With some of the recent “This Day in Transaction History” posts I’ve done, I have examined some players whose careers were sadly derailed or cut short. Dontrelle Willis and Carlos Quentin were among them — stars that shone brightly but for a short period of time due to injuries or other reasons.
Former Astros pitcher J.R. Richard is another. The right-hander was released by the Astros on this day in 1984, four years after suffering a stroke and valiantly attempting to make a comeback.
Richard broke out as a 26-year-old in 1976, winning 20 games and posting a 2.75 ERA. While those numbers were nice, he was an incomplete pitcher as he led the league in walks with 151 and only struck out 214 batters over 291 innings. Richard would gradually get better and better, culminating in a dominant 1979 season in which he went 18-13 with a 2.71 ERA and a 313/98 K/BB ratio across 292 1/3 innings. It was his second consecutive 300-strikeout season and he finished third in NL Cy Young voting. Despite Richard’s performance, the Astros narrowly lost the NL West division to the Reds.
Richard, 30 years old in 1980, got off to a blistering start. Through 16 starts, he had a 1.96 ERA with 115 strikeouts and 39 walks over 110 1/3 innings. He was looking like a Cy Young winner. Unfortunately, in a July 14 start against the Braves, Richard started experiencing vision problems and had trouble moving his pitching arm, exiting the game with one out in the fourth inning. It would be the final start of his career, which just seemed to be taking off. He suffered three separate strokes on July 30 while he was warming up in the outfield before a game.
Despite losing Richard for the season, the Astros marched on, winning the division and reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Astros narrowly lost the five-game Championship Series to the Phillies in what is still one of the most tense playoff series of all time. The Phillies won the decisive Game 5 by an 8-7 margin over 10 innings of play.
Richard would spend the next four years attempting to return to the majors to pitch, but he didn’t quite get there. He tossed 66 1/3 innings between Single-A Daytona Beach and Triple-A Tucson in 1982, but posted a disastrous 6.78 ERA which included 42 walks alongside just 41 strikeouts. The next year, he pitched for the Astros’ rookie league team. His results were better, but he was still not pitching at a major league level quite yet. The Astros re-signed Richard for the ’84 season, giving him one more go, but it didn’t work out and he was released.
Braves legend and two-time MVP Dale Murphy described Richard as “one of the toughest pitchers around.” John Royal of the Houston Press recalls Murphy being asked which pitcher was the toughest he had ever faced in his career. Royal wrote, “Without hesitation, he answered J.R. Richard.” Back then, pitchers throwing 100 MPH was quite rare. Richard did it seemingly effortlessly.
Richard ended his 10-year career having gone 107-71 with a 3.15 ERA and 1,493 strikeouts over 1,606 innings. He is one of only 15 pitchers with multiple 300-strikeout seasons. One wonders what Richard might have been able to accomplish had he been able to not only complete the 1980 season, but pitch into his mid- and late-30’s.
Sadly, Richard fell on even harder times once his playing days were officially over. He was living under a Houston overpass in the mid-1990’s, but has thankfully bounced back since then.