What Might Have Been…J.R. Richard
By the spring of 1980, James Rodney Richard — J.R. for brevityâ€™s sake — had become one of the most feared pitchers in baseball.
The 6â€™8, 250-pounder had finally harnessed the immense potential that made the Houston Astros select him as their first round choice in the 1969 draft. The Ruston, Louisiana resident quickly reached the majors, making his debut with an overwhelming 15-strikeout performance against San Francisco on September 5, 1971.
Control issues limited him to just 23 appearances over the next three seasons before Richard made the Astros rotation in 1975. He made his mark with a 20-15, 2.75 effort in 1976 and followed with a solid 18-12, 2.97 performance in â€˜77.
Owning a fastball that consistently danced near triple digits, Richardâ€™s pitching reached the next level in 1978, leading the National League with 303 strikeouts while amassing an 18-11 mark over 275 innings. As dominating as the â€˜78 campaign was, Richard was more devastating the following season, topping the NL with a 2.71 ERA and 313 Kâ€™s. Only 29, his ceiling was scary to imagine.
Imagination became reality during the spring of 1980, as Richard paced the NL West-leading Astros with a 10-4 record and a 1.90 ERA. He earned his first trip to the All-Star Game, receiving the cherished honor of making the start at Dodger Stadium.
Tragically, the once-bright future came to a near-fatal crash two weeks later when Richard collapsed on the Astrodome floor with a stroke. Lost for the remainder of the 1980 season, Richard tried valiantly to return, but never made it back to the majors.
But What If…..
What if Richard never had the stroke? What if we could turn the clock back to opening day of the 1980 season and gave the big fireballer a second chance?
Thanks to our friends at Out of the Park Baseball, we were able to go back in time to 1980, where disco was in its last throes, the world wondered â€œWho Shot J.R. (Ewing, that is)?â€ and Darth Vader led a revived Empire that struck back against Luke, Han and Chewie.
Of the dozen or so simulations we ran, this was the most realistic. One had Richard suffering a career-ending rotator cuff injury midway through the 1982 season, while the others ran similar to the final replay of the flamethrower.
As in real life, Richard was inflicted with a season-ending injury in 1980, a torn elbow ligament that stalled what was shaping up to be an impressive campaign.
While he did return in 1981, it was obvious that the injury began to take away his heater; Richard fanned 191 hitters in his â€œcomebackâ€ season, but never came remotely close to his record-setting 1978-79 form. He would remain a fixture in the Astros rotation through 1984 as injuries (wrist, rotator cuff) continued to erode the promise that appeared within grasp for Richard at the beginning of the decade.
Houstonâ€™s relationship with the big righty came to a close after the â€˜84 campaign; Richard spent much of 1985 in search of a big league job before Texas inked him to a free agent deal in August. He would make seven forgettable starts, being shelled for 10 homers in 41.1 innings en route to a 3-4, 5.66 record.
The 1986 season came and went without Richard receiving a phone call; at 36 and with a fastball that scared no one, he quietly announced his retirement from the game in January 1987.
It would have been heart-warming to say that 1980 would have seen Richard in the midst of a Sandy Kofax-like run toward eventually immortality and a plaque in Cooperstown. Much like life, baseballâ€™s charm and intrigue also includes the cruel roadblock of greatness to those on the Autobahn of elite status.
Richard, like fellow teammate Don Wilson and future Astro Dicky Thon, was a poster child of talent taken away too soon. While our simulation didnâ€™t deliver another season where his intimidating presence make hitters quake in fear, the upside is that fans — in this case — were able to see Richard pitch beyond 1980.
Since 1990, Brandon has been in sports media in a variety of roles, including sports editor of The Galveston County (TX) Daily News and general assignments/sports for the Houston Chronicle. His work has also appeared on foxsports.com, sportingnews.com and footballoutsiders.com. He co-authored the 2004 edition of the Pro Football Forecast along with Sean Lahman and Todd Grenier. He also worked as a transmissions administrator for Fox Sports Net.Â You can follow Brandon on Facebook and Twitter (BCWilliams71).