The case for J.R. Richard among the power elite
As part of SI.com’s Power Week, today we published our list of “The 10 most powerful pitchers in baseball history.” It’s a list that’s sure to fuel debate, one that’s not necessarily about the 10 best pitchers of all time, hence the inclusion of the legendary Steve Dalkowski, who never threw a pitch in the majors, but not Tom Seaver (the modern-day prototype for a power pitcher), Roger Clemens or 11 other pitchers who struck out at least 3,000 hitters — eight of whom are in the Hall of Fame. As the intro reads, “Each of these men is on the short list of the hardest throwers in baseball history.”
I wrote up five of the pitchers on the list, and nominated a handful of others, many of whom made the cut. One who didn’t is J.R. Richard, and while I’m not sure whom I’d bump from the list to include him, I think he’s worth a closer look, particularly as I remember being awestruck by his performances as a kid. He was simply larger than life.
Richard was a 6-foot-8, 240-pound behemoth who pitched for the rainbow-clad Astros from 1971 to 1980. The overall number two pick of the 1969 draft out of Ruston, Louisiana, he took an understandably long time to harness his control, and bounced up and down between Triple-A and the majors until mid-1974 when he finally stuck. At the time, he was the second-tallest player in major league history after 6-foot-9 Johnny Gee, a journeyman who pitched in 44 games from 1939-1946. Not until Randy Johnson debuted in 1988 would he be bumped out of the number two spot.
He was simply dominant. Richard ranked in the NL’s top five in strikeouts in each of his five full seasons (1975-1979), leading the league twice, in 1978 and 1979, and while he was in the top five in walks in all of those years, he had either the lowest or second-lowest hit rate in four of them. In 1978, he became the first right-handed pitcher in NL history to whiff at least 300 hitters in a season, and he did it again in 1979; to this day, only three other NL righties (Mike Scott, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling) have joined him. So feared was he that the common affliction for hitters asking out of the lineup because they didn’t want to face him was termed “J.R.-thritis.”
“I can recall what it was like when I was the most dominating pitcher, not one of,” he said last summer. “I was the man. That’s a feeling within itself when you’re a cut above.”
Richard had the advantage of pitching half his games in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. While he placed in the league’s top 10 in ERA three times, including the lead with a 2.71 mark in 1979, his career 3.15 ERA was just eight percent better than the park-adjusted league average (a/k/a, ERA+). His 2.79 mark from 1976-1980 was 21 percent better than average, the eight-best among all pitchers with at least 800 innings in that span. His 8.5 strikeouts per nine ranked second among such pitchers, trailing only Nolan Ryan’s 9.5.
As you’d expect given that stat, Richard could Bring It. In a September 1978 feature in Sports Illustrated, the radar-clocked velocity of his fastball was cited at 98 miles per hour (some said he reached 100), his slider at 94. Given his tremendous wingspan, the perceived velocity of those pitches from the batter’s point of view would have been 3-4 MPH higher because he was releasing the ball closer to the plate. As Pirates slugger Dave Parker, who won NL MVP honors in 1978, told SI’s Ron Reid:
“When he pushes off that mound and lets the ball go, he looks like he’s 10 feet away from you instead of 60. It causes you to lean a little bit and makes you think you have to swing the bat quicker. That makes his off-speed stuff work better, too. I think once he improves his control, he’s going to be one of the best pitchers in the game.”
Richard was well on his way to accomplishing that when disaster struck. After paring his walk rate from 4.6 per nine to 3.0 — thus pushing his strikeout-to-walk ratio above 3.0 for the first time — in 1979, he was en route to an even more dominant season in 1980, with a 1.90 ERA through 17 starts. On July 30 of that year, he suffered a major stroke during a throwing session; four days earlier, doctors had found a blood clot in an artery leading to his right arm, but doctors had considered the blockage stable and thus not a danger. It turned out he had been experiencing deadness in his arm for around six weeks prior to the stroke, but team doctors, media, teammates and fans hadn’t believed him. Some claimed that he was jealous of new teammate Ryan’s new contract, the first $1 million-a-year pact in baseball history, and when Richard provided a different account of Dr. Frank Jobe’s orders than those his team received, the controversy grew. His name was dragged through the mud, and many felt that his race was a factor. From the sidelines, he missed the Astros’ first two trips to the postseason in 1980 and 1981.
The short version of the story is that Richard never pitched in the majors again. He made comeback attempts in the minors in 1982 and 1983 but struggled mightily, with his control, vision and depth perception having suffered, and a risk of further clots ultimately ending his career. His losing streak continued off the field, with a pair of divorces, some bad business deals and drug problems culminating in his winding up homeless and living under a bridge circa 1994.
Religion and his major league pension eventually helped Richard get back on his feet; he became a minister and got involved with helping homeless people in the Houston area. Last year, he was inducted into the Astros Walk of Fame and threw out a ceremonial first pitch in honor of the occasion. His number 50 has yet to be retired by the Astros, but he’s got a very good case. Whether he should have been on our list of power pitchers is a matter of debate, but as someone who was fascinated by his performances and shaken by his sad plight, I felt his story was worth sharing.