Clayton Richard’s 2019 season with the Toronto Blue Jays wasn’t exactly one to write home about.
After joining the organization in a December trade for minor-league outfielder Connor Panas, the lefty stumbled through inconsistencies, stints on the injured list, and a confusing campaign that’s probably best forgotten.
All in all, he pitched to an ERA of 5.96 in 45.1 frames spread across 10 starts, striking out 22 and walking 18. He spent nearly two full months on the injured list and won just a single start.
But, through all that, his tenure with the Blue Jays will probably be best remembered for the circumstances under which it ended.
On September 12th, the day of his 36th birthday, the Lafayette, Indiana native was released. Almost comically, the team wished him a happy birthday on Twitter hours before announcing his release. Fans and media personnel questioned the team’s handling of the situation, concerned primarily for the lack of empathy shown towards the turned free-agent hurler.
Richard though, wasn’t exactly bothered by the way things ended.
“It’s part of the business,” he told Blue Jays Nation. “If you as an organization look at how a transaction affects a player’s personal life, I think you’re looking too much into it. There are things that come into play that are more important than birthdays when you’re dealing with an organization that has thousands of employees.”
Since then, Richard has been slowly, but surely, rehabbing from a pair of nagging injuries — a right knee issue in April and a lat strain in July — that gravely shortened his season and hampered his stock entering the offseason.
At times, it’s not difficult to see flashes of a pitcher who once pitched 200 innings in a season and routinely started 30 games a year. As of this writing, he still ranks in the Padres’ all-time top ten in wins, starts, strikeouts, and innings pitched.
Broadcasters, general managers, and fans alike will point to an intangible “veteran presence” that players of Richard’s age and calibre bring to a young organization. It’s the kind of thing that’s spoken of frequently, and is the constant talk of so many baseball executives, but is so rarely actually seen.
Though Richard acknowledges the profound impact that Mark Buehrle, Chris Young, and Jon Garland, among others, had on him as a youngster, he finds it difficult to quantify that leadership, especially this season.
“Hopefully I was a positive influence to some degree, but that’s not for me to say,” he laughed. “You really never know the impact you have on someone until later, unless you ask them.”
It’s this humble and dignified approach to leadership that has made Richard such an intriguing and valuable leader. Not only does he pitch strategically and efficiently (his fastball is among the slowest 20% in the league; he still manages to get whiffs at a respectable clip), but he slows the game down, both on and off the field.
As a mentor this season, he sought not to force lessons of professionalism and premature mellowness upon his youthful teammates, but rather just wanted to be there, as a friendly figure, to answer any questions they had.
He’d been there before. He’d thrown complete games — five of them, in fact. On the flip side, he’d experienced failure and adversity, having allowed six or more earned runs on 24 occasions in his 11-year career.
Most of all, he was able to observe the inner workings of the team, even in its pivotally larval state. The Blue Jays’ arsenal of arms were sorting themselves out, and elder (even though 36 really isn’t that old — ask Bartolo Colon), teammates like Richard, Clay Buchholz, and the never-seen-on-the-mound John Axford, helped stabilize an unsteady staff.
The team may not have much to hang their hats on now, but Richard firmly believes the team will be “very tough to deal with” if more consistent (and effective) starting pitching joins the fold.
“I think they’re getting close,” he said of the Blue Jays young core of position players. “I know they have a lot of young talent coming up, and at times the offence produced at the level which winning baseball teams do.”
Richard’s future in baseball is, more or less, uncertain. While his showing this season doesn’t perfectly merit another major-league contract, he could easily snag a minor-league deal, or even transition to coaching, something that a few industry professionals have already suggested.
He speaks in a soft and laid-back way (akin to the fashion in which former skipper John Gibbons spoke, minus the accent) and boasts the kind of brotherly aura that players can definitely learn from.
Regardless, he remains optimistic and perpetually tight-lipped about what his 2020 calendar year will look like.
“I’m working on getting better. I’m going to do everything I can to be ready for next season,” he told Blue Jays Nation. “Where that opportunity will come from, I’m not sure, but I’m going to do everything in my power to be prepared when that opportunity arises.”
As of right now, Richard appears poised to get a call or two, seeing as he slots in near the bottom of the list of ageing, yet dependable, free-agent starters available this offseason, along with the aforementioned Buchholz and numerous others.
Still, the rest of his story remains to be written, as Richard himself alluded to in an offhandedly esoteric and seemingly random tweet published shortly after his release. As with most veterans of his age and experience, he’ll settle in somewhere — where that will be remains the question.