Why 2018 Will Be A Big Rebound Season for Clayton Richard

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 19: Starting pitcher Clayton Richard
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 19: Starting pitcher Clayton Richard /

Clayton Richard’s full-time return to the starting rotation in 2017 did not go as planned. The LHP led Major League Baseball in hits allowed (240) and losses (15). However, with a new delivery and a new starting shortstop, Clayton Richard is primed for a breakout 2018 campaign.

The San Diego Padres will have a new ace of their staff in 2018, LHP Clayton Richard. San Diego allowed last year’s Opening Day starter, Jhoulys Chacin, to walk in free agency after a 13-10, 3.89 ERA season. Now, the 34-year-old Richard is in line to make the first Opening Day start of his career with a brand new two-year, $6 million contract in hand.

Richard missed the entire 2014 season recovering from thoracic outlet surgery. He returned to the mound as a bullpen arm for the Chicago Cubs before being traded back to the Padres in 2016. Last season marked his return to the starting rotation on a full-time basis.

In 32 starts, Richard posted an 8-15 record with a 4.79 ERA. He just missed the 200 IP mark (197) and set a career high in K/9 with 6.89. His BB/9 rate also improved, falling to 2.69 after posting a 4.12 rate in 2016. Now all eyes will be on Richard to rebound in 2018 as he leads a very young pitching staff and fights to maintain a rotation spot past 2018.

Richard’s career-saving adjustment.

Continuing to create an extraordinary high ground-ball rate will be critical to a successful year for Clayton Richard. Last season, Richard finished third in all of Major League Baseball with a 59.2% GB-rate. Only Toronto’s Marcus Stroman (62.1%) and teammate Luis Perdomo (61.8%) ranked higher than Richard. Will that number increase this year?

Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs published an insightful article in April of last year, taking notice of Richard’s new delivery. Since returning from surgery, Richard uses a lower arm slot, almost a sidearm delivery, which has made his delivery more smooth and repeatable. As Sullivan highlights, by throwing from a lower angle, Richard is able to produce even more bite and sink with his fastball and slider offerings. 

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The most shocking point Sullivan makes, is his comparison of Clayton Richard to Chris Sale. In comparing their sinker offerings, Sullivan found that they produced nearly identical movement, velocity (91.2/91.8), and contact rate (84.5/84.4%). The vast majority of that contact being a routine or near-routine ground ball.

The biggest key to Richard’s rebound will be who’s behind him.

The recent acquisition of shortstop Freddy Galvis will be the biggest reason for Richard’s improvement in 2018. The former Philadelphia Phillie finished second in Gold Glove voting for a second straight year in 2017 and is considered one of the best defensive shortstops in all of baseball.

Looking at last year’s defensive numbers in San Diego, we can see why Richard’s stats were inflated. Take his 4.79 ERA, for instance. If we look at more accurate stats, Richard produced a 4.23 FIP and 3.76 xFIP. We can’t place all of the blame on the shortstop position, but certainly the majority. 

Below is a list of every player who started at shortstop for the Padres last season with their UZR (ultimate zone rating) and fielding percentage. Six different players manned the (arguably) most important position on the infield.

Freddy Galvis appeared in 162 games last season, starting 155 of them at shortstop. He finished fourth in UZR (3.6), first in fielding percentage (.989), first in error runs (runs saved based on errors), and committed the fewest errors among all shortstops in baseball (7).

A word of caution on Galvis, his sabermetrics don’t match up with what you see on the field. Galvis ranks near the bottom of a lot of sabermetric categories, including defensive runs and range runs. However, Philadelphia’s General Manager Matt Klentak had this to say about Galvis:

"“ What is difficult to quantify is the confidence (Galvis’ range) brings to a pitching staff, to a manager, to an entire team that if I make the pitch I need to make right here and get the ground ball I want, with 100 percent confidence it’s going to be an out. Freddy is as good as anybody in the game at turning these balls into outs. Anybody who wants to quibble with Freddy Galvis’ defense is probably barking up the wrong tree.”"

If you’re a fan of glorious defensive plays, here’s a six-minute video of nothing but Freddy Galvis defensive highlights.

There’s no reason not to expect a big year from Richard.

Projection models agree that Richard is bound for a solid season. He will, more than likely, be the ace of the Padres’ staff, but won’t put up ace numbers. He will, however, produce numbers that keep San Diego competitive in games which he pitches. Here are the Steamer projections for 2018:

"10-12,  3.94 ERA (4.07 FIP), .310 BABIP, 6.57 K/9 rate, 58% groundball rate."

Padres’ manager Andy Green had this to say about Clayton Richard after he was acquired from Chicago:

"“ A tremendous work ethic, a leader to follow, a guy who goes about his business the right way every day. He has the right mental frame of mind every day to compete.”"

He appears ready to help the Padres contend this year and help groom the future of the Friars in any way he can. During the offseason, big league invitees Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi spent a week at Richard’s house in Indiana. Richard invited the duo to help prepare them for their journey ahead. The mark of a true leader.

With an influx of young talent coming to big league camp this spring training and the likes of Mackenzie Gore and Adrian Morejon on the near horizon, Richard will need to show he deserves to stay in the rotation past 2018.

Don’t forget, he also rakes….

Next: ESPN's Buster Olney Thinks Padres Will Sign Eric Hosmer