Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 6, 2008
BASEBALL: Split Stardom, Part 2
The next pitcher whose best year was split over two seasons is James Rodney Richard. For those of you who are too young to remember, J.R. Richard was basically Randy Johnson 1.0. Richard was righthanded, black (in the 70s, black pitchers were still something of a novelty*), and an easygoing if introverted personality, but otherwise, he was Johnson to a T - a tall (6'8"), fireballing, fastball/slider pitcher who improved in a series of sudden leaps forward - each man was a too-wild-to-use project through age 25, and then a workhorse K king who was held back from real dominance by his wildness through age 28:
Richard pitched in a more pitcher-friendly situation (the Astrodome vs the Kingdome in a DH league) on better teams, while Johnson pitched in a higher-strikeout era when workloads were lower...when you adjust for all that, they were nearly the same pitcher, and Richard if anything was better, winning 20, 18 and 18 games.
At 29, each pitcher started to bust out - Richard improved his K/BB from 303/141 to 313/98 and cut his ERA to 2.71, Johnson from 241/144 to 308/99 and went 19-8. For Johnson, it was off to the races after that - from age 29 on, he has won nearly 70% of his decisions, going 235-102 with a 3.03 ERA (ERA+ of 151), nearly 3800 strikeouts on the way to Cooperstown. He's still a power pitcher at age 44.
Richard's performance in the first half of 1980 - 9-3, a 1.51 ERA througfh June 17 - suggested a similarly dizzy upward trajectory, before he started complaining of a variety of symptoms (dizziness, arm and back stiffness), was ineffective and left early in his last three starts in late June and early July, and eventually had a stroke on July 30 that nearly killed him and effectively ended his baseball career, though he did try to come back the following spring and eventually pitched again briefly in the minors in 1982.
Astros Daily has a much more comprehensive writeup on J.R. Richard's career and sad story, which at one point in the 90s left him living under a bridge before money was raised to get him back on his feet, including his minor league stats, his 48-0 record as a high school pitcher, the details of his stroke and even an interview. But for my purposes, I'm more interested in the fact that while Richard was denied even the ability to finish that one crowning season, he did have a calendar year that showed his true dominance. From June 25, 1979 through June 24, 1980, only five major league pitchers who threw 200 or more innings had an ERA below 3.00 - it was one of those periods in the 70s and 80s when the hitters had control for a while - and only one was below 2.88: J.R. Richard at 1.90. He was 21-10, with 301 Ks and a preposterous 6 homers allowed in 275.1 IP. He allowed just 5.59 H/9 IP, which over a regular season would be one of the lowest figures ever compiled. He was completely the dominant pitcher in baseball, and the Astros, had they had his services when they lost an LCS that concluded with 4 straight extra inning games in a best-of-5 series, might well have been World Champions in 1980. Richard was 36 when the Astros won the division in 1986; he might have pitched into his 40s, might have been one of the all-time greats.
Speaking of what might have been, Sutton's 1976 also led me to Mark Fidrych, not for split seasons (unless you like this) but just to marvel at his workload, as a 21-year-old on a going-nowhere team. In his first 22 major league starts, Ralph Houk had The Bird - hardly a hulking figure at just 175 pounds over his 6'3" height - throw 19 complete games and 198 innings, an average of 9 innings a start, going extra innings five times, four of them extending to 11 full innings, and one of those into the twelfth. From May 31 to July 16, Fidrych threw 94.1 innings in 10 starts - no, that's not a typo, he averaged almost 9 1/2 innings a start. On the season, Fidrych completed 24 of his 29 starts and averaged 8.6 innings a start, a staggeringly high figure even for the mid-70s and inexplicable for a prized young arm on a 74-win team. No wonder he blew his arm out the next year. While it's debatable how long a career Fidrych would have had - he only struck out 3.5 men per 9 innings as a rookie - he was young enough that he might have been able to get those numbers up (he reached 5.8 K/9 over a 6-start stretch the next season before the wheels came off), and his great control and sinking fastball made him otherwise brutally tough to beat, averaging 1.9 walks and 0.42 HR/9 that rookie year, when he finished second in the Cy Young balloting and 11th in the MVP. Like Richard, Fidrych could have been of great use to his franchise much further down the road, had Houk not wasted his arm in a losing season - he was 23 when the Tigers became a contender in 1978, 29 when they won the Series in 1984, 32 when they won the division in 1987, in his mid-30s when the Tigers' monster offenses were dying for pitching help in the early 90s.
Finally, for split-season fun: the 365-day period in which Nolan Ryan struck out 407 batters.