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.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: MLB and NFL Commotion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: MLB and NFL Commotion

Anthony Herron, Scott King and Jason Goch join Kap on Tuesday's SportsTalk Live panel.

0:00 - Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay get elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame while Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens remain out. Will they get in next year? Do they deserve to get in at all?

12:00 - Yadier Molina is still mad that Kris Bryant called St. Louis "boring." Why can't The Best Fans in Baseball let it go?

15:00 - Yu Darvish posts a throwing video on Instagram. Who's excited?

16:30 - Saints fans are suing the NFL. But will they have to settle for the league changing its instant replay guidelines or is that too much video review?

22:30 - Patrick Mahomes watches from the bench as Tom Brady drives down the field in overtime. Does the league need to adopt college style OT?

29:00 - The Bears get two more players in the Pro Bowl pushing their total to 8. Is making the Pro Bowl still a big deal?

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast

Subscribe:

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Searching for the next Cubs Hall of Famer

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AP

Searching for the next Cubs Hall of Famer

The 2019 BBWAA Hall of Fame voting results were released on Tuesday. No Cubs were elected, so why not take the time to look at the Hall of Fame cases of six former Cubs!

The criteria? Play for the Cubs in at least one game. The number of games played in a Cubs uniform among my six candidates ranges from three to 1,124. Hey, like I said – at least one game.

I avoided Sammy Sosa, who’s still on the BBWAA ballot. I also didn’t bother reviewing Rafael Palmeiro’s case. Both of those players’ cases depend heavily on what your stance is on alleged PED use. I chose to keep it limited to players who might be on a ballot (be it BBWAA or an Era Committee) in the next few years.

Note: rWAR is baseball-reference WAR, fWAR is Fangraphs WAR

Alfonso Soriano (BBWAA - 2020)

412 HR, 1,159 RBIs, .270/.319/.500, 28.2 rWAR, 39.1 fWAR, 111 wRC+

Alfonso Soriano is one of only 55 players in MLB history with 400 or more home runs, and his 412 rank 53rd all-time. He is the fourth (of four) players in MLB history to hit 40 HR and steal 40 bases in a season (2006). Soriano’s total of 54 leadoff home runs ranks second only to Rickey Henderson. He was a seven-time All-Star and a four-time Silver Slugger winner.

Will he get in? It’s doubtful. He had a late start; Soriano wasn’t a regular until he was 25, then once he joined the Cubs he tailed off considerably. In 889 games with Chicago, he was worth 8.1 rWAR (1.5 per 162 games) or 18.3 fWAR (3.3 per 162 games). His .319 career OBP was subpar, as was his defense.

Rick Reuschel (Modern Baseball Era Committee – possibly 2020)

214-191 W/L, 3.37 ERA, 3,548 1/3 IP, 2,015 K, 69.7 rWAR, 68.2 fWAR, 114 ERA+

Rick Reuschel had a sneaky-good career. He spent many years toiling for mediocre teams but had success because he was able to keep the ball in the park and was relatively stingy with the base on balls. Even without huge strikeout totals, “Big Daddy” was able to turn in a strong Major League career. There are 27 pitchers in MLB history with at least 214 wins, 2,015 strikeouts and 68 pitching WAR; 24 are in the Hall of Fame. The others are Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and Rick Reuschel.

Will he get in? Likely not, but he’s probably better than you think.

Aramis Ramírez (BBWAA - 2021)

386 HR, 1,417 RBIs, .283/.341/.492, 32.6 rWAR, 38.7 fWAR, 115 wRC+

Ramírez is fifth all-time in career home runs as a third baseman, with 381 (the other five were either as DH or PH). In his first five full seasons with the Cubs, he averaged 32 HR and 105 RBI, hitting an excellent .302/.366/.554 (131 wRC+). With the third base position being considerably underrepresented in the Hall of Fame, Ramírez starts to look a little more interesting.

Will he get in? It’s doubtful. He put up big offensive numbers in an era where many players did the same. His defense was underwhelming and his high MVP finish was 9th (in 2012 with the Brewers).

Joe Nathan (BBWAA - 2022)

377 SV, 2.87 ERA, 923 1/3 IP, 26.7 rWAR, 19.4 fWAR, 151 ERA+

Nathan pitched three games for the 2016 Cubs. Did you forget already?  He’s 8th on the career saves list with 377 and he brought quality as well as quantity. Of the 50 pitchers with at least 200 career saves, he’s eighth with a 151 ERA+.

Nathan's peak run was 2004-09 – his first six seasons with the Twins. He put up a 1.87 ERA and 0.934 WHIP with 518 K to only 271 hits in 418 2/3 IP over that span.

Will he get in? Probably not. Billy Wagner was clearly better yet only managed 16.7 percent of the BBWAA vote in 2019.

Fred McGriff (Today’s Game Era Committee – possibly 2022)

493 HR, 1,550 RBIs, .284/.377/.509, 52.6 rWAR, 56.9 fWAR, 134 wRC+

McGriff received 39.8 percent of votes from the BBWAA in 2019 – his final year on the ballot. His case now goes to the Today’s Game Era Committee.

The Crime Dog’s case has had some recent momentum – with good reason. McGriff was consistent and he had a clean reputation, which will help him going forward. The work stoppage of 1994-95 likely cost him a shot at 500 career home runs, which would probably been enough to get him elected via BBWAA in the first place.

By the way, who was the last Cubs lefty prior to Anthony Rizzo to hit 30 HR in a season? It was Fred McGriff in 2002.

Will he get in? I think he’ll get elected the first time he goes on the Today’s Game Era ballot.

Kenny Lofton (Today’s Game Era Committee – possibly 2024)

Lofton played only 56 games with the Cubs – all in 2003 – after coming over from Pittsburgh along with Aramis Ramírez. When considering leadoff men from 1980-present, Rickey Henderson was the best. Then there’s Tim Raines. After that, it just might be Kenny Lofton.

  Games Runs HR RBIs SB BA/OBP/SLG wRC+ rWAR fWAR
Player A 2,651     1,420 117 780 509 .311/.355/.402 104 59.3 57.6
Player B 2,103 1,528 130 781 622 .299/.372/.423 109 68.3 62.4
Player C 2,616 1,610 149 900 938 .293/.343/.410 109 45.3 43.2

Player B is Lofton. Player A is Ichiro. Player C is Lou Brock.

Lofton earned six All-Star selections and four Gold Glove Awards in his career. He’s one of five players in MLB history with 100 triples, 100 home runs and 600 stolen bases. The others are Tim Raines, Lou Brock, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. From 2002-07, Lofton played with nine different teams, which may hurt his case a bit.

Will he get in? I think Lofton will get in eventually through the Era Committee, though it might take a while.

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