Clayton Richard, the Fascinating Find

On opening day, the Padres lost to the Dodgers by 11 runs, and the score makes the game seem closer than it was. It was more or less how the game was expected to go, and half the postgame stories revolved around the same narrative: It’s going to be a long season for San Diego. And, you know what, it probably will be a long season for San Diego. But after game number two, the Padres and Dodgers are even at .500. The Dodgers didn’t just lose on Tuesday — they got blanked, 4-0.

Yangervis Solarte hit a home run. That was a big deal. Erick Aybar went 3-for-3 with two doubles and a walk. That was a big deal. Wil Myers scored on a pop-up to short. That was a big deal. But the biggest deal of all was Clayton Richard, and his eight shutout innings. Richard threw 69% strikes and induced four double plays, and he wound up with a game score of 75, tied for the second-best mark of his career. His only better game came in 2012. Clayton Richard isn’t supposed to turn in these outings.

He won’t make a habit of it. Nobody could. But that isn’t the point. The larger point is that Richard is back, he’s healthy, and he’s rebuilt. He’s 33 years old and he’s part of a rotation many expect to be the worst in the league, but you have to give Richard some credit. He possesses a true 80 skill.

In order to understand it, you have to go back a few years. Here’s Richard throwing a pitch in the middle of 2013:

Without any context, it’s just a regular pitch, thrown with a regular motion. There’s nothing extraordinary. But Richard was experiencing some discomfort, and, long story short, he needed surgery to relieve the symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome. There’ve been a few pitchers who’ve needed the same operation, and, for example, the Rangers are taking a chance on Tyson Ross. Ross isn’t all the way back yet. Richard got back — to the majors — in 2015. And he looked different right away. Here’s a pitch from last night:

It’s a much simpler, smoother delivery. Richard has a clean follow-through, and the throwing motion looks almost effortless. Maybe the most significant change has been to his arm slot. From before:

And from last night:

Richard has dropped down, coming around his shoulders. His slot now is practically sidearm, and it’s been like this since he first got back. It’s more of a natural arm slot, which is good enough, but this comes with a side effect. Richard already threw a sinker, but since his return, it’s gotten a lot more sink. That’s what can happen when you lower your arm, and Richard has become one of the top ground-ball pitchers in the game.

In 2015, he resurfaced with the Cubs. They released him last August, and he quickly re-joined the Padres. Since the start of last season, 328 pitchers have thrown at least 50 innings. Richard’s ground-ball rate of 66% ranks behind only Zach Britton, who is unreal and unfair. Richard has leaned on his sinker, and it’s treated him well. Now! He’s hardly been an ace. Richard has not piled up the strikeouts, nor has he avoided enough walks. But I’ll tell you this much — over the given span, including last night, Richard has started 10 games. The Padres shifted him from the bullpen into the rotation, and there could really be something here.

I grabbed data for every starter who’s thrown at least 50 innings since the start of last year. I focused on strike rate, contact rate, and grounder rate, and then I developed some comp scores to Richard, based on statistical z-scores. I’m probably too much in love with these experimental comp scores, but just to give you an idea, here are the top five most comparable pitchers:

Starters, 2016 – 2017
Pitcher Strike% Contact% GB% Comp Score xFIP-
Clayton Richard 62.8% 78.7% 65.3% 99
Dallas Keuchel 62.7% 78.2% 57.1% 1.4 84
Marcus Stroman 64.5% 80.2% 60.1% 1.9 80
Jaime Garcia 63.6% 80.0% 56.6% 2.0 93
Luis Perdomo 64.3% 81.6% 61.1% 2.1 93
Aaron Sanchez 62.6% 81.1% 54.4% 2.3 88

It’s a mixed bag in terms of actual recent results, but this is a group of intriguing names, and they have all managed a better-than-average adjusted xFIP. Richard hasn’t thrown a lot of strikes, but he hasn’t thrown too few strikes, and he’s also missed a fine rate of bats. He’s neither too wild nor too hittable, and the grounders give him help. As one more fun look, I examined the 2016 PITCHf/x leaderboards at Baseball Prospectus, and I looked for comparable lefty-starter sinkers. One stood out from all the others:

A Sinker Comparison
Pitcher SI MPH SI Horizontal SI Vertical SI Contact%
Clayton Richard 91.2 -11.7 2.6 84.5%
Chris Sale 91.8 -12.1 3.0 84.4%
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Chris Sale doesn’t throw his sinker close to as often as Clayton Richard throws his, but the pitches are basically twins. You don’t think of Richard as throwing nearly as hard as Sale does, and Sale has the higher velocity ceiling, but Richard gets a lot of movement out of that arm slot. His sinker is remarkably difficult to lift, and these days he’s locating a little better since he’s gotten used to the smoother delivery. Clayton Richard has gotten healthy and simplified, and the Padres stand to benefit.

We usually want to read and write about the young up-and-comers. The potential developing aces, the guys who could gun for a Cy Young. At the very least, the preference is to read about players on contending teams, since they can mean something, if nothing else. Clayton Richard is in his mid-30s, he’s not going to win an award, and the Padres probably won’t win 70 games. Richard won’t be the subject of too many headlines. But it’s one thing to be successful because you’re just really good. It’s quite another to struggle, have surgery, and subsequently re-invent yourself when it would be easy to walk away. Clayton Richard has become a good story, and the Padres should be able to use him for more than his leadership.

We hoped you liked reading Clayton Richard, the Fascinating Find by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Always fun to root for comeback stories. To sift through all of them to find the interesting ones is always a chore, and lately I’ve been too busy-lazy.