Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday …J.R. Richard

Picture a man 6’8 bearing down on you, now picture him throwing a baseball between 97 to 100 mph per hour sometimes with no control…scary. That was J.R. Richard.

Once he learned to harness his fastball…he became one of the dominant pitchers in the National League during his time (1971-1980)

From 1976 to 1980, he was one of the premier pitchers in the majors, leading the National League twice in strikeouts, once in earned run average, and three times in hits allowed per nine innings, winning at least 18 games between 1976 and 1979. On July 30, 1980, Richard suffered a stroke and collapsed while playing a game of catch before an Astros game, and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to remove a life-threatening blood clot in his neck. His condition brought a sudden end to his major league career at the age of 30. His 313 strikeouts in 1979 remains an Astros franchise record, and he held the team’s record for career strikeouts (1,493) until 1987.

In his second game of the 1979 season, Richard set the modern-day record for throwing six wild pitches in a single game against the Dodgers. Despite this, he finished the game with a 13-strikeout performance in a 2–1 Astros victory. He won his first four decisions that season but those victories were followed by four losses. He continued to accumulate strikeouts and finally began to walk fewer batters on average, exhibiting greater control over his pitching. Richard evened out his record at seven wins and seven losses by pitching a complete game three-hit shutout against the Padres on June 30. By the All-Star break, Richard had 7 wins, 10 losses, a 3.52 earned run average and 158 strikeouts in just a bit over 157 innings of work. By July 25, his record stood at eight wins and 11 losses, but after he pitched nine straight complete games (including two-hit and three-hit shutouts on August 27 and September 6, respectively) through September 6 and worked 86 consecutive innings without the need of a relief pitcher, which set an Astros club record, it was clear that he was on a winning streak. On September 21, in a game against the Reds, he pitched 11 innings and matched a career high of 15 strikeouts, which he also reached earlier in the season on August 3 in a game against the Braves. He closed out the season against the Dodgers by winning his 11th straight game against the team, with his last loss coming on June 23, 1976.He was honored as the National League Pitcher of the Month for September after going 4–1 with a 1.24 ERA, four complete games, two shutouts and 69 strikeouts in 53 innings pitched during the stretch.

He finished the season with 18–13 record and a league-best 2.71 ERA. He struck out 10 or more batters 14 times in the season, and totaled a league-leading 313 strikeouts for the season, breaking his own club record. Richard joined Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax as the only modern-day pitchers to strike out over 300 batters in consecutive seasons. He led the club in ERA, complete games and innings pitched and tied Joe Niekro in number of games started. He gave up 220 hits in the season, which gave him a league-best 6.77 hits per nine innings ratio. He again led the league by limiting the opposing hitters’ batting averages to .209 that year. Richard finished fifth in the league in walks allowed, with his first sub-100 total since he became a mainstay starter with the Astros. He also led the league with a 9.64 strikeouts per nine innings ratio. Richard finished 19th in National League MVP Award voting and third in Cy Young Award voting, behind winner Bruce Sutter and teammate Joe Niekro, who had 21 wins and a 3.00 ERA that season.Richard fared slightly worse in batting and fielding, finishing with a .126 batting average and a .902 fielding percentage and five errors. On October 11, Richard signed a four-year contract with the Astros.

When asked in 2012 who was the “toughest pitcher to get a hit off of” during his career, Dale Murphy answered “Anybody that played in the late 70’s or early 80’s will probably give you the same answer: JR Richard”. In 1980, Richard was now teamed with seven-time American League strikeout champion Nolan Ryan, who had joined the Astros as a free agent. During the first half of the season, Richard was virtually unhittable, starting the year with five straight wins, 48 strikeouts (including two starts with 12 and 13 strikeouts), and a sub-2.00 ERA. He was named National League Pitcher of the Month for April. At one point, Richard threw three straight complete-game shutouts, two against the Giants and one against the Cubs. On July 3, he broke Dierker’s team record of 1487 career strikeouts in a 5–3 win over the Braves; it was to be Richard’s last major league victory. After finishing the first half of the season with a 10–4 record, 115 strikeouts and a 1.96 ERA,[ Richard was selected to be the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game on July 8, but he pitched just two innings due to various back and shoulder problems. As the season progressed, Richard began to complain of a “dead arm”, citing discomfort in his shoulder and forearm. His concerns fell on deaf ears. Some in the media even interpreted these complaints as whining or malingering, citing Richard’s reputation for moodiness. Others theorized that Richard was egotistical and could not handle the pressure of pitching for the Astros, while others suggested he was jealous of Ryan’s $4.5 million contract.

During his next start on July 14 against the Braves, Richard was pitching well and even struck out the side in the second inning, but had trouble seeing catcher Alan Ashby‘s signs and also had difficulty moving his arm. He left the game in the fourth inning after throwing a fastball and feeling his right arm go “dead”. He had numbness in the fingers of his right hand and could not grasp a baseball. The Astros placed Richard on the 21-day disabled list. As it turned out, it would be his last major league game.

On July 30, Richard went to see a chiropractor who rotated his neck to fix the flow of blood in his upper torso region. Later that day, Richard was participating in warm-ups before the game when he suffered a major stroke and collapsed in the outfield. Before the stroke, he had a headache and a feeling of weakness through his body. Eventually, that progressed into vision problems and paralysis in the left side of his body. A massive blockage in his right carotid artery necessitated emergency surgery that evening. An examination by neurologist William S. Fields showed that Richard was still experiencing weakness in his extremities and on the left side of his face. He also had blurred vision through his left eye. A CAT scan of Richard’s brain later showed that Richard had experienced three separate strokes from the different obstructions in his arterial system. Furthermore, the arteries in his right arm were still obstructed. Later examinations showed that Richard was suffering from extensive arterial thoracic outlet syndrome. While pitching, his clavicle and first rib pinched his subclavian artery. As a result of this problem, Richard would feel normal for the first few innings of the game but after putting repeated pressure on his subclavian artery, his arm would start to ache in pain and eventually start to feel “heavy”. His wife at the time, Carolyn, told reporters, “It took death, or nearly death, to get an apology. They should have believed him.”

Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday salutes …James Rodney Richard aka J.R. Richard

MLB debut
September 5, 1971 for the Houston Astros
Last MLB appearance
July 14, 1980 for the Houston Astros
Career statistics
Win–Loss record 107–71
Earned run average 3.15
Strikeouts 1,493
Career highlights and awards

Published by bklynboy59

Welcome to Smallthoughtsinasportsworld. We keep it fun and we keep interesting and informative. On Tuesdays we go back in time with Old School Tuesdays, on Thursdays we keep it fun by Smallthoughts Trivia Thursday and on Fridays is Smallthoughts: Rant of the Week and Smallthoughts:Rave of the Week and we also post the answer from Smallthoughts:Trivia Thursday. I am a lifelong New York Mets, Knicks and Jets and Giants fan. I root hard for my teams and have rooted for them even when it wasn't and in some cases still isn't easy. I enjoy talking sports, and on here I get to write about it as well. I have my thoughts hence Small thoughts, we will not always agree, but respectfully speak about what we feel. I invite your comments and feedback as well. You can also follow me on twitter @bklynboy59 and facebook Jerry bklynboy Small

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