Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? J.R. Richard

Claim to fame: Richard may rank as another of baseball’s great What Ifs?, an ace pitcher for the Houston Astros whose career ended at 30 due to a stroke. He went 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA, winning at least 18 games four times, and it’s conceivable he might have gotten to 300 wins if not for his July 30, 1980 collapse during pre-game warm-ups. He’s set an admirable example, both as a player and as a survivor, someone who tried for years after his stroke without success to return to the majors, someone who wound up homeless and living under a highway overpass in 1994 and has since rebuilt his life.

The question for our purposes is if Richard did enough for a Hall of Fame plaque. Cooperstown has enshrined pitchers with truncated careers before, from Addie Joss to Dizzy Dean to Sandy Koufax, and Richard would have the fewest career wins of any of them. With a deeper look at his numbers, other factors come into play as well.

Current of Hall of Fame eligibility: Richard’s a candidate for the Veterans Committee, having made his sole appearance on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot in 1986. Pitchers glutted the voting that year, and to some extent, they may have cancelled one another out. Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning, and Lew Burdette, among others, fared better than Richard though no pitchers were enshrined in 1986. Richard’s 1.6 percent showing was better only than Ken Holtzman, Andy Messersmith, Jim Lonborg, and Jack Billingham for former front-end hurlers.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? I like Richard, and I’ll celebrate Richard as the very good player he was, but the flaws of his Cooperstown candidacy aren’t difficult to expose. Even if we set aside his underwhelming lifetime numbers, such as his 22.4 WAR as the byproduct of a shortened career, his 108 ERA+ and 1.243 WHIP don’t place him among the upper echelon of Hall of Fame pitchers. Richard’s an example of something else, too: Pitchers whose stats were bolstered by pitching in the offensive void that was the Houston Astrodome.

I’ve written here before how the cavernous dimensions and low run environment hurt the likes of Cesar Cedeno, Bob Watson, and Jim Wynn. The inverse may have been true for pitchers (and on a side note, if there’s a ballpark that’s confused more Hall of Fame cases, I’d love to know of it.) Richard wasn’t the most egregiously different pitcher between the Astros’ landmark former home and elsewhere, though his difference in splits is noticeable. Consider the following:

J.R. Richard at the Astrodome 56-36 2.58 831 582 238 370 754 8.2 1.146
J.R. Richard, elsewhere 51-35 3.76 774.2 645 324 400 739 8.6 1.349
Larry Dierker at the Astrodome 87-49 2.71 1272 1100 383 361 882 6.2 1.149
Larry Dierker, elsewhere 52-74 4.02 1061.1 1029 474 350 611 5.2 1.299
Mike Hampton at the Astrodome 38-16 2.91 531.2 489 172 170 407 6.9 1.239
Mike Hampton, elsewhere 110-99 4.42 1736.2 1881 852 731 980 5.1 1.504
Darryl Kile at the Astrodome 35-35 3.51 630.1 565 246 282 534 7.6 1.344
Darryl Kile, elsewhere 98-84 4.37 1535 1570 746 918 1134 6.6 1.621
Nolan Ryan at the Astrodome 59-44 2.77 989.2 714 305 413 1004 9.1 1.139
Nolan Ryan, elsewhere 265-248 3.29 4396.2 3209 1606 2382 4710 9.6 1.272
Mike Scott at the Astrodome 65-40 2.70 937.1 741 281 244 729 7.0 1.051
Mike Scott, elsewhere 59-68 4.23 1131.1 1117 532 383 740 5.9 1.326
Don Wilson at the Astrodome 57-45 3.00 951 807 317 320 671 6.4 1.185
Don Wilson, elsewhere 47-47 3.33 797 672 295 320 612 6.9 1.245

If anything, Richard and others here are a bit overrated. Playing in a pitcher’s park and having tragic career-ending circumstances will do that for a man.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsAndy PettitteBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly MartinBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon MattinglyDon Newcombe,Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJeff KentJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohn SmoltzJohnny MurphyJose CansecoJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises Alou, Omar VizquelPete BrowningPhil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSammy SosaSean FormanSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince ColemanWill Clark