Is Clayton Richard the Next Pirates Reclamation Pitching Project?

After the 2014 season, and the success the Pittsburgh Pirates saw with Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley, it seemed that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be able to sign any reclamation pitching project they wanted. They had previous success with guys like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Mark Melancon, to name a few. The transformations of Volquez (who cashed in his season with a two year, $20 M deal that could be worth $27 M over three years) and Worley (who will receive $2-2.45 M in his first year of arbitration) were different situations, taking pitchers with no value on the open market, and turning them into valuable pitchers in one season.

Despite this, they didn’t go for many reclamation projects this off-season. A.J. Burnett would technically classify as one, since he’s coming off a down year. He said he only wanted to play for the Pirates, which might be due to the city and his experience with the team in 2012-13, but also could have to do with what the coaches were able to do in order to give him two of his best seasons of his career.

The other starting rotation spot went to Francisco Liriano, who is no longer a reclamation project. That filled up the rotation, and the Triple-A rotation looked full, with Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, Adrian Sampson, Brandon Cumpton, and Casey Sadler as options throughout the year.

The Pirates did end up signing one reclamation project this off-season, getting Clayton Richard on a minor league contract. Richard fits the typical bill for a reclamation guy. He is a few years removed from having good numbers in the majors, and has dealt with some injuries that derailed his career. In fact, Richard told me during mini-camp that this was his first normal off-season in a long time, and the first where he’s been healthy, allowing him to throw more, and throw with more intensity early on.

The success the Pirates have had with previous pitchers is what drew Richard to the team. Specifically, it was the recommendation of his former teammate in San Diego, Volquez.

“Everything I’ve heard about the organization from other players, and everyone in the game, has been positive. I’m excited to be a part of it,” Richard said. “The one that stood out was Edinson Volquez. We played together in San Diego, and he was really positive with his experience here.”

As an outsider who got his first look inside the organization during mini-camp, Richard was able to give a unique perspective on how the Pirates are seen around the league.

“I think it’s more so the staff that they have put together,” Richard said on what makes the Pirates an attractive destination. “What they’re doing, and how they communicate with the players, and with each other. How the organization is led is attractive from an outsider. I think that’s what I’ve heard from everyone, and being at mini-camp you can see it first hand.”

Mini-camp also gave him the first opportunity to get to know pitching coaches Ray Searage and Jim Benedict. Richard said that this was important, as it opened up a line of communication, which will make things easier going forward.

Benedict and Searage typically get to work right away. They were working with Volquez last year at mini-camp, and Benedict spent a month with Vance Worley, re-discovering his mechanics, right after the team acquired him for cash last Spring. They already started the early work with Richard.

“We took a little bit of look at the comparison of 2010 and 2012 to see the differences, before injury and post-injury,” Richard said. “Saw where I was compensating, and what needed to be adjusted for. We kind of got a head start on that, and we’ll continue to work on that up until Spring and through Spring.”

The 2010 season saw Richard put up a 3.75 ERA in 201.2 innings, along with a 4.04 xFIP. It was the best season of his career. In the following season, he underwent season-ending surgery on his shoulder mid-season, limiting him to 99.2 innings on the year. After that, he wasn’t really the same. His strikeouts dropped every year, going from 12.4% in 2011 to 11.8% in 2012 and 10% in 2013. That’s a big difference from his 17.8% in 2010. The ERA was fine in some years after the injury, but that could have been due to the PETCO Park impact, as the xFIP numbers were lower.

Richard didn’t play in the majors in 2014, after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery last off-season, and AC joint surgery in the summer of 2013. He was limited to just 21 innings in the minors.

This story sounds very familiar to Vance Worley last year. Worley had success when he first came up in the majors, then suffered an injury that changed his mechanics. It also caused him to see a massive drop off in strikeouts. The Pirates immediately identified the change in his mechanics, worked with him to get back to his 2011 form, and the result was that he looked like the 2011 version once again, with the strikeouts going up, and the overall numbers going down.

The hope is that Richard can see the same type of transformation, and revert to the 2010 version, or better. He already has the approach that the Pirates seem to love. He works primarily off his fastball and changeup, with his fastball having some sink. That has led to a career 50% ground ball ratio. He has had some control issues, with a few seasons showing a walk rate in the 3.50 BB/9 range.

“When I’m pitching effectively, it’s pitching off the fastball,” Richard said. “Being able to command the strike zone with the fastball in and out, and down in the zone.”

The Pirates have had the most success with guys who pitch off the fastball, get ground balls, and have a good changeup. They have been able to improve the control numbers with pretty much every reclamation project they’ve added, possibly due to their focus on pitch framing, but also due to their approach on pounding the strike zone, and letting the defense and the defensive shifts behind the pitcher do the work. Richard’s approach seems to set up well for this.

There is plenty of pitching depth in the system, so if Richard is a successful reclamation project, it would take some time to get him up in the majors. The current rotation includes Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke. Charlie Morton will join the group when he’s healthy. The Triple-A rotation has Kingham, Sampson, Cumpton, and Sadler as early season possibilities.

Of course, the Pirates won’t just use 5-6 starters. They needed eight starters last year, and 12 starters in 2013, including ten starters who went four or more starts. At this point, Richard is about the ninth or tenth guy on the depth charts. If the Pirates can get him back to where he was in 2010, then they’ll have a solid number four starter as one of their many depth guys in Triple-A.

Unlike previous years, they’re not relying on reclamation projects for the Opening Day rotation this year. However, Richard is an example that they are still going this route, and if it continues to be successful, they will have some very strong depth for whenever the inevitable injuries take place.

  • formerdraftpick
    February 4, 2015 1:28 pm

    I’m surprised Chris Volstad wasn’t mentioned as a reclamation project as well.

  • Nice article, Tim.

    -Wabbit

  • Scott Kliesen
    February 4, 2015 5:34 am

    I’m not saying Richard is going to be the huge success Liriano has been, but bringing in a proven LEFT-HANDED SP to the organization for Searge and Benedict to fix is a very good move. PNC is every bit the pitchers park for southpaws that Petco is. Probably even more so.

  • I’m pretty sure that Ray Searage and the rest of the pitching and coaching staff that has been successful with the Pirates has been offered better money for their services elsewhere.

  • I think Richard is an interesting guy, but hopefully Kingham, Sampson, and Sadler are all viable Major League candidates by the time we would get that deep. I would still expect Cumpton to be the first call-up early in the season, then he’ll be edged out by those three, and ultimately Taillon, and maybe Richard jumps Cumpton, but at his highest, he’ll be ninth on the depth chart, and hopefully we don’t need to go that deep.

  • If your going into the deep end (depth) you need at least one life preserver, looks like the bucs have safety first with plenty of flotation devices available.

  • Hmm, Clayton Richard’s K/9 has been pretty low the past 4 seasons. If he could find a way to get back to 6.8 K/9 then he has a shot at rebounding back to prior form.
    .
    There is a key difference between Liriano/Burnett/Volquez and Richard which is that Liriano, Burnett and Volquez all still had solid K/9 rates when the Pirates signed/traded for them and their big problem was high walk rates. Richard seems to be the reverse with a reasonable walk rate (I guess it is kind of high) but low K/9 rate.
    .
    So is this a fixable problem for Searage and Benedict? High walk rates would indicate an issue with command which can be addressed by a change in mechanics. Does a low K/9 rate also mean an issue with command or is it something else like average stuff being figured out by major league hitters?

  • I don’t think so – past reclamation projects brought more to the table than this guy.

    • Burnett, Liriano, and Volquez had some of the worst numbers in baseball before they were signed, and in some cases, it had been years since they had a successful season. Worley saw his value drop so low that it only took cash to acquire him.

      • Burnett, Liriano, and Volquez were coming off years in which they under-performed their peripherals; all three also had decent to plus swing and miss stuff. Worley has always had pretty good control and is one of the most deceptive pitchers in the game.

        • ace level pitchers are scarce. Just because he won’t be compared to the games best doesn’t mean he won’t be valuable to the team. Not every pitcher in your rotation can be clayton kershaw. this feels similar to worley to me who I hope gets a rotation spot this year. Could be very valuable if there is an injury early in the season and they don’t want to call up taillon or kingdom yet

    • Volquez brought one great season half a decade ago, though there was a bit of fortune in his numbers with the Pirates.

      • From a scouting POV, I think he’s right. Not much doubt that the pitchers he listed had better stuff than Richards.

  • IMO, he is good depth when they get him on track, that should be somewhere around the middle of FEB.

  • Lee Foo Young
    February 3, 2015 3:42 pm

    To me, he is not much of a reclamation project if his BEST season is “a 3.75 ERA in 201.2 innings, along with a 4.04 xFIP”.

    I’m sure he is AAA depth, but I’d rather see him tried in the ‘pen….or just not at all.

    • Whaaat ? SMFH at that one.

    • What’s wrong with that season? Any team playing outside of a video game world would take those numbers.

      • And, not only one season but 2010, 11, and 12 he started 84 games, pitched over 500 innings, posted very good ERA’s (about a 3.85 average) even though 2011 was an injury season, and his record over those 3 years was 33-32 for San Diego. Impressive size at 6’5″, 240 with 4 pitches – Fastball, Slider, Cut Fastball, Change. When you have pitched that well, and have been away from the game the better part of the last 2 seasons, you are a major reclamation project.

        Loved the part about EVOL talking nice stuff about the Pirates.

        • Lee Foo Young
          February 3, 2015 7:39 pm

          His career FIP is 4.43!

          • Foo: I know that should mean something, except it is heavily weighted from the injury years of 2011 and 2013. His xFIP is lower at 4.23, again high in the 2 injury years. The bottom line though is that they still pay on Wins, and he is 46-47, 4.33 ERA in 129 Starts in MLB. Those are solid #4/5 SP numbers.

      • Lee Foo Young
        February 3, 2015 7:38 pm

        Tim….we already have that in Jeff Locke and people don’t like him.

        Plus, he just reminds me too much of Maholm and Duke. Soft Tosser. Better than some of the Redmans/Burres but if he starts for us more than 5 times, I think we’re in trouble.

        • Foo: He and Locke are the same guy with the same average fastball velocity @90.5, and both have solid Changeups. Locke has one more pitch (CB) while Richard has 2 other pitches.

          Maholm is an average 87 on his fastball and Duke had been at 87/88 but has picked up extra velocity over the past 2 years to get around 89.

          I agree he is a #4/5 at best or trade fodder, but is on a Minor League Contract – not so with AJ, Frankie, or EVOL who were all on MLB Contracts. If Searage/Benedict can get him hooked up, you may see a trade involving Jeff Locke.

        • I’m with Foo, his upside isn’t that of the former reclamation projects. I’m not saying he can’t be a valuable asset, but he’s not a game changer like the others before him. Nothing wrong with saying that.

    • Those are what, average 3rd starter numbers on a bad team and great numbers for a 4th or 5th starter on a good team. I’d agree though that Liriano, Volquez and A.J. were far more interesting (and better) reclamation projects.

    • Those are what, average 3rd starter numbers on a bad team and great numbers for a 4th or 5th starter on a good team. I’d agree though that Liriano, Volquez and A.J. were far more interesting (and better) reclamation projects.

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