Photo credit: By SD Dirk on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
On Thursday night, Clayton Richard turned in yet another fine start for the Padres, blanking the Rockies over seven innings, and he is starting to bring the 2015 late-season run by Rich Hill to mind. To lump Richard in with Hill is to make a loose comparison, but I’ll make it anyway. Both were away from the majors for large chunks of 2014 and 2015 (in Richard’s case, it was all of 2014) and have revived their careers with unexpected late-season runs. Both also happened to play their college ball at the University of Michigan.
The comparison ends there, as Hill was more promising in his heyday and is still more promising now, even though he is nearly four years older. Nonetheless, what Richard has done since getting signed by the Padres last month, and particularly over the last three weeks has been remarkable.
Coming back from surgery from thoracic outlet syndrome, Richard pitched well for the Cubs late last season, but because of his long relief role and a lack of strikeouts, he had virtually no Fantasy value. Joe Maddon used him more frequently as a LOOGY this year, and he wasn’t nearly as effective, so on Aug. 3, the Cubs released him. That’s what makes what’s happened since then all the more surprising.
Richard’s first two outings for the Padres were out of the bullpen, but he received his first start on Aug. 14 at the Mets. It wasn’t bad for Richard’s first start in more than a year, but the five-inning, two-run outing didn’t seem to foreshadow anything that Fantasy owners would need to pay attention to. In Richard’s four subsequent starts, he allowed one earned run over 25 innings. His 20 strikeouts to seven walks, while good, isn’t especially noteworthy, but his 71.1 percent ground ball rate is a real head-turner.
The lefty still relies heavily on his sinker, but whereas he typically used to get ground balls with it at a rate between 50 and 60 percent, over his last four starts, that rate has skyrocketed to 78.2 percent. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Richard has been throwing from a lower arm slot, and as the graph below shows, that is resulting in a lower release point — more similar to the one he had with the Cubs last season.
In his best seasons, Richard’s ability to limit extra-base hits was one of his strengths, and with his tweaked arm slot, he has taken that skill to another level. Over his last four starts, Richard has allowed a microscopic .021 Isolated Power. He has also shored up some prior weaknesses, throwing more strikes and allowing less contact. Four starts is a small sample, but given Richard’s long-standing status as a contact pitcher, it’s notable that he has induced at least nine swinging strikes in each of those outings.
Richard is scheduled to take the mound again Tuesday at the struggling Giants. As long as the Padres don’t get wacky and go with a four-man rotation, starting Richard on regular rest the following Sunday at the Rockies, he’s not a bad one-start option, particularly in deeper leagues. If he continues his strong run in San Francisco, he could then be a tantalizing two-start alternative, potentially lining up for home starts against the Diamondbacks and Giants in Week 25. Might be a good idea to pick him now, if you have the room.