Prospect Retrospective: J.R. Richard, RHP, Houston Astros
A reader asked me to take a look at the career of Houston Astros great J.R. Richard. Younger fans won't remember, of course, but those of us who were around back to the 70s will never forget Richard. I was just coming to baseball consciousness when he was taking the National League by the horns in the late 70s, and even 30 years later I haven't forgotten. He's a good topic for today's Prospect Retrospective.
James Rodney Richard was a high school pitcher in Ruston, Louisiana. A 6-8 monster on the mound, he posted a 0.00 ERA his senior year and threw four perfect games. He was very raw and much more thrower than pitcher (think Nuke LaLoosh), but his talent was immense and he was the second-overall pick in the 1969 draft. He was a 6-8, 220-pounder with enough athleticism to be a high-profile college basketball recruit. He got a $100,000 bonus, big money back then.
Assigned to rookie ball in the summer Arizona Instructional League, Richard posted a 4.33 ERA in 27 innings with a poor 16/17 K/BB ratio. He moved up to Covington in the Appalachian League and made 12 more starts that summer, posting a 6.59 ERA with a 71/52 K/BB ratio in 56 innings. His K/IP was excellent but his control was terrible. This wasn't unexpected, as the Astros were working to refine his mechanics.
Applying a retrospective grade is difficult. Nowadays, a high school pitcher throwing in the upper-90s from a 6-8, 220-pound athletic frame, but with poor control and rough mechanics, would probably get a high-ceiling Grade B from me, or a high-risk B+, but it is hard to say for sure. He was extremely raw at the time, but of course we know how he turned out.
Richard figured things out very quickly. With his rebuilt mechanics, he made 19 starts for Cocoa in the High-A Florida State League in 1970, going 4-11 but with a 2.39 ERA and a 138/68 K/BB in 109 innings, allowing just 67 hits; his K/IP and H/IP were exceptional. His control was still erratic, but it was greatly improved compared to rookie ball. He was clocked over 100 MPH at times, and his slider reportedly hit 93 MPH. Given the progress compared to rookie ball, he would have to rate a Grade A prospect.
The Astros jumped Richard to Triple-A Oklahoma City for 1971 and he didn't miss a beat, going 12-7, 2.45 with a 202/105 K/BB in 173 innings, allowing 116 hits. The walk rate was high, but again his dominance ratios were superb and he thrived against older competition. He got a cup-of-coffee with the Astros late in the year, posting a 29/16 K/BB in 21 innings with a 3.43 ERA. He'd be a Grade A prospect again at this point.
Richard went back to Triple-A in 1972 to work on his command. He had a decently solid season, posting a 3.02 ERA with a 169/79 K/BB in 128 innings with 94 hits allowed, but command was still an issue and he didn't really improve. He saw just six innings of action for the Astros, giving up 10 hits, nine runs, and eight walks due to command problems. He was 22 now and I might nick a similar pitcher just a hair to a Grade A- now, but maybe not; it is hard to say. He's still count as an elite prospect obviously.
Richard split 1973 between Triple-A and the Astros, losing his rookie eligibility with a 4.00 ERA in 72 innings, 75/38 K/BB. 1974 was difficult: command problems early in the year were severe enough that he began the year in Double-A to work on his mechanics. He ultimately pitched 65 innings in the majors with a 4.18 ERA and a 42/36 K/BB.
At this point in his career, Richard was an enigma, immensely talented but frustratingly inconsistent.
Richard finally got a full-time starting job at age 25 in 1975, going 12-10, 4.39 with a 176/138 K/BB in 203 innings with 178 hits allowed. But the big step forward was 1976: 20-15 with a 2.75 ERA in 39 starts over 291 innings with 14 complete games and a 214/151 K/BB with 221 hits allowed.
This is where I begin to remember him. He was really extraordinary to watch. His command was still erratic at times, but his stuff was amazing and he chewed innings, throwing 267 in '77, 275 in '78, and 292 in '79. He really came into his own in '79, leading the National League with a 2.71 ERA. He fanned 303 in '78 and 313 more in '79, leading the league both years. He led the NL in H/IP in '76, '78, and '79.
As good as those years were, he was truly thriving in 1980, going 10-4, 1.90 (ERA+ 174) through 17 starts, on his way to a Cy Young-caliber season. He was doing this despite physical discomfort, complaining of back and shoulder pain and eventually a "dead arm," although the Astros kept running him out there and he kept pitching effectively. I remember this well; at the time, there were press rumblings that Richard was whining too much and not pitching through pain like pitchers are supposed to. He wasn't "mentally tough."
On July 14th, Richard left a game against the Atlanta Braves in the fourth inning after his arm went numb. Medical checks revealed some circulation issues, but the doctors decided that nothing was seriously amiss and that surgery was not needed to fix the problem.
They were very, very wrong about that. Two weeks later, Richard had a massive stroke during a team workout, almost killing him. A blood clot in his shoulder had broken loose and gone to his brain.
Richard rehabbed and recovered his normal day-to-day functions, but attempts to return to the mound in '81, '82, and ‘83 were failures: the stroke had robbed him of the necessary strength and coordination to pitch at his previous level. Richard's post-baseball life involved bankruptcy and eventual homelessness in 1994, but he ultimately got his life back on track.
Overall, Richard went 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA and a 108 ERA+ in 1606 career innings, with a 1493/770 K/BB ratio and just 1227 hits allowed. His best season was 1979 with an 8.8 WAR; his career WAR mark was 32.7.
As a young baseball fan, Richard made a huge impression on me. Even today when I think fastball, Richard's heater is one of the first pitches that comes to mind. His stuff was so good, it was scary. Richard is the ultimate example of a raw pitcher who took time to harness his talent was eventually successful.
His stroke also made a giant impact on the way that I think about players: it was one of the first examples to make me see that "pitching through pain" was a really stupid idea, and that when a player says something is wrong with his body, we should believe him.
LESSONS LEARNED: When a pitcher says he's hurt, believe him. Rookie ball stats are not necessarily predictive. Raw throwers don't always remain raw.