clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

J.R. Richard: Fifty Reasons His Number Should Be Retired

Well, almost 50 reasons, but still more than you needed to rise up en masse and demand that justice be done.

I don't let people come into my house and tell me how to run things. Well, except for my wife, and to a lesser extent my children. Sometimes I let my dad do whatever project he finds that he thinks needs doing, because that keeps him busy while I write or watch a ballgame. Still, the point stands, I don't let random people not related to me by blood or by sacrament come into my house and tell me how to run things. By all means, feel free to address or ignore the following observation and question as you see fit:

The Houston Astros have not retired J.R. Richard's number. How can you stand idly by and allow this to continue?

I'm sorry, that came across as aggressive and hostile, and you don't deserve that. Hell, I bet most of you never saw J.R. Richard pitch. To be candid, neither did I. A significant number of you weren't even born when he was forced to retire. I get it: J.R. Richard is not a priority in your life. It's not personal like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio being unfairly kept out of the Hall of Fame. That distance is not your fault (it's your parents' for not having you sooner; shame on them, I say, for not getting' to reproducin' sooner). So, please, indulge me. Let me convince you that J.R. Richard's number 50 should be retired. And to honor him, I'll give you the 50 reasons why:

1) 20 wins in 1976
I don't put a lot of stock in pitcher wins, but Richard was the second pitcher in Astros history to win 20 games in a season. That's a thing.

2 and 3) 1978 and 1979
In those two seasons, Richard struck out 616 batters in 567.2 innings and had a 2.90 ERA, leading the NL in Ks both season and in ERA in ‘79 and led the National League in Fangraphs WAR by two full wins over the nearest other National League pitcher (Phil Niekro, who also pitched more than 100 more innings). Richard's FIP was 2.35. He was, far and away, the most dominant pitcher in his league, and roughly the equal of the AL's best pitcher, Ron Guidry. He was far better than his future teammate Nolan Ryan. It's also the most dominant two-year stretch by any pitcher in Astros history, almost a full win better than Larry Dierker's great 1969-1970 run. In fact, if Richard had only pitched in those two seasons, he would still rank in the top 15 most valuable Astros pitchers ever.

4) 1980
Richard was surpassing his incredible performance in the previous two seasons, when he had a 1.90 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 113.2 innings through his first 17 starts. He had four shutouts, including three in a row from May 31-June 11, and a one hitter on April 19 in which he struck out 12 Dodgers. He started the All Star Game for the National League and struck out three batters in two innings. He did it all with a "tired arm," which obviously turned out to be far more serious than anyone initially thought.

5) .205/.290/.290
That's what batters hit off of J.R. Richard over his final five seasons.

6) .263
That's the Batting Average on Balls in Play for Richard from 1976-1980. The NL average during that stretch was around .285. The Astros, as a team, were in the high .270s.

7) Dale Murphy's Reddit AMA

Q: Who was the toughest pitcher to get a hit off of?

A: Anybody that played in the late 70's or early 80's will probably give you the same answer: J.R. Richard from the Houston Astros. Had a fastball and slider in the high 90's and was just barely wild enough to keep you from digging into the batter's box.

Q: Not Nolan Ryan?

A: J.R. Richard was absurdly good and on a HOF path in the late 70's...

Q: ...I hadn't heard of him.

Murphy hit just .182/.289/.333 off the righty, with two doubles, one homerun, and 15 strikeouts in 38 plate appearances against Richard.

8) Sports Illustrated called him "the most feared pitcher in baseball."

9) This poem.

10) I met him and he was great.
At Twinsfest last year, Richard appeared with several other "Black Aces," African-American pitchers who had won more than 20 games, and signed autographs. He was incredibly warm and happy to accept my nervous plaudits. My sometimes-friend/oft-time nemesis Carson Cistulli told him, "You were the baddest there ever was." His reply? "I know."

11) Seriously, how badass is that answer?

12) He is six-foot-eight.
More than anything, I was struck by what a massive human being he is. He towers above everyone, and seems to envelop the space around him. His hands are massive. When I shook it, I was afraid that I wasn't going to be able to get my hand back, because gravity. You can still picture him driving forward and the ball seeming to come out of his hand directly on top of the batter. Until 1988, he was the second-tallest player in baseball history (Johnny Gee, who was an inch taller, pitched 175 innings between 1939 and 1946 and had a 4.41 ERA), at which point he was surpassed by Randy Johnson. He's still tied for sixth.


13) Nolan Ryan
Fangraphs rates Nolan Ryan, whose #34 has been retired by Houston, as being roughly six wins better than Richard in their Astros careers. However, Ryan started 60 more games than Richard did. If we break their WARs down by start (and for the sake of my own mathematical sanity, I'm also throwing in Richard's 38 career relief innings), however Richard was eight-percent better in each game he pitched (.148 wins above replacement per start vs .137). Over the course of 35 starts, that adds up to almost a full half-win better per season for Richard. For Richard, it's important to note that this includes the first couple years of his career, when he very wild and ineffective, and that he was cut down in his prime. However, it also represents Nolan Ryan's age 34-42 seasons, during which a normal pitcher who wasn't a freak of nature would be in decline.

14) Mike Scott









Mike Scott









J.R. Richard









Both won an ERA title, both won 20 games once, Scott struck out 300 batters once, but Richard did it twice. The central difference? Scott won a Cy Young, while J.R. Richard finished fourth behind Gaylord Perry in 1978 and third behind Bruce Sutter in 1979 because voters are stupid (see Bagwell, Jeff and Biggio, Craig).

15) Larry Dierker
More charts! Here are Dierker's best five seasons according to wins above replacement compared to J.R. Richard's:

Larry Dierker

8.1 (1969)

4.5 (1970)

4 (1972)

3.7 (1971)

3.1 (1974)

J.R. Richard

8.8 (1979)

6.6 (1978)

4.9 (1977)

3.8 (1980)

3.4 (1976)

Not only does Richard outperform Dierker in each of them, but his 3.8 mark in 1980 represents less than half a season's worth of starts before he was forced to the DL.

16) Unlike Dierker, Ryan, and Scott, J.R. Richard was an Asto his entire career.

17) and 18) Jim Umbricht and Don Wilson
This is not meant as a criticism of Umbricht, a relief pitcher who came back from cancer to play well for a year before finally succumbing to the disease before the start of the 1964 season. Nor is it meant to malign Wilson, a star pitcher who died of asphyxiation either accidentally or in a suicide, depending on who you believe, in 1975. Neither of them was anywhere near as good as Richard was. However, their deaths were tragic and I'm glad they're honored in some way. But if the Astros are going to honor tragic stories...

19-21) The three strokes Richard suffered in 1980
J.R. Richard was placed on the disabled list on July 16, with muscle fatigue. The Houston press struggled to understand what was physically wrong with Richard, not helped by the club refusing to back their star player. Players criticized him, calling him lazy and mentally soft. Writers mocked him and accused him of being jealous of Nolan Ryan's new contract and of being on drugs. He even underwent psychological testing so doctors and team officials could be sure it wasn't all in his head. Instead, Richard's doctors found obstructions in his arteries and abnormal blood pressure in his pitching arm. Incredibly, they didn't recommend treatment. Five days later, Richard collapsed on the field during warmups, suffering three separate strokes that caused weakness and partial paralysis.

22) Enos Cabell

23) Despite not having his number retired, Richard seems to have strong connections to Houston and the Astros at the moment, after being inducted into their "Walk of Fame" last year.

24) Nobody's using #50 anyway.

Since giving up his comeback, Richard's number has been worn by the illustrious likes of Rocky Childress, Butch Henry, Sid Fernandez, Scott Elarton, Kirk Saarloos, Rick White, Chad Qualls, Runelvys Hernandez, and Alberto Arias. It's not currently assigned to any Astro.

25) This picture.

Again, super badass.

26-50)* After his comeback failed and his career ended, Richard lost much the money he earned to a con men, failed businesses, and a divorce. For months, he was homeless and lived under a highway overpass in Houston. With the help of the major league pension he earned and a local church, he freed himself of the cycle of homelessness, became a minister, and rebuilt his life. This ESPN interview with him is positively life-affirming:

His recovery does nothing to improve his accomplishments on the field, of course, but it adds to the aura surrounding the player, and is an uplifting exclamation point to his story, which is really what those retired numbers are about anyway: the story of the player. We're not talking about the Hall of Fame here. We're talking about what a player means to a franchise. That meaning is absolutely related through the narratives that surround that player. That's why Jim Umbricht has his number retired. That's why Mike Scott's number is in the rafters (or wherever you guys display them). That's why Richard deserves to join them: because of what his story says about who the Astros were, who they are now, and what he meant to them.

Houston's organization did J.R. Richard wrong. So did his doctors, the local media, and the fans. The numbers are what they are, and the numbers say that several excellent, but inferior pitchers have already been given this honor, while Richard is still on the outside. If you're not a numbers guy, then look at what his contemporaries had to say about him (one more, Fran Healy in Phil Pepe's "Talkin' Baseball:" "They called me out of the bullpen to pinch-hit. I got out and I strike out and I come back to the dugout and [manager] Charlie Fox said, ‘We have his pitches.' And I said, ‘So do I.' Geez, he was throwing a hundred miles an hour.") It's time for the to do right by him too and to honor the most dominant pitcher in Astros history.

*Did I cheat and not find 50 actual reasons you should support? Yes, but in fairness to me, I'm at least as lazy a writer as you are a reader, and there's no way you wanted to read an article that long.

Michael Bates is one of SBN's Designated Columnists and one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage. Follow him at @commnman and the Designated Columnists at @SBNMLBDCers.