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 Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Albert Pujols, Allie Reynolds, Andy Pettitte, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Bill King, Billy Martin, Bobby Grich, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Craig Biggio, Curt Flood, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe,Dwight Evans, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Gus Greenlee, Harold Baines, Harry Dalton, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Johnny Murphy, Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Kevin Brown, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Omar Vizquel, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito,Roger Maris, Ron Cey, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Sammy Sosa, Sean Forman, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey,Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Tony Oliva, Vince Coleman, Will Clark
6 Replies to “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? J.R. Richard”
I love the J.R. Richard type—speed, horrifying control issues, big Ks, and enough walks to scare the shit out of you.
I don’t care about value here. The J.R. Richard type of pitcher is the most exciting there is. Nolan Ryan. A young Koufax. Sam McDowell. Don Wilson. I love them.
Let’s remember something about Richard—he was cut down in his prime. He was 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA when his career was taken from him. And it sounds like much of the blame lies with the Astros for brushing his health concerns aside.
J.R. Richard was wild as a youngster, but in his final full season he led the league in K per BB. I happen to believe he was on the way to a 40-WAR career with a shiny park-aided ERA and a gaudy winning percentage. That would have drastically changed his Hall of Fame case, particularly if he soared past 3000 Ks.
The Hall is not for what might have been, but Richard is not Denny McLain. He is not Sam McDowell. He didn’t fade away. He burnt out.
He probably wasn’t on the way to a DESERVING Hall selection. But he was on his way to the type of flashy, park-aided numbers that get people into the Hall.
Thanks Graham. I had no idea the J.R. suffered so much after his stroke. He was an exciting pitcher to watch. I’m glad to know that he is doing better now after those awful years.
J.R. was an excellent pitcher to watch. I knew the astrodome was not a hitter’s ballpark but never thought about the advantage that the pitchers would have there…, duh! Altho his wins to loses suffered away from home, it seems like only Don Wilson was the only one to have more comparable numbers home and away.
The WHIP and ERA numbers tell the story: WHIP higher by about 0.2 and ERA higher by about 1 when pitching in parks other than the Astrodome. It’s figures like these and the cartoonish batting numbers at Coors Field that leave me more and more inclined to rely only on road splits to evaluate player value.
@Adam — good call. Context should mean more than it sometimes does in Hall of Fame voting.
@Alvy — this post left me wondering what Don Wilson might have done with a full career. It’s a shame his career and his life ended prematurely.
@Brendan — interesting idea going more off of road splits for a pitcher. I wonder if much has been written on this. Seems like good fodder for a post.
The anti-Hall OF Fame position is much more compelling
Rice was a great player, a former MVP who at one point, Hank Aaron said he was the guy who would break his record.