Cubs

Clayton Richard takes the long road from surgery to Cubs bullpen

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Clayton Richard takes the long road from surgery to Cubs bullpen

MESA, Ariz. — While advances in sports medicine have turned Tommy John elbow surgery into an almost-routine procedure, pitchers who undergo shoulder surgery have a much worse chance of not only returning to the major leagues, but returning effectively.

BaseballEssential.com counted 27 pitchers who had shoulder surgery from 2010-2013, and only 15 of them returned to the major leagues. Having an operation on one’s shoulder leaves him with just over a 50 percent chance of pitching again at baseball’s highest level. Cubs reliever Clayton Richard is one of the lucky ones. 

The 32-year-old left-hander underwent shoulder surgery in 2013, then had thoracic outlet surgery in 2014. The once-promising pitcher, who was an important piece of the White Sox blockbuster trade for Jake Peavy in 2009, went over two years between appearances in the major leagues. 

The Cubs plucked him from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate to make a spot start last Fourth of July, used him two more times, and designated him for assignment. He cleared waivers, returned from the minor leagues for one more start, then was moved to the bullpen. And soon after, the old Clayton Richard was back — just pitching in a different role.  

“Later on in the season, he was like the Clayton Richard that I faced,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero, who while with the Arizona Diamondbacks faced the ex-San Diego Padres pitcher 19 times, said. “He was throwing it harder than the Clayton Richard I faced, too. The guy worked his butt off to be where he’s at right now again.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

In 18 innings as a reliever last year, Richard had a 3.38 ERA and issued only two walks and one home run. He was both a long reliever and one-out guy, providing manager Joe Maddon with another elastic arm out of the bullpen to help manage the back end of the Cubs’ starting rotation.  

Richard hadn’t worked regularly in relief in six years and admitted the transition from being on an every-five-days schedule to not knowing when he would pitch was difficult at first, but he was more than willing to take on the challenge.

“I knew there was going to be an opportunity to pitch,” Richard said. “That’s all I worried about. And really, at this level, that’s all you can worry about.”  

To rehab from those twin surgeries, Richard went back to his hometown of Lafayette, Ind., where he starred as both a baseball and football player and earned a football scholarship to the University of Michigan. He first made a name for himself off I-65 between Chicago and Indianapolis — this is a guy who was rated by Rivals.com as a four-star pro-style quarterback recruit and was named Indiana’s Mr. Football and Mr. Baseball in 2003, beating out three-star Valparaiso wide receiver and Notre Dame commit Jeff Samardzija. 

While back home, Richard returned to his prep alma mater, McCutcheon High School, and worked out with the baseball team there. He said that was an experience that wound up being incredibly important to his grueling rehab process. 

“I just came to appreciate the game,” Richard said. “Just having fun going out, taking batting practice, playing the field with high school kids that year I was rehabbing, I started to enjoy the game more and not worry about all the other stuff that goes into it.” 

Richard said from the clubhouse at the Cubs' spring training facility he still draws upon that time spent rehabbing and working with his former high school baseball team.

“Just that feeling of going out and playing, I think some of us kind of lose that every now and then,” Richard said. “It was nice to have that kind of re-start for myself where it was just baseball. There was nothing else to it other than baseball. 

I don’t wish that experience on anybody,” Richard added, “but it was good for me.” 

Richard looks slated to be part of a Cubs bullpen teeming with flexibility. He, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill and Adam Warren are all former starters capable of throwing multiple innings, which is especially important given Maddon’s protection of Kyle Hendricks and, later, Jason Hammel last year, who were often pulled at the first sign of trouble or before their third time through a lineup.  

[MORE: Jake Arrieta good with Cubs’ plan to limit workload]

This bullpen is set up to keep itself and the starting rotation fresh throughout the season, but also deliver when used favorably in high leverage situations. Maddon offered an example: When the wind is blowing out, Richard — who threw his sinking fastball about 80 percent of the time last year and generated a ton of ground balls — would come in. But when the wind is blowing in, Wood — who’s more of a fly ball pitcher — could enter. 

“(Richard) fits on any team as far as I’m concerned,” Maddon said. “And I don’t think there’s any hitter in the major leagues who says, Oh good, Clayton Richard is coming into the game.”  

Montero echoed Maddon’s assessment, calling Richard an “uncomfortable” at-bat. His fastball/sinker velocity is back to where it was well before he had surgery (he averaged 91 miles per hour on it in 2015; the last time he hit that mark was 2010), and his ability to generate ground balls and limit walks and home runs made him an effective pitcher down the stretch last year. 

A relief role probably wasn’t one Richard envisioned himself being in back when he was posting sub-4.00 ERAs and throwing 200-plus innings a year for the Padres. But shoulder surgeries are tough from which to come back. And Richard wouldn’t have made it back — as so many other players who underwent similar procedures haven’t — without that willingness to change. 

“You’re never the same pitcher,” Richard said. “I feel like I’m an improved version of that pitcher. If I’m not able to make adjustments I’ll be done. I think that’s the same for everyone. There’s no one that’s so good that they can’t survive without making adjustments.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Schwarber, Baez on night to remember at the Home Run Derby

Cubs Talk Podcast: Schwarber, Baez on night to remember at the Home Run Derby

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull spoke with Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber after an electric and entertaining Home Run Derby in Washington D.C.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

Who Knew? Cubs at the All-Star Break

Who Knew? Cubs at the All-Star Break

With a break in the action, let’s take a look at the season so far.

Today, I’ll focus on the first 57.4% of the Cubs’ 2018 season. Which is to say, the 93 games before the All-Star Break. Clearly more than “half.”

In all seasons with an All-Star Game (1933-present, minus 1945)

This is the fifth time the Cubs have had the National League’s best record at the All-Star Break.

Here is the entire list (note – 2016 is NOT on this list. They trailed the Giants by 3 games at the Break in 2016):

1937 44-25 +2.0
1969 61-37 +5.0
2001 51-35 +0.5
2008 57-38 +4.5
2018 55-38 +2.5

Which is incredible since:

• Anthony Rizzo has a wRC+ of 100, which is league average

(he was at 131 – 31% better than league average - through the All-Star break last season)

• Kris Bryant has missed 23 games and has only 10 home runs

• The Cubs as a team have 30 fewer Home Runs through 93 games than they did last season

(100 this season, 130 last season)

• The Cubs have had six pitchers make 8 or more starts this season and only one (Jon Lester – 2.58) has an ERA under 3.90

• Cubs pitching has an MLBhigh walk percentage of 11.0%

(Tyler Chatwood’s 9 starts with 5 or more walks is most in a season by a Cubs pitcher since Dick Drott’s 13 in 1957)

• Cubs have outscored their opponents by only one run in the first inning (5251)

This includes being outscored 18-13 in the first inning in Kyle Hendricks’ 19 starts

• Cubs are 57 against the Reds

(they were 27-11 against Cincinnati in 2016-17)

That being said, it's not so incredible since...

• The Cubs have scored at least 10 runs 15 times this season. No other team has done it more than 12 times.

• Jason Heyward has a wRC+ of 109 (he’s 9% better than league average)

This is notable because in 2016 he was at 71 (29% worse than league average) and 88 in 2017 (12% worse than league average).

• The Cubs have EIGHT qualified players with at least a .340 OnBase pct. (and Ian Happ, who is eight PA short of qualifying, is at .379)

The only qualified Cub with a SUB-.340 OBP is Javier Báez (.326 – a career-high). However…

• Javier Báez has 50 extrabase hits in 91 games. Last season he had 49 extra-base hits in 145 games.

Báez is the first player in Cubs history with 15 Doubles, 5 Triples, 15 HR and 15 Stolen Bases before the All-Star Break**.

Báez is the first player in MLB history with 18 Doubles, 6 Triples, 18 HR and 18 Stolen Bases before the All-Star Break**.

**seasons with an All-Star Game – 1933-present (minus 1945)