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The Greatest Seasons In Astros History: J.R. Richard, 1979

A new offseason segment to look back at some of the most magical seasons and records in Astros history. The second installment will highlight J.R. Richard's incredible - and vastly under appreciated - 1979 season.

J.R. Richard throwing out the first pitch in 2002.  His 1979 season was one of the most dominant ever thrown by an Astros pitcher.
J.R. Richard throwing out the first pitch in 2002. His 1979 season was one of the most dominant ever thrown by an Astros pitcher.
Bob Levey/Getty Images

In the interest of broadening the already expansive coverage of the Crawfish Boxes and striding headlong into the fascinating pages of Astros history, this writer will endeavor to examine a series of the greatest seasons in Astros history - individual performances, team performances, and various record setting performances, with the occasional oddity and rare accomplishments thrown in.

The first installment of this series, looking back at Jeff Bagwell's monumental 1994 season, may be found here.

In the second installment, we will examine in some depth the incredible heights J.R. Richard ascended to in his last full Major League season, before a stroke ended his playing career in 1980 as the Astros were poised to embark upon some of the most memorable seasons in franchise history.

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The 1979 season was a unique one in many ways for the Astros franchise in general.  They became the last team in history (to date, but probably forever) to hit more triples as a team (52) than home runs (49), and Jose Cruz led the team in home runs with a dead-ball-era-like total of nine.  The team entered the season after having traded for short stop Craig Reynolds the previous December, and he played the first of many seasons in Houston in 1979.  The team also drafted future stalwart mainstay, Bill Doran, in the first year player draft in 1979.  Ken Forsch threw the sixth no-hitter in franchise history on April 7th, and until Hideo Nomo surpassed it in 2001, it was the earliest no hitter thrown in a season in baseball history.

And last but not least, the Astros would also go on to post the best record in the history of the franchise to that point, going 89-73 and ultimately fading down the stretch after a hot start to just barely lose the division.

That last part sound familiar?

Anyway, it was a unique and exciting season in the lore of Houston baseball for several reasons.  Here's a short video to cure you of your "nostalgia feels" cravings...unfortunately I was only able to find it in an .mpeg format, and it will have to open (via QuickTime) in a separate page.  But do enjoy it.

Silver Odyssey 1979

A dated but enjoyable look back at the Houston Astros' 1979 season

J.R. Richard, for his part, had already firmly established himself as a star in the major leagues after posting a stellar stat line in 1978, notching his first career 300 strikeout season and his second straight 18 win season.  But in 1979, he took his game to a level not often reached by Major League Baseball pitchers.

Simply put, he was the best pitcher in the world in 1979, and it wasn't really close.  The fact that he only came in third in the National League for the Cy Young Award with 34% of the vote is still one of the great travesties in the history of Cy Young Award voting.

J.R. Richard posted career bests in walks per nine innings (3.02), strikeouts (313), walk percentage (8.3%), strikeouts per walk percentage (18.3%), innings pitched (292.1), WAR (8.9 per fangraphs), and complete games (19).  His 313 strikeouts remains the Astros franchise record for strikeouts in a season - it's a number that even the legendary strikeout king Nolan Ryan never touched during his Astros tenure.  His nineteen complete games included an Astros record 9 consecutive complete games from July 29th through Sept. 6th, and he set an Astros record for most consecutive innings without requiring bullpen relief with 86 consecutive innings pitched without relief from July 29th through September 11th.

He led all of baseball's qualified starters in ERA (2.71), he finished sixth in wins with his third straight 18 win season, and he was third in all of baseball in WHIP with a 1.09 mark - just shy of teammate Ken Forsch, who led all of baseball with a oh-so-slightly better 1.07 mark.  His 292.1 innings pitched were the second most in the league, behind Joe Niekro.  He was particularly dominant when it came to strikeouts - his 313 was 90 more strikeouts than the second most in baseball...which was his future teammate,Nolan Ryan.

Sounds like he was deserving of third place in the Cy Young race on the surface, doesn't it?

But let's look a little deeper than the sportswriters in the BBWAA did that year.  Perhaps even deeper than some of the Astros fans who watched J.R. that season have looked at his numbers.

When it comes to FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, for those who are new to advanced metrics), J.R. Richard was in a class of his own. His 2.21 mark was easily, distantly the best in all of baseball - the second best was Ron Guidry with 3.03.  His 8.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) per FanGraphs was TWO FULL WINS better than second place, Tommy John, who posted a 6.9 WAR season.  His K/9 innings mark was 9.64, which was followed reasonably closely by future teammate Nolan Ryan at 9.01 and very, very distantly by the rest of the Major Leagues - third place was 7.65 strikeouts per nine.  His K % was a stellar 26.6%, and second place was once again Nolan.  Nolan's 23.8 % was fairly distant, and no one else in baseball was even worth mentioning.  His 18.3% strikeout percentage destroyed second-place Ron Guidry at 13.7%, his opponent's batting average (.205) was the best in baseball among qualified starters, his FIP- (explanation here, for those unfamiliar) was an outstanding 61 - second best was Guidry with a 73.  Richard's RAR (Runs Above Replacement, please feel free to click here and scroll down to the R's to read further if you're unfamiliar) was 75.9.  Tommy John was second with 64.8, and even more distant in third at 57.7 was Ron Guidry.

Looking back in hindsight, you can probably see that not only was J.R. Richard the best pitcher in the world in 1979, it honestly wasn't even all that close.  It's a shame that the Cy Young voters weren't able to see it.  Of course, what would happen to J.R. Richard less than a year after the end of his legendary 1979 season was a far greater shame, but that's an article for a different day.

I'll leave you with video of J.R. Richard, Astros legend, pitching in his only All Star Game in the next season, 1980, just weeks before the stroke that ended his career.  His selection to start the game for the National League hot on the heels of his incredible 1979 season was the only official, public accolade he ever received for posting one of The Greatest Seasons In Astros History.