Houston Astros: What might have been for J.R. Richard

HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 03: The Houston Astros inducted former pitcher J.R. Richard into the inaugural class of the 2019 Houston Astros Baseball Hall of Fame at Minute Maid Park on August 03, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 03: The Houston Astros inducted former pitcher J.R. Richard into the inaugural class of the 2019 Houston Astros Baseball Hall of Fame at Minute Maid Park on August 03, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

What might have been? That most profound of questions will forever color the career of Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, who died this week.

For five seasons in the late 1970s, Richard was the most dominant figure in the game. Between 1976 and July of 1980, he averaged 17 wins per season, 36 starts, 275 innings of work and 258 strikeouts with a 2.79 ERA.

What could have been for Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard

He did it with a fastball frequently clocked by radar approaching and sometimes exceeding 100 mph. His devastating slider usually topped 95.

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Dominating the mound by his mere stature, the 6-8 Richard literally scared opponents. “He had the greatest stuff I have ever seen,” Joe Morgan said. Willie Mays struck out the first time he faced Richard, returned to the bench and confessed, “he nearly scared me half to death.”

Then, coming off an All Star Game start, his career was cut short in late July 1980 by a mid-season stroke. Richard did in time recover functional use of his limbs, but his pitching career was over at age 30.

At the time he was felled, Richard was the undisputed star of a Houston Astros rotation that also featured Nolan Ryan, at the time the game’s only $1 million player. Ryan was 5-8 with a 3.44 ERA and 118 strikeouts in his 146 innings. Richard was 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 32 fewer innings of work.

How good might Richard have become if he had been able to enjoy a normal career?

Baseball-reference.com identifies three close comparables to Richard once he established himself as a front-line pitcher in the late 1970s. Those three are Steve Busby, Tim Lincecum, and Bob Gibson.

Those comparables illustrate the inherent problem of projecting what a player might have accomplished had not fate intervened negatively. In his own age 30 season, Busby, an ace with the 1970s Kansas City Royals, was sidelined with an arm injury. He pitched his last game less than one month after Richard was stricken.

Lincecum, who was 30 when he helped the Giants to the 2014 World Series, struggled through two parts of two more seasons before giving up in 2016.

Their careers are a reminder that the profession of a pitcher is always a chancy one.

Gibson’s post-age 30 career illustrates the other, and far more positive, possibility. Gibson pitched nine more largely productive seasons after age 30, winning 139 games against 93 defeats with a solid 2.74 ERA.

Using Gibson as a model, it’s plausible to speculate that a healthy Richard might have pitched well into his 30s, and might have more than doubled his victory total from the 107 he did win to as many as 245. That total would put him among the game’s top 50 winners of all time.

He might have run up more than 3,600 innings, with a career ERA below 3.00, and might have struck out as many as 3,100 opponents. If he did that, Richard would today rank in or close to the all-time top 15.

That’s more remarkable than it sounds because, of course, batters struck out far less frequently in Richard’s day than they do now. Of the 15 pitchers who have struck out at least 3,100 batters, only a handful substantially completed their careers by the time Richard was forced from the game.

The best way to compare strikeout totals across eras is by looking at whiffs per inning of work. In his prime, Richard averaged three-quarters of a strikeout and 1.1 strikeouts per inning. That sounds pedestrian by modern standards, but it is way off the charts for Richard’s era. In his prime, the average Major League pitcher only manned about one-half batter per inning of work; that means Richard struck out batters at a rate about 1.6 times the norm for his era.

How many modern starters strike out batters at or near that pace? None. How many have ever done it in all of baseball history? None.

The modern leaders are Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, and Jacob deGrom, each generally at about 1.2 whiffs per inning of work. But even the average modern pitcher chalks up a strikeout per inning, putting Sale, Darvish, and deGrom only about 20 percent above the norm for their era. Richard was 60 percent above the norm for his era.

It cannot be said for certain that had Richard not been felled, he would have done roughly what Gibson did in his post-30 years. The Busby and Lincecum comparisons are strongly cautionary tales about relying too hard on pitcher projections.

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It does, however, suggest the potential that was lost when J.R. Richard went down. In that context, but for that stroke we might today be mourning the death of a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the game’s great pitchers.