Is Clayton Richard the Ace of the Staff?

Credit: AP Photo

Credit: AP Photo

The San Diego Padres were not expected to field a dominant starting rotation in 2017.

One indicator of this was the team’s decision to sign veteran free-agent Jared Weaver in the off-season, who at this point in his career is barely able to get his velocity into the mid-eighties. Another indicator was the team naming a fellow middling, veteran, free-agent signee, Jhoulys Chacin, as the opening day starter, which was a decision obviously made more by default than anything else. Clearly the function of the 2017 rotation has always been intended as a placeholder to allow the young prospects (primarily position players) to develop at the big league level, uninhibited by expectations of winning now.

It was somewhat clear that Weaver’s only value to the team was going to be in the form of eating innings. Chances were very slim that he was going to have any sort of resurgence, but he gave the Los Angeles Angels 178 innings in 2016 and the Padres’ hope was replication. Unfortunately for the team, Weaver only got through nine starts, sporting a 7.44 ERA and a 3.4 HR/9 % in 42.1 innings, before hitting the disabled list with hip inflammation on May 20. He has yet to return. So far, the team’s most serviceable veteran innings eater has not been Weaver.

The Padres also signed Clayton Richard in the 2017 off-season. Richard’s is a familiar face in San Diego. He came over to the Padres in 2008 as part of the deal that sent Jake Peavy over to the Chicago White Sox. He was a staple in the rotation from ’08-2013, when he was let go by the team after receiving season-ending shoulder surgery. He returned to the Padres in August 2016, after the team claimed him off of waivers from the Chicago Cubs. As a starter with the Padres in 2016, Richard went 3-3 with a 2.52 ERA in 11 games (nine starts). His performance in the final months of the season was apparently impressive enough to warrant another opportunity with the team, so they re-signed him to a one year deal for $1.75 million in 2017.

Honestly, this signing made the most sense of any of them. Richard is a fan favorite, he pitches well in San Diego, he had pitched well recently as a Padre, and he was an inexpensive signing. The response to Richard’s return by Padres fans was mostly positive, while the response to Weaver’s signing was indifferent, at best. Yet at $3 million, Weaver is making more.

It became evident that Richard’s success from late 2016 had carried over when he pitched eight shutout innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his first start of the season on April 4. He struck out five and walked only two. He induced ground balls at a stunning 80% rate that night. This performance also came only one day after the Padres were routed by the Dodgers on Opening Day 14-3. It was a moment of re-calibration at a crucial time for the young club.

Richard is now 15 starts into the season. He has gone six innings or more in 10 of those starts. His current record is 5-7, which is actually saying something when pitching in front of a team as offensively and defensively streaky as the Padres tend to be. With the season not even half way through, Richard has already pitched 94.1 innings. He managed to pull off a complete game on May 21 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. In that outing he only allowed one earned run, with six strikeouts and no walks allowed.

On June 3, he almost went a full nine once again, but was pulled after 8.2 innings and 127 pitches. He gave up two runs prior to being pulled but still got the win 6-2. The mere fact that Andy Green allowed Richard to stay on the mound into the ninth, with his pitch count so high, speaks volumes about the respect that he’s earned. Richard’s ability to go deep into games is a huge benefit to the bullpen and there’s no doubt that his manager appreciates it.

Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Richard’s xFIP on the season is at 3.68 and his ERA is 4.20. For comparison, Johnny Cueto is sporting a 3.81 xFIP and a 4.42 ERA this season. It’s true that Richard is not a huge strikeout producer, but with a K/9 rate at 6.39 he’s doing all right. Richard’s game is ground ball induction; it has been since he returned to the Padres last season with a slightly lowered arm slot. No longer a young buck, able to rely on sheer velocity, Richard had to reinvent himself, and he’s done it with some success.

This season, Richard is inducing ground balls at 58%. Again, for comparison, Cueto induces grounders at 40.8%, Zack Grienke at 47.2 % and Clayton Kershaw at 46.2%. Okay, yes, these are strikeout guys, but Richard could never compete with them without his own ground ball advantage. The new Richard has the ability to square off with these guys and potentially win (maybe only against Kershaw on a really bad day). With his ability to go so deep into games, sometimes Richard looks a little bit like an ace.

On a side note, Luis Perdomo is inducing ground balls at 64.1%, which is pretty great for a player who factors into the Padres’ long-term plans.

Let’s not forget about the intangibles either. Richard has the reputation of being a solid clubhouse presence and great mentor for the younger players. Mentorship was another justification made by the Padres in regard to their signing of Weaver. Not saying that Weaver hasn’t been a good clubhouse presence, but they already had that with Richard, again, for less money.

With July quickly approaching, trade deadline talk is looming. If you ask me, Richard could actually bring in a nice little haul for the Padres. He may be able to yield a decent prospect or two. On a recent East Village Times podcast, our hosts, James Clark and Patrick Brewer, were speculating on a player within an organization’s top 30 as a return. That seems like a reasonable estimate, and who knows, if Richard steps up his game even more in the coming weeks, he may bring in something even sweeter, like a top 20. Just let me dream.

The defense rests. Clayton Richard is the Padres’ most productive veteran innings eater of the season. There’s no question that he’s a team leader and his trade value seems to be rising with every start. He has been able to go toe to toe with some of the better starters in the NL west and his ability to go late into games is a breath of fresh air during a season where the team is a work in progress and excellence is underrepresented. My favorite games of the season so far have been Richard’s late games. So thanks for keeping things interesting, Clayton.

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