The San Diego Padres designated left-handed starting pitcher Clayton Richard for assignment this afternoon. This was first reported by Eric Stephen of SB Nation. He’s owed $3M for the 2019 season. With the Cincinnati Reds still looking to “get the pitching”, is he someone worth looking into picking up? Let’s dive into this quickly and see if there’s some potential upside to acquiring him.
On the surface, things did not go well for Clayton Richard last season. Or the season before. In 2017 he led the league in losses, hits allowed, and strangely enough, complete games. That came along with a 4.79 ERA – which is worse than it seems thanks to how the ballpark in San Diego plays. In 2018 things were even worse. His ERA jumped up to 5.33 while watching his walk rate and strikeout rate both get worse.
WAR is a bit funny, especially when it comes to pitchers. Baseball Reference and Fangraphs use very different versions of WAR for pitchers and will at times spit out very different numbers. Baseball Reference had Clayton Richard with a -1.2 WAR in 2018. Fangraphs, on the other hand, gave Richard a 0.7 WAR for 2018. That’s a 2 win difference – which is the difference between a league average starting pitcher and a replacement level player. In either case, he didn’t perform well and was somewhere between a well below-average pitcher and one of the worst pitchers in baseball during the 2018 season.
So, how could that guy help the Cincinnati Reds? That’s a good question. But, as we’ve seen time and time again, sometimes different roles can take players that seem to really struggle, and resurrect their careers. The Reds new manager and pitching coach seem to be willing to use players in less than traditional roles. The Brewers, where pitching coach Derek Johnson worked last year, had a rotation that was often working shorter starts and relying on the bullpen to fill the innings. It’s possible that the Reds could do this some, too, thanks to more than a few former starters that could be in the bullpen who could serve in multi-inning roles.
But does Clayton Richard possibly fit as a guy who could be a “short starter”? Maybe. In the first half of the season, he was significantly better than he was in the second half. That could be a good thing, or it could be a bad thing. He didn’t pitch at all in September after having surgery on both of his knees. He is expected to be at full strength for the start of spring training.
In 20 starts over the first half his ERA was 4.43 and he had a 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. He also allowed just 11 home runs in 124.0 innings. And after a tough start in April, he was actually quite good in the 12 starts he made between April 27th and June 27th, posting a 3.83 ERA with 20 walks and 62 strikeouts over 80.0 innings.
His second half was, to put it bluntly, an unmitigated disaster. He made seven starts with an 8.57 ERA. He threw just 34.2 innings and had 13 walks and just 16 strikeouts. Oh, and he allowed EIGHT home runs in that span. Knowing what we know about his knees, there’s a reason that could explain the fall off.
That reason, however, is a real concern. You just don’t know how he will return from not just one knee surgery, but two knee surgeries. There would certainly be a small gamble in picking him up. The cost, though, would be low.
Getting back to whether or not he would fit into the “short starter” category, he, like most every pitcher in the history of the game, is better the first time through the lineup. Hitters had a .247/.313/.379 line against him with 17 walks and 40 strikeouts in 2018 the first time he faced them in a game. That jumped up to a .256/.340/.417 line with 24 walks and 38 strikeouts the second time he saw a hitter. The third time saw batters hit him to the tune of .291/.372/.525 the third time.
There is certainly an argument that could be made that he could potentially fill a role as a guy to throw the first 4-5 innings of a game, then be pulled for a long-reliever in a “piggy back” kind of system where maybe Amir Garrett, Sal Romano, Keury Mella could come on for another 2-3 innings to get you to the back end of your bullpen.
Clayton Richard is also an extreme ground ball rate pitcher, if that’s your kind of thing. Over the last three seasons, of pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched, his ground ball rate of 59.3% ranks second in baseball to Marcus Stroman. Maybe he could slide into the bullpen role as a 1-2 inning guy where he wouldn’t even face a lineup a second time, and be a ground ball machine.
There are a few things to like here. And there are a few things that should leave you very hesitant here, too. The price should be low, and with creative usage, this could be a decent pick up. And if it doesn’t work out, because the cost will be low, it should be easy to cut bait and move on rather than force the situation because of the cost.