ZiPS Time Warp: J.R. Richard

This series of articles looks at players whose careers are cut short due to misfortune, but few of them are cases as sudden or as dramatic as that of former Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, who died one week ago at age 70. The Houston fireballer had emerged as one of the game’s hardest throwing starters and a potential ace when he suffered a stroke 41 years ago and collapsed during the team’s pregame warmups. He never pitched in the majors again.

Richard’s debut was about as brilliant as one can get: a complete-game shutout of the Giants in September 1971 in which he struck out 15 batters. This was toward the end of Willie Mays‘ illustrious career, but how many pitchers can claim to have pulled off a hat trick of whiffs against an inner-circle Hall of Famer in their debut? Those 15 strikeouts tied pitcher Karl Spooner’s debut record; incidentally, Spooner is another player with a short career that was ended by a shoulder injury a year later, but that’s a tale for another time.

As a pitcher, Richard looks more at home in 2021 than in 1970. At 6’8″ with a fastball hitting the century mark and a slider in the low 90s, there was a lot of intimidation and little in the way of pitching to contact here. The only problem was that he was raw mechanically, just two years out of high school, and coaching staffs weren’t as experienced as today at helping pitchers harness such an explosive repertoire; over his 12 remaining innings that season, including a first inning he didn’t finish, Richard walked 13 batters.

The wildness never quite went away, and Richard spent the new few years riding the Triple-A shuttle. But the Astros traded Claude Osteen in 1974 for two recent Cardinals draft picks, and Don Wilson and his son died in January 1975 from carbon monoxide poisoning, and these were the days you couldn’t just go shopping in free agency. So up to the majors came Richard for good.

Richard was still wild, allowing 138 walks and unleashing 20 wild pitches. While we can look back and see the 3.46 FIP — a run below his actual ERA — as something that could have been a positive sign at the time, this was some 30 years before the stat even existed. Luckily, the Astros were rebuilding and only had Larry Dierker as a proven starter going into 1976, so there was no reason to be impatient with a pitcher of Richard’s talents.

That year turned out to be Richard’s breakout season, as he cut his walk rate by a fourth, then did it again in ’77. He was firmly established at the top of the team’s food chain and finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting in both ’78 and ’79, and from ’76 to ’79, he led all pitchers in WAR.

Top Pitchers by WAR, 1976-1979
Name W L ERA IP SO WAR
J.R. Richard 74 51 2.88 1125.7 1044 23.6
Phil Niekro 73 69 3.40 1277.3 891 23.0
Nolan Ryan 62 61 3.32 1040.7 1151 22.0
Tom Seaver 67 37 2.78 1007.0 788 21.3
Ron Guidry 59 18 2.47 736.7 637 21.1
Gaylord Perry 63 43 3.09 981.7 614 20.5
Bert Blyleven 53 43 3.05 1013.3 755 20.1
Tommy John 68 36 3.02 916.7 449 19.8
Steve Rogers 50 55 2.97 999.3 625 19.7
Rick Reuschel 66 49 3.31 993.7 552 19.7
Vida Blue 64 56 3.43 1073.0 632 19.2
Dennis Leonard 72 51 3.46 1082.3 703 19.0
Dave Goltz 63 48 3.37 1023.3 567 18.3
Jerry Koosman 52 58 3.32 973.0 709 18.2
Dennis Eckersley 64 43 3.23 961.7 703 17.5
Steve Carlton 77 41 3.05 1034.0 767 17.3
Jim Palmer 73 42 2.73 1085.7 557 16.8
Burt Hooton 53 42 2.89 898.0 502 16.0
Frank Tanana 59 36 2.95 859.0 649 15.9
Mike Flanagan 60 39 3.64 867.0 562 15.5

Richard didn’t quite catch Ryan in strikeouts over this period, but he was the only pitcher in the same time zone, and at this point, he had better control than his future teammate.

The 1980 season started out pretty much the same for Richard, and he made his first and only All-Star game. But he suffered shoulder and forearm pain in July, and in accordance with baseball’s culture at the time, his team and teammates (with the exception of manager Bill Virdon) were not particularly empathetic. Richard was called a malingerer and accused of being jealous of Ryan’s big contract with the Astros; that last month in the majors, he felt almost alone.

Reality, he suggested, was what the press and some of his teammates lost touch with last summer when they attributed his mysterious arm ailment to malingering, contract jealousy or drug involvement. It took the stroke to silence the critics.

”Enos L. Cabell was the one who really knew the reality,” he said, referring to the since-traded Astro third baseman’s public comments that Richard’s arm problem would not have been questioned if he were white instead of black.

Richard stared at the images on the soundless television screen. ”No matter how much money I make, no matter how many records I set, no matter how many guys I strike out, someone’s going to remind me I’m black – as if I didn’t know,” he said.

The arm pain got to the point that, after consulting with Dr. Frank Jobe, who was unable to pinpoint the source of the problem, Richard falsely said that he was told to rest for 30 days. Feeling guilty about it, he asked to start on July 14th, but he didn’t want people to know about his arm pain and blamed spicy food for him needing to be pulled in the fourth. It was his last major league game.

The media was not merciful.

The Houston press criticized Richard for leaving the game. One columnist sarcastically proposed a new soap opera, “As the Stomach Turns.” The next day, news leaked out that Richard had not complained of a stomach problem at all but that he told Virdon his arm was tired.

“I didn’t know anything about a stomach ache,” Virdon confirmed. “He was woozy but not woozy enough to come out of a game. He just told me he had a tired arm, and when he does, I’m taking him out.” Richard’s leaving the game early did not sit well with his Astros teammates. One of them said “We’re in a pennant race, and he pulls this?”

The team doctor advised Richard to “eat better, sleep more, and cut down on his social life.” But Houston did place him on the disabled list, and an angiogram revealed a blockage in his arm. That same team doctor said that no surgery was required at the time, and that Richard should resume activities under observation. A few days later, he suffered his stroke; after he had no pulse in his right carotid artery, a large clot was removed from his neck, and he was paralyzed on the left side. Later, it was discovered that he had suffered multiple strokes.

Richard did return to pitch in the minor leagues, joining Houston’s roster in 1981, but he never got into a game; he found himself unable to control the ball, with his arm going dead after a few innings. He was released in 1983, ending his career, and later agreed to a $1.5 million settlement in a lawsuit against the team doctors. His former agent and friend Tom Reich described Richard’s “bitterness and depression” but believed that if he hadn’t settled the lawsuit, the revelations from the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trails that he had used cocaine would have been extremely damaging to the case.

Richard lost all his money and his house in two divorces and in an investment scam, and for a period in the early 1990s, he was living under a highway overpass. Things turned around after he started drawing his MLB pension in 1995; he found a part-time job with an asphalt company, which provided him an apartment. Returning to the church as a minister, he worked with charities for the homeless and baseball for children.

So what could have the future held in store for Richard if fate had been kinder? Naturally, our jumping-off point is July 1980. In this alternate reality, he doesn’t have a blood clot, and his arm feels better after his 21 days on the disabled list, allowing him to come back in early August.

ZiPS Time Warp – J.R. Richard (1980)
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
1971 2 1 3.43 4 4 21.0 17 8 1 16 29 100 0.4
1972 1 0 13.50 4 1 6.0 10 9 0 8 8 27 -0.1
1973 6 2 4.00 16 10 72.0 54 32 2 38 75 90 1.8
1974 2 3 4.18 15 9 64.7 58 30 3 36 42 83 0.5
1975 12 10 4.39 33 31 203.0 178 99 8 138 176 77 2.3
1976 20 15 2.75 39 39 291.0 221 89 14 151 214 116 3.3
1977 18 12 2.97 36 36 267.0 212 88 18 104 214 120 5.0
1978 18 11 3.11 36 36 275.3 192 95 12 141 303 106 6.4
1979 18 13 2.71 38 38 292.3 220 88 13 98 313 130 8.9
1980 16 7 2.27 28 28 198.7 132 50 6 74 208 145 5.8
1981 12 5 2.59 22 22 167.0 126 48 7 67 165 127 4.1
1982 15 7 2.86 29 29 220.0 174 70 12 86 222 117 5.3
1983 15 7 2.94 29 29 217.0 174 71 12 87 217 115 5.0
1984 14 6 2.90 27 27 201.7 161 65 11 80 210 115 4.7
1985 13 6 3.04 25 25 186.7 149 63 12 79 194 114 4.2
1986 11 6 3.16 23 23 171.0 138 60 12 76 194 114 3.8
1987 10 5 3.43 21 21 154.7 130 59 13 72 177 114 3.4
1988 9 5 3.16 19 19 136.7 112 48 9 59 144 106 2.8
1989 8 4 3.24 17 17 119.3 100 43 8 55 125 104 2.3
1990 7 4 3.50 14 14 103.0 90 40 8 50 107 106 1.9
1991 5 4 3.74 12 12 86.7 78 36 7 44 90 93 1.4
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
ZiPS RoC 125 61 3.06 249 249 1848.7 1499 629 115 789 1934 118 40.8
Actual 0 0 0.00 0 0 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
ZiPS Career 232 132 3.10 487 470 3454.7 2726 1191 188 1559 3427 113 73.2
Actual 107 71 3.15 238 221 1606.0 1227 562 73 770 1493 108 32.4

ZiPS sees Richard as a little bit above his head in 1980, with 1979 being his career peak, but the computer is overall more merciful, giving him a more typical decline phase for a power pitcher, with the increase in league strikeout rate keeping those numbers up as he aged. In the end, ZiPS gives him 125 more wins for a total of 232, along with enough WAR to pass the 70 mark; his 73 WAR would rank 27th all-time today and 18th when he would have first been eligible for Hall of Fame induction in the mid-90s. Voters then weren’t using WAR, but I think 232 wins plus the dominance at his peak plus mercy for being a late-bloomer would have been enough to get him into the Hall. If not, he certainly would have been inducted by now.

If Richard had been born 40 years later, continuing his career even with an injured arm would have been a distinct possibility. Thoracic outlet syndrome is far better known around baseball than now it was at the time, and while it’s still difficult to treat, it has been done. At the very least, I’d hope that the shaming of a player’s circulatory issues as a character flaw would be absent or at least muted compared to 1980. Richard’s case has been has been studied by surgeons, and hopefully, part of his legacy is that his struggles will give pitchers today with similar issues a better shot at the second chance he did not get.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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JustinPBGmember
9 months ago

How terribly sad how he was treated.