’d play at the next level, but Woods Richardson believes he could’ve made it as a third baseman if pitching hadn’t worked out. He hit .446 as a senior with 21 walks and seven strikeouts. He regularly put up triple-digit exit velocities. At one showcase weekend, he took a pitcher throwing 94-m.p.h. deep and walked-off the tournament’s home run derby. In an important game down the stretch that year, Kempner’s opponent refused to pitch to him, issuing a walk on each of his four trips to the plate. Kempner still won that day, with Woods Richardson throwing a clean seventh out of the bullpen to close the game.
— Five Tool Baseball (@FiveTool) July 16, 2017
When draft night came, there were no bad options. He had committed to the University of Texas and, the morning of the draft, the school had called to inform Woods Richardson that they felt so strongly about him as a person and an athlete that they’d be awarding him a full-ride scholarship, a rarity for NCAA Div. 1 baseball programs, which receive limited scholarship allotments (11.7 for a roster of 35) and typically spread that money between several athletes. Wendy and Arthur valued that free education greatly. And considering he’d downgraded his expectations after several teams grew timid on him after his illness, Woods Richardson believed he was definitely going to Texas when he turned up to a team gathering at the Buffalo Wild Wings off Sugar Land’s Highway 6 on draft night to watch some travel ball friends get selected.
The night was winding down, and so was the party. His coaches had already left. But a few minutes after 11:00pm, Woods Richardson saw his agent’s name and number unexpectedly flash on his phone. Then his face appeared on the bar’s televisions next to a New York Mets logo. “I was caught completely off-guard,” he says. “It went from just hanging out, watching some of my boys get drafted, to all of a sudden it’s one of the best days of my life.”
It took a $1.85-million signing bonus — and, most importantly to his parents, a contract provision covering the future cost of a college education — to get a deal done and pry Woods Richardson away from Texas. Just weeks later, still two months shy of his 18th birthday, he was making his professional debut in the Gulf Coast League. It went so well — Woods Richardson didn’t allow an earned run through five outings with a 32-per cent strikeout rate, at one point touching 99-m.p.h. — that he earned his first minor-league promotion a month later. The following season he started at A-ball where the average player was four years his senior. Four months later, the Mets were promoting him again. He was flying up the system. And, after acquiring him, the Blue Jays saw no reason to alter that trajectory. They sent him to high-A Dunedin, where he put up a 2.54 ERA over six starts and struck out a batter an inning as the Florida State League’s youngest player.
“I’m a teenager but I feel like I’m 35 — that’s what it feels like. I’ve shown that I can compete with the best of them no matter what my age is. My stuff is my stuff. I pound the strike zone. I make good-quality pitches. The team’s defence always plays better behind me because I’m high tempo,” he says. “So, when I’m on the mound doing what I’m blessed to do, our defence is spotless, and we’ve got the sticks going — it’s going to be a pretty good day.”