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Clayton Richard: cheap pick-up or AL East cannon fodder?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

When the Jays traded for Clayton Richard last month, my first thought was that there was some hidden upside underneath his modest metrics from the past couple seasons. His home park for the past couple season (and indeed most of his career) has been Petco Park, a pitcher’s park that results in pitcher numbers being adjusted downwards by (generic) park factors to reflect this advantage. Notably, Petco has that status due to what happens on fly balls, with the marine layer suppressing power. Otherwise, it’s essentially a neutral park.

But Richard is an extreme ground ball pitcher, with his 58.2% ground ball over the last two years ranking 3rd in baseball among pitchers with at least 200 innings. What’s particularly interesting is that while he was a ground ball pitcher in his early career/first stint in San Diego, he’s since evolved into the extreme form as his ground ball rate has risen from the high-40/low-50 percent range into the upper 50s.

A really high ground ball rate implies a very low fly ball rate, and indeed, Richard gives up a fly ball about 20% of the time. That means relatively fewer opportunities to benefit from having fly balls suppressed in a park like Petco compared to an average pitcher. By contrast, ground balls are little affected by parks. And thus, in theory, an extreme ground baller’s numbers are going to be over-adjusted and punished in a power suppressing park (conversely, a fly ball pitcher will be under-adjusted and benefit).

But drilling into Richard’s numbers to see if this held up suggests otherwise. Since signing with San Diego in August 2016 following his release by the Cubs, Richard has thrown 409.2 innings. In 208 innings at home in Petco, he’s allowed 14 home runs. In 201.2 innings on the road, he’s allowed 33 home runs. That’s largely driven by the difference in his HR/FB ratio — a decent 12% at home, a ghastly just under 23% on the road,

Whenever that extreme a split is observed, we have to apply some regression towards the mean, in this case a more generic split. It’s almost certainly the case that there’s some noise and random variation/”luck” exacerbating real park based differences. But it’s clearly the case that even as an extreme ground ball pitcher, Richard has been a major beneficiary of Petco.

In fact, there is a larger sample to go on, since Richard also pitched with San Diego from 2009 to 2013. In 310 innings at home, he allowed 25 home runs at a 9.1% HR/FB clip. But in 326 road innings, he allowed 50 bombs at a 13.9% HR/FB ratio. There were fewer home runs overall back then, so both those rates would have to be bumped up a little to translate to today, but once again we see a pretty significant difference with double the raw number of home runs in a similar number of innings, and almost 50% more home runs per fly ball.

Combining the samples, in 518 innings with Petco as his home park, Richard has yielded 39 home runs with about one in ten fly balls leaving the park (10% HR/FB); whereas on the road during that time it’s 83 home runs in 528 innings with one about one in six fly balls leaving (16.6% HR/FB).

But it actually gets worse — you’ll note it’s more than double the home run total on the road despite the rate of balls leaving the yard being only about 60% higher. There’s two factors driving this. In both samples, his ground ball rate was a couple points higher on the road than at home (60% vs. 57.6% more recently an extreme grounder baller, 52% vs. 49% previously). Maybe his approach to contact is a little different at Petco, maybe it’s the hitters trying to hit fewer fly balls there, but it’s a small negative factor.

It’s the second factor that’s a much bigger concern — Richard’s plate outcomes are much different and worse away from Petco. Over the last 2+ years with the Padres, he struck out 18% and walked 7% at home. Not great, but feasible for a guy getting a ton of ground balls. But on the road, it’s only 15% strikeouts and 9% walks. Even with all the ground balls and even if he wasn’t getting shelled in the air, that’s quite marginal in today’s MLB.

And it’s not just the last couple years. His first stint with San Diego had similarly big splits: 17% strikeouts and 8% walks at home; 11.5% strikeouts and 8% walks on the road. The magnitude of the difference — a home/road difference in K%-BB% of about 5% — is really striking considering the sample size of over 500 innings both at Petco and on the road.

I’ll only speculate that a major reason for this would be being more careful and challenging hitters less when contact in the air is more likely to have bad outcomes. But the bottom line is a pitcher who strikes out fewer batters away from Petco, walks a few more with a little lower ground ball rate, and has been shelled on balls on the air. Now that’s coming to the AL East, and I can’t help but feel trepidation.

So what’s the angle with this acquisition? Ross Atkins indicated the Jays saw Richard as a starting option, though far from having a guaranteed spot (though I’d strongly challenge Atkin’s contention that he has “a clear track record of keeping the the ball park”). Perhaps they have some unique insight, but given the above I frankly struggle to see that even as even a remotely viable option.

The major caveat of course is that their investment is quite minimal. They’re only on the hook for $1.5-million (less than a million more than the minimum they’d otherwise have to pay regardless), and there was not a significant prospect cost. Even if he ended up instead as a lefty in the bullpen — where he had some measure of success with the Cubs — it could be a reasonable cost.

But even then, it may well be that while the direct costs of acquiring Richard is negligible, the opportunity cost is not. The biggest priority for the 2019 season is to figure out which players in the organization are part of the future and which are not. A 25-man roster for Richard necessarily means one less for potential spot for a younger pitcher. Even in the bullpen, those are innings that could go an option with potential future value — take a shot trying to find the next Dominic Leone.

Even if it’s mostly about having some rotation depth in the event of injury or that younger arms like a Sean Reid-Foley aren’t being presumptively handed rotation spots, there’s the question of the 40-man spot. This hasn’t been an issue thus far, but any further MLB acquisitions will need 40-man spots and squeeze someone out. Veteran depth can be added via minor league deals. I’ve said earlier this winter I wouldn’t give Marco Estrada a major league deal, but frankly, I’d see him as a more viable starting option than Richard.

In any event, Richard’s eventual role and how he handles the rough and tumble world of the AL East will be something I’ll be keeping a close eye on as Spring Training approaches.