J.R. Richard: A Player You Should Know

The J.R. Flu: When you would rather get ABs against Nolan Ryan

On August 4th of this year, J.R. Richard passed away due to complications from the COVID-19 virus. The Houston Astros legend was of the most intimidating pitchers in the last half of the 1970s. In 1980 he was arguably the best and most feared pitcher on a staff that included Nolan Ryan. He started the All-Star game on July 8th. On July 30th he collapsed while warming up on the field and never made it back to the big leagues.

James Rodney Richard was a high school legend in Ruston, La. 

  • As a high school quarterback, he completed 65% of his passes. He was also the punter. 
  • On the basketball court, he averaged 35 points and 22 rebounds per game.
  • He was undefeated as a pitcher in four years of high school baseball. 

 

Number Two Pick in the Draft

 

While he had dreams of playing basketball at nearby Grambling, he was drafted second in the 1969 baseball draft by the Houston Astros. The 6 feet 8 inches tall Richard would take his talents to the diamond, with a $100,000 signing bonus. 

Richard was impressive in the minors, spending 1969 in the Rookie league, including Winter ball. In 83 innings he struck out 87 batters while walking 69. He hit 8 and threw 13 wild pitches. He displayed some electric stuff and a lack of control. 

He spent all of 1970 in A ball, where he had a 4-11 record but a 2.39 ERA in 19 starts. Two shutouts were part of his four complete games. He only gave up one home run, struck out 138 batters in 109 innings. His walk rate was still high, handing out 68 free passes to go along with 20 wild pitches and three hit batsmen. In June of 1970, Richard had a blood clot removed from his leg but came back quickly. 

Slowly Richard was mastering his 100+ MPH fastball, his low 90s slider, and mid 80s curveball. He skipped AA starting in 1971 in AAA. There he started 24 games, logging 173  innings. He finished eight games including three shutouts. He sported a 12-7 record and a 2.86 ERA. Striking out 202 batters, he walked 105, hit three batters, and threw 18 wild pitches. He also started four games for the big league ball club, finishing one game. His record with Houston was 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA. He struck out 29, walked 16, and had two wild pitches. He didn’t hit a batter. 

 

An Interesting Debut

 

His first start with the big league Astros was on September 5, 1971, in the second game of a doubleheader in Candlestick Park against the Giants. He went the distance for the win, giving up three runs, two earned. He walked three while giving up seven hits while throwing 155 pitches. He also struck out 15 Giants, including ringing up Willie Mays three times. The 15 strikeouts tied Karl Spooner’s record for strikeouts record in a pitching debut. Spooner set his record in 1954, against Willie Mays and the Giants. 

 

Bouncing Between the Bigs and AAA

 

In 1972 and 1973, Richard — despite his brief success in 1971 — was mainly pitching in AAA with only spot work with the Astros. The Astros had a rotation of Larry Dierker, Don Wilson, Jerry Reuss, Bob Forsch, and Dave Roberts. Late in 1973, Richard shut out the Dodgers and become a fixture in the rotation until he hurt his shoulder in a motorcycle accident. He finished 1973 with a 6-2 record, a 4.00 ERA, 75 strikeouts, 38 walks, 3 wild pitches, and 1 HBP in 75 innings. He also had two complete games with one shutout. 

So, of course, he starting 1974 in the minors again. He was called up in July to work out of the bullpen. But on August 15 he was moved into the rotation. His control was a problem. He gave up 36 walks with only 42 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. He also had nine wild pitches. 

Tragically Astros’ pitcher Don Wilson died on January 5, 1975. The Astros decided to fill the hole in the rotation with J.R. and give him a full season in Houston. He responded with a decent season. In 31 starts, he had a 12-10 record. He led the league in walks (138) and wild pitches (20) in 203 innings. He did strike out 176 batters and give up only 178 hits, eight of which were home runs. There was good and bad in the season. Despite handing out free passes, he has a low hit rate. His 7.9 hits per nine innings were 12th in the NL. His 0.4 HR per nine innings was third, with his 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings had him tie with Tom Seaver for second in the NL. 

 

Dominating

 

In 1976 J.R. hit his stride. He started 39 games. Completing 14 of them, with three shutouts. His record was 20-15 over 291 innings. He walked 151 batters, leading the league again, and threw 13 wild pitches. He gave up 221 hits, 14 of them were home runs. He struck out 214 batters. He led the NL in hits per nine innings, was fourth in strikeouts per nine, and was one of the leaders for home runs per nine innings. He managed to finish seventh in the Cy Young award voting. One shutout that year was a 10-inning 1-0 victory over the Mets. He walked 10 batters, gave up 8 hits, and struck out seven. He did it on three days of rest. 

He only won 18 games in 1977. He also only had 12 losses. He struck out 214 batters again while only issuing 104 walks and six wild pitches. In 36 starts he completed 13 games and, once again, had three shutouts. His ERA was 2.97. Richard was once again near the top of the lead in hits, home runs, and strikeouts per nine innings. He was in the middle of the pack for walks. 

For 1978 Richard struck out 303 batters. He was the first right-handed National League pitcher in the 20th-Century to top 300 strikeouts. This also broke the mark of 289 that Tom Seaver set in 1971. J.R. went 18-11 with 275 1/3 innings. He started 36 games, finishing 16 games, and once again had three shutouts with a 3.11 ERA. In leading the league in strikeouts, he led the league in walks (141) and wild pitches (16) again. His 192 hits include just 12 home runs. At this point, J.R. Richard, the pitcher, was a known quantity. He didn’t give up many hits and fewer home runs. He struck out a lot of batters while giving out free passes. While some pitchers may have pitched to contact it, J.R. was trying to miss bats even if it meant missing the strike zone. 

Now how a strange disease was hitting the National League. It was called the “J.R. Flu.” When opposing teams were facing the Astros and J.R., players would get sick are need a day of rest when J.R. pitched. Johnny Bench and Dale Murphy called Richard the toughest pitcher they ever faced. Many a batter would comment that the talk and muscular Richard and his motion would also seem like he as just dropped the ball in the catcher’s mitt. Steve Garvey and Dave Parker have repeatedly said that Richard appeared to release the ball ten feet from home plate. National League players were strong with praise of Richard. But, since he had not made an All-Star team yet and the Astros had not made a World Series, he was just a rumor to American League clubs. 

In 1979 he led the league with a 2.71 ERA. He beat his record with 313 strikeouts. He kept his walks in double digits with 98 but again led the league with 19 wild pitches. He went 18-13 with 19 complete games and increased his shutouts to four. He gave up 220 hits but only thirteen home runs. He still wasn’t an All-Star but did manage to finish third in the Cy Young award voting. His 313 strikeouts for the Astros would be the franchise record until Gerritt Cole struck out 326 for the Astros in 2019. 

 

Finally Making the All-Star Game

 

As 1980 started, J.R. Richard has signed a four-year 3.2 million dollar contract with the Astros. The Astros also signed Nolan Ryan to a four-year 4.5 million dollar deal. Astros rotation would include Joe Niekro, who was second in the Cy Young award in 1979 and a 21 game-winner. Those three would appear to make a strong three-person playoff rotation. 

Going into the All-Star game, Richard was the ace of the 1980 Astros staff. He had a 10-4 record and a 1.90 ERA. He only had four complete games, all were shutouts. In 113 2/3 innings, he walked 40 batters and had 140 strikeouts. He only gave up 65 hits and two home runs. Finally making the All-Star game, he was the National League starter. In his two innings of the All-Star game, Reggie Jackson worked the count to 3-1. Richard then threw a fastball by Jackson to go 3-2. He then dropped a slider that brought Jackson didn’t even see. J.R. cited that battle with Jackson as one of his career highlights. 

But there was a problem with J.R. Richard. His arm was dead. He still had his fastball, but he complained of a tired arm. He was losing feeling in his arm. Something was seriously wrong. He was taking himself out of games. After the All-Star game, Richard said he needed 30 days to rest his arm. Taking that into consideration, the Astros started him on July 14, six days after the All-Star game. J.R. lasted only 3 1/3 innings. He was nauseated and having trouble seeing the signals from the catcher. 

On July 16, after a bullpen session, the Astros put him on the disabled this. A week later, he went through three days of testing at the Methodist Hospital in Houston. The testing was physical and psychological. Many in Houston speculated that J.R. Richard was upset with Ryan’s contract and was conjuring excuses. The sports announcers were brutal to Richard. His arm injury was a protest, not a physical ailment. 

 

I Told You I Wasn’t Faking It!

 

What they did find was “an occlusion or blockage of the distal subclavian and axillary arteries on the right arm.” Yes. A blood clot in his pitching arm, exaggerated by his muscular build, was causing the symptoms he was experiencing. He had a quick recovery from the blood clot in his leg in the minors, one would expect a speedy recovery from this blood clot. 

They did not remove the clot. The medical recommendation was not a surgical solution. The recommendation was for Richard to return to normal baseball activities under close observation. On July 30 while the team watched Richard workout in the Astrodome he fell to the ground. He had a stroke during normal baseball activities. When he was rushed to the hospital, he had no pulse in his carotid artery. 

The Astros nearly killed him because they thought the issue was emotional. They ignored the blood clot even though they knew he had a history of blood clots with the team. Even with multiple options available to them, the Astros choose to do nothing. All because they assured themselves that J.R. Richard was faking. 

Richard’s agent Tom Reich held nothing back in a statement:

“How in the name of God, could anybody conclude in light of J.R.’s endurance, in light of how many innings he has pitched over the years, in light of how many balls he has thrown, that he was faking? How could you ignore his track record? Over the last five years, how could it have been ignored? This was a great injustice. How could anyone conclude that J.R. was a dog? All the factual issues were lost. This was more like a crucifixion than anything I had ever seen. J.R. is a big, strong man and he’s a smart man, but he’s not a product of Madison Avenue, and I think he was overwhelmed by all this pressure.”

Your brain doesn’t come back from a stroke. Any part that was hurt by the stroke is not repaired. Your brain may compensate but you never truly get back. 

Richard would never pitch in the big leagues again. He had short stints in the minor leagues. Sadly the stroke affected his reaction time and his fastball. He was released by the Astros in 1984 after failing to make the team as a non-roster player. Richard would later receive an out-of-court settlement for medical mistreatment with the Astros. Like far too many athletes, a few bad deals (divorces and business-related) and Richard found himself broke and eventually homeless, living under a bridge by 1995. He eventually got some help from his family and friends and was able to become a minister in his church. Later in his life, the Astros would embrace him, as would Astro fans. 

 

A Career Too Short

 

J.R. Richard had an incredible run on the mound. He was the Astros Opening Day starter from 1976-1980, a record that would later be broken by Roy Oswalt from 2003-2010. 

He was feared for his ability on the field but in reading hundreds of articles about him, it was hard to find a player that had something unkind to say about him. Players may have hated to face him, yet several players say that the stroke derailed a Hall of Fame career. J.R. Richard was a bit different. He wasn’t a typical power pitcher but was throwing 100+ MPH when it wasn’t common. When in a rotation with Nolan Ryan, players sat out when Richard was pitching to face Ryan. 

He also had a part in creating the high five. On October 2, 1977, when Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run of the season. Teammate Glenn Burke ran up to Baker as he crossed the plate and high-fived Baker. J.R. Richard was on the mound and gave up the home run. 

In 10 seasons, J.R. Richard would have a 107-71 record. He struck out 1493 batters, walked 770, and had 92 wild pitches. He gave up 1227 hits and only 73 home runs. He appeared in 238 games, starting 221 completed 76 of them, and had 19 shutouts. His career was shot down by a stroke at 30, a stroke the could have been prevented if his team would have believed him.

Here he is in the 1980 All-Star game, pitching with a blood clot in his pitching arm.

RIP J.R. Richard; a player everybody should know.

 

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

  • Avatar DB says:

    Cheers to the life of an amazing pitcher and thanks for highlighting it,

    Still not cool with the Astros though.

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