Astros: J.R. Richard’s Number Should Be Retired
Making a case for the Astros to finally retire the number of one of the franchise’s all-time greats
On March 7, the Astros’ social media accounts posted happy birthday wishes to former pitcher J.R. Richard. Naturally, the mere mention of one of the greatest players to take the mound for Houston’s baseball club prompted me to think about the man, his incredible story, and his legacy.
For a period of time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Richard was arguably the most unhittable pitcher in the major leagues. Armed with a triple-digit fastball and a slider that could reach the upper 90s, he struck out Willie Mays three times in his debut.
He won 18 or more games in four consecutive seasons, led the National League in strikeouts twice and garnered three top-10 Cy Young Award finishes. He also had three seasons in which he allowed the fewest hits per nine innings in the league.
Richard’s performance in the first half of the 1980 season stands on par with the best stretches of any pitcher. He posted a 1.90 ERA across 17 starts while allowing a meager 65 hits in 113.2 innings. He was a bona fide ace on a staff that included Nolan Ryan and Joe Niekro.
He landed on the disabled list after being pulled from his only start after the All-Star break because of blurred vision. Then, while throwing a ball around the outfield before a game on July 30, 1980, Richard suffered a stroke, ending his career.
Following his retirement, he lost his assets in a series of failed investments and divorces, until he was found living under a Houston overpass in 1994. He has since turned his life around, becoming a minister and working to support area youth baseball leagues.
Making the Case
When wondering why the Astros have yet to retire Richard’s number, it helps to look at the numbers already retired. As it turns out, there is a ready-made comparison: Don Wilson‘s No. 40.
Wilson, like Richard, was a flamethrowing phenom whose career was cut short. The difference is the Astros moved quickly to retire Wilson’s number following his tragic death in 1975 while Richard attempted to keep playing.
From a statistical standpoint, Richard has a stronger case. Richard recorded more wins and more strikeouts than Wilson despite pitching 142 fewer innings. He also allowed fewer hits and home runs per nine innings and had a higher win-loss percentage.
Perhaps the best argument for Richard is that Jim Umbricht‘s No. 32 is retired. Umbricht spent two seasons with the Colt .45s before dying of cancer in 1964. Mostly a relief pitcher, he threw 143 innings of 2.33 ERA ball despite undergoing cancer surgery in the 1962-1963 offseason.
While Umbricht was an excellent pitcher for the Colt .45s, it’s hard to argue he had a bigger impact on the club than Richard.
The point here is not to say Wilson and Umbricht are not deserving of their respective places in Astros history. Rather, it is to demonstrate that Richard, by comparison, is clearly deserving of the same honor.
Richard also posted a lower ERA, more strikeouts and a higher win-loss percentage than Mike Scott, whose No. 33 is also retired. Scott had some huge moments for the Astros, but Richard won only three fewer games in an Astros uniform than Scott did and was simply more dominant and imposing overall.
Richard’s dominance is even comparable to Ryan’s time in Houston. As Astros, Ryan and Richard posted nearly identical win and ERA totals, while Ryan had more strikeouts and Richard had a better win-loss percentage. At their respective peaks, they could match each other pitch for pitch.
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Richard holds many Astros franchise records. His 313 strikeouts in 1979 are the most in a season in club history. He has the records for most consecutive complete games (9) and shutouts (3). Richards also holds the Astros record for the most games with 10 or more strikeouts in a season (14) — and he did it twice.
Richard’s .212 career opponents’ batting average is the best in club history among players who threw at least 600 innings. He is fifth in Astros history in wins, third in strikeouts, and his .601 winning percentage is third among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings with the club.
With all these achievements, it’s a wonder Richard has yet to be honored among the franchise’s best. There could have been some bad blood between Richard and the Astros near the end of his career, but after more than 30 years, this is long overdue.
It’s time the Astros ensure No. 50 is never worn by another Houston player again.
**Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and MLB.com**