Clayton Richard Discusses His ‘Project 2020’

Clayton Richard has been busy preparing for a 2020 season that won’t be starting any time soon. He’s done so without a team — the 36-year-old southpaw remains a free agent — and in a manner to which he’s not accustomed. Fifteen years after being drafted out of the University of Michigan, and with 275 big-league appearances under his belt, Richard is endeavoring to revamp both his arsenal and his delivery. To say that he’s doing so in a meticulous, scientific fashion would be an understatement.

What you’re about to read is the result of multiple exchanges with Richard, as well as abbreviated reports (used here with permission) from his offseason visit to Driveline. We’ll start with Richard giving an overview of what he’s dubbed “Project 2020.”

“Before the baseball world came to a screeching halt, I was frequently asked ‘What are you doing now?’ by friends and family alike,” Richard told me. “Although the question was simple enough, I didn’t feel comfortable delving into exactly what I was doing with my time – mostly due to the fact that I didn’t think the majority of people really care where my spin axis was that week. It’s much easier to say, ‘Just throwing every day and waiting for the right opportunity.’
“The reality is that I’ve been up to a lot more than simply throwing a few baseballs. I’ve used the last few months to make significant changes. The effectiveness of my repertoire had changed for the worse over the past two seasons. Based on that, I could choose to continue down the same path — one with an aim to execute pitches at a higher rate but likely be relegated to a left-handed bullpen role — or I could veer headfirst into changing how my pitches profiled to right-handed hitters in an effort to level out the platoon splits for longer outings.

“I debated the choice many times over. My wife likely got sick of my asking her, or talking to myself. Ultimately, I came up with a plan to revamp my arsenal to return in time as a starting pitcher, the role I have worked to become since first pitching in my backyard with my dad squatting behind the plate and my mother standing in the box.
“I need to use my past as a compass to my future. I’m too evolved in my career to think what I have done doesn’t matter while looking to improve.”

Richard’s past includes being a quarterback at the University of Michigan, and like most professional athletes his age, he’s been impacted by injuries along the way. His breakdowns of those impacts are largely bio-mechanical in nature.

The Lafayette, Indiana native learned to throw a football before forging a career as a pitcher. As a result, he needed to make fundamental changes to his delivery; the foundation of his throwing process had been built around throwing a football.

Early in 2014, he had to make mechanical compensations due to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. In Richard’s case, that manifested into what he described as “drastic pain” in the anterior shoulder. The lesson learned was, “needing to be aware of why I started to do ‘strange’ things throwing a baseball, and understand that it’ll be difficult to kick those old habits.”

In 2018, he had to overcome knee issues. Much like with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, his body compensated to cover up inefficiencies, and he had to retrain to get back to his old self.
The combination of those factors left him with a delivery that was unathletic and not overly effective, so Richard, as he put it, “tried to throw the old delivery out the window.” He likened that process to getting water out of a tire: You can see it. You don’t want it there. Yet you are forced to keep flipping over that tire again and again because only a small portion comes out with every flip.

Through self-evaluation, Richard identified pitches and zones that needed improvement. To his dismay, it was clear that little of his arsenal was effective against right-handed hitters. Only his slider fit that description, and “for a whole host of reasons” that weren’t the case last year. In 2018, right-handed hitters slugged .398 against Richard’s slider. In 2019, they slugged a preposterous .800, albeit in a small sample.
Richard also found that his sinker at the bottom of the zone – long his bread and butter — had turned from a viable option to one that was generating fewer favorable results. Compounding matters was the fact that his changeup had blended into a pitch that too closely mirrored “the not so great metrics” of his sinker. Moreover, an analytic study showed that his ability to cut and spin the ball was compromised by the lower arm slot, and release angle, that had become physically necessary a few seasons before.
Not all adjustments have borne fruit.

“A few years ago, after another brief self-evaluation, I moved to the other side of the rubber and spent the offseason trying to manipulate the changeup, and reintroduce a cut fastball to my mix,” Richard explained. “To the naked eye these worked great, and I was oozing with confidence. The ball flight suggested they were good, catch partners loved them, and bullpen catchers were on board. Everything was smooth and positive… until a right-handed hitter got into the box and took swings at the pitches.”
Going into this past offseason, Richard set a goal of raising his arm angle to create a better four-seam fastball. The adjustment was intended to change his approach angle, movement profile, and velocity. The new angle would also allow him to differentiate his offspeed from his fastball more effectively.

Rather than go it on his own, he went to Driveline for guidance.
“I felt like I had a good idea of what I wanted to accomplish, but didn’t want to lose out on the opportunity to consult specialists in this area of pitching,” Richard explained. “Last year I worked with a long-time pitching coach who requests to be anonymous. This past year I started to follow Driveline through social media and read up on their research. I reached out to Kyle Boddy, who gave me all the information I needed, then made the trip to Washington. Their information surprised me a bit, but offered a roadmap of the last few months: My lower body was not creating much force, and my delivery wasn’t syncing up efficiently enough to create optimized velocity into the ball.”
An abbreviated version of Richard’s Driveline report:

Key Notes:

  • Arm action is overall clean and efficient, elbow is a bit low at ball release. However, this is not currently having a negative effect on the rest of the arm action. The trunk opening early into foot plant is most likely pulling the arm out of efficient positions too early in the throw.
  • Trunk opens early into foot plant. Hip/shoulder separation and timing are inefficient with room to improve.
  • Biomechanics Details:

    Richard’s upper body kinematic positions are within normal to above average ranges for the most part. He does a great job creating above average scap retraction into foot plant (47 degs). Low shoulder abduction at ball release (79 degs). Besides that, no other glaring inefficiencies noted.

  • He does a good job staying stacked with good forward (-10 degs) and lateral (4 degs) trunk tilt early into foot plant. However, there are some other inefficiencies noted. Richard’s trunk is opening early into foot plant (21 degs). This is limiting Richard’s ability to create hip/shoulder separation (18 degs) and timing from peak pelvis to peak torso angular velocity (0.0111 secs). This is most likely a product of inefficient trunk/pelvis positions at foot plant making it hard to create separation and sequence efficiently. Hip/shoulder separation drills should be emphasized to work on this by holding counter-rotation and staying stacked with the trunk while the pelvis opens into foot plant.
  • Below average kinematic velocities noted; COG velocity (2 m/s); torso angular velocity (980 degs/sec).
  • Joint kinetics within normal ranges.
  • With those notes, Richard had the information he needed to continue down his path of change. He constructed the following formula:

    Just as 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 = 100, Mindset + Focus + Breath + Feet + Legs + Hips + Torso + Arms + Hand + Sights = Delivery or an Executed Pitch

    “Every pitcher will have a unique equation that reaches their own version of 100,” Richard explained. “When a pitcher changes one small thing in his delivery, he will no longer be at his desired 100. Example: I moved my throwing foot to be more flush with the rubber, and changing that ‘10’ in my foot to an ‘8’ left my solution at ‘98’. Then I had to go step by step through the rest of my delivery to see what else needed adjusting to get back to 100. In this case, it was just my sights. The foot adjustment happened quickly, and my sights adjusted without much issue. Some fixes come relatively easily, but other changes require many frustrating training sessions to find out what was changed and what correlated adjustment needs made.”

    How Richard’s process unfolded can’t be adequately explained without a lot of detail. It’s also best presented through his words alone, with my half of our conversation omitted.

    “Making a fundamental change takes hundreds, even thousands of reps, and the outcome revealed is often incremental,” said Richard. “My mind and body have worked together so long, and over so many reps, that it takes a while to break up the chemistry they have going.
    “I started working from home while staying in contact with Dean Jackson of Driveline. We started from the ground up. Working on my lower half was a very frustrating process. Before the past couple of years, I had never put any thought into what my lower body was doing when I was pitching.
    “The first part of my lower half adjustment was easy enough: moving my throwing foot flush with the rubber. I originally moved my heel off of the rubber to even out my delivery equation when I moved from the other side of the rubber to face right-handed hitters two years ago. I was having trouble with my command and made a quick fix to change the way by body angled to the plate, versus changing something else. In getting my heel closer to the rubber, I improved my ability to get into my left hip. What felt good was often wrong, and what felt foreign was generally right where I needed to be.
    “I spent months trying to get more out of my legs, to no avail. I was going back and forth with Dean, almost daily, toiling over changes that could make the positive impact we desired. He did a remarkable job promptly responding, and sent video examples when necessary. My mind was totally on my legs, but that is exactly where I was going wrong. I was putting too much emphasis on them. If I think back to when things were going well before the knee issues, there was no thought put into what my lower half was doing. Thinking about how it moves, I’m essentially locking it up.

    “I stole a cue from Trevor Cahill, who sent me a video of him getting his foot down before an obstacle — keeping his glove foot on the throwing side of the midline to the plate. That is what clicked with me after countless attempts to get my lower half moving ‘right.’ What I had been doing was putting so much focus into my leg movement that the process of the lower half going down the slope was taking too long for my foot get down. It was just the opposite of what I was trying to accomplish.
    “The next step was how my torso was moving in space at a couple of different points through my delivery. Closing off my upper half relative to my hips; hip/shoulder separation. The elite throwers do this very well. Over time, my natural ability to do this had been compromised by the many adjustments made to command the ball. One of the first attempts was to try to ‘glove tap’ at leg lift. Rob Hill suggested it, and this helped a little, but I didn’t feel that it made as drastic of a change as I desired.

    “One day, I remembered learning to pitch for the first time in the back yard with my father. I originally misunderstood what he meant when he’d tell me, ‘all the way back.’ We would play out imaginary at-bats and call balls and strikes, and if I were to fall behind he would exclaim, ‘Come on Clayton, all the way back!” Six-year-old me understood that as reaching my glove and ball all the way back towards second base as far as I could before I delivered the pitch. I didn’t understand ‘all the way back’ as saying to get back into the count until embarrassingly late in my baseball days.”

    One of the biggest obstacles Richard encountered trying to get the ball to act how he wanted was “getting more on top of it.” His spin axis had gotten lower since his return from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and that led to a decent amount of arm side run — but not enough to keep right-handed hitters at bay. He needed to find a healthy way to raise his hand and effectively raise his spin axis.

    Richard had heard from numerous pitching coaches that you don’t mess with a player’s arm angle. To his detriment, he didn’t always listen to that wisdom. He’d “battled to change it at times,” and that led to some arm issues. He now had the challenge of getting his hand more vertical without raising his arm relative to my body.

    Enter “Torso Tilt.” Again, Richard’s explanation is best presented without interruption.

    “I elected to use my torso to ‘lean’ glove side in an effort to raise my arm angle and get my spin axis to a more desirable slot,” explained Richard. “This worked initially, but then proved to be very inconsistent in terms of spin axis. The ball was coming out of the same slot consistently, but the axis was very inconsistent. I couldn’t figure this out for a long time. I was throwing with Parker Dunshee and took note of his arm slot that is relatively low compared to his 1:00 spin axis. We talked it over, and I tried changing the positioning of my thumb on the baseball. Boom. Spin axis at or above 10:30 nearly every pitch following adjustment. My thumb was on the side of the ball and I moved it under or essentially polar opposite of my power finger.
    “Once my four-seam fastball was starting to profile how I envisioned it, it was time to start commanding that pitch and doing so at higher intensity levels. One thing I’ve found when implementing changes in my delivery is that I can perform them fairly easily in drill work or super low intensity situations. The real challenge lies in creating my new outcome as soon as a higher level of intensity is introduced and there is more focus on the outcome. The moment in which I envision a hitter in the box, or try to execute a pitch, my mind/body has a tendency to revert back to the form in which it performed that action in the past.
    “Outside of family, there is nothing in my life that has had as much of an impact on my actions and mindset as baseball. I had a high school football coach that would routinely acknowledge ‘pain is a good teacher.’ There is not much more painful than giving up a home run to give up the lead or lose a big-league game. Those experiences of pitches I was beat on are burned into my mind and body.

    “If I try to tell my body to throw that pitch, my mind will override a poor decision to stay away from that uber-painful experience it was once put in. It also provides a level of comfort with the delivery that has worked over the course of my career. Unfortunately, the delivery I revert back to isn’t one I want moving forward while facing right-handed hitters. I have to make a habit out of making the uncomfortable comfortable.”

    We’ll close with where Richard feels he is in his quest to rejuvenate his career:
    “Unfortunately, I don’t throw 101 mph and have the luxury of living off of one pitch. I’m forced to incorporate my offspeed to compete at the highest level. Every time I use a different grip, some part of my delivery is driven back in time due to the muscle memory of that grip. Some grips take weeks to figure out what isn’t adding up. With my slider, I was failing to drive my hands back at the top of my leg lift like I was with my fastball. Other grips took just a few throws to iron out the kinks, like my changeup. The new hand placement has allowed for the reintroduction of my cutter and curveball, which was kind of like learning new pitches all over again due to the lack of action those pitches have seen over the past few years.
    “I still have some work to do in getting the release points of my offspeed to more closely mirror my fastball. But they have gradually gotten closer over the last couple of weeks. I just need to flip that tire a few more times. A couple more flips, and the water will likely be out of it… just like I will be back to my new, old self.”

    David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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    Clayton Richardmember
    2 years ago

    Here is link to video and images from my work this off season that goes along with this story.

    2 years ago

    Thank you for sharing this whole process with us. There’s a lot of honesty and candor here, which is refreshing. I can see why young players love working with you and learning from you.

    2 years ago

    What a great article. Thank you for sharing your transformation with us baseball fans. I’m a youth baseball coach and I will most definitely be sharing your experience with my boys. You’ve had a very successful career, especially financially, and you could have easily walked off into the sunset but your love for the game and your competitive spirit won’t let you quit. This reminds me very much of the journey Hunter Pence took last season. Even though I’m a Dodgers fan and have never had a reason to root for you (same with Pence), you now have a big fan in me. Good luck on your journey Clayton. Can’t wait to see you pitch. Keep grinding!

    “Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.”
    – from the book, Chop Wood, Carry Water.