Clayton Richard’s story is one that is starting to become a common trend for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Find a pitcher who has shown an ability to pitch in the majors — even if only for just one season — and have Jim Benedict and Ray Searage work with that pitcher to fix his mechanics and get him converted to being a successful MLB starter.
The details of Richard’s conversion aren’t that common.
In the past we’ve heard about how Jim Benedict — former Minor League Pitching Coordinator and current Special Assistant to the General Manager — would go deep into the film archives to find something that worked for a specific pitcher. He went all the way back to 2008 video with Edinson Volquez. In Vance Worley’s case, it was how he looked prior to his 2012 injury. In Richard’s case, Benedict not only went way back in the archives, he went to a completely different sport.
Richard was a former quarterback, playing for the University of Michigan as the backup to Chad Henne before making the jump to baseball and finding a career as a pitcher. He played baseball in high school, but was primarily focused on football. So Benedict went with the idea to incorporate the way Richard throws a football into his pitching motion.
“A lot of his throwing habits come from playing quarterback, so we’re kind of building him back through that sport into this one,” Benedict said. “He threw a football with real limited lower half movement. Just footwork. His arm has been freed up because of that limited lower half, versus a high leg kick and a big load. He doesn’t really need to do that.”
On Wednesday in extended Spring Training, Richard made his first start in a real game since the end of MLB camp. He threw four innings in an intrasquad game at Pirate City. He spent the time in between working on his mechanical changes, and this was the first opportunity to implement those changes into game situations. In those four innings he was sitting 91-94 MPH with his fastball. The interesting thing was that he had a very small leg kick in his approach to the plate, going along with what Benedict discussed about limited lower half movement.
Richard said that his arm moved more freely in football, and that they wanted to get to that point in baseball, adjusting a few things to free up the arm as if he were throwing a football. These adjustments included the lower leg kick.
“If you think about throwing a football, you do a lot less with a bigger ball,” Richard said. “In baseball you’re throwing a smaller ball, and a lot of times we do more, which really doesn’t make a lot of sense. [I’m] trying to minimize all of that movement, and get my body in position consistently to deliver the ball.”
Richard said he was able to duplicate his delivery on Wednesday, although he did have some issues with off-speed stuff. A few of his sliders, which have the movement of a slurve, weren’t sharp. He said he needs to do a better job consistently repeating with his off-speed stuff.
As for the unorthodox method to fix his delivery, I asked Richard if any other pitching coach ever tried such a thing to make a connection between his football throwing style and his pitching style. The answer was an unsurprising “no.”
“He’s pretty special in what he does. And that’s probably an understatement,” Richard said about Benedict. “The work he does through film and through his research, being able to understand people. And I think the biggest thing is he’s able to connect the mentality and the mental process to the physical mechanics and process. That’s a huge aid for me and I know for a lot of guys.”
Benedict figured that Richard threw more footballs than baseballs when he was growing up, so the football movement was more natural. The football movement was “mindless” for Richard, according to Benedict, and that’s how they wanted his pitching delivery to be. This wasn’t a one-time case either. Benedict said they took the same approach with Justin Wilson, trying to relate pitching to his old wrestling and football days. He noted that those sports resonate in baseball.
“Whatever works,” Benedict said on the approach.
Richard said that working with Benedict everyday in extended Spring Training has been a huge help in getting comfortable with his new delivery.
“If it wasn’t football, he would have found something else,” Richard said of the adjustments. “He’s extremely gifted in that way. It’s through hard work, of course, but it’s a big, big help.”
Of course, Benedict credited Richard for being open to this entire process of rebuilding his mechanics. The lefty came to mini-camp so the Pirates could get used to where he was at, and start the process. He came to Spring Training a week early to continue the work. And he’s been open to a total rebuild of his mechanics based off his throwing action in another sport.
“It’s not something we do, which is tear a guy apart and build him back up, unless there’s a big history,” Benedict said. “And he’s very willing. All of those things have to come together, and he’s done that for us.”
There will eventually be a need for a starting pitcher in Pittsburgh, and there’s a good chance Richard could get a shot in that role this season. The Pirates have had success in previous years with Volquez, Worley, Francisco Liriano, and A.J. Burnett, among others. It will be interesting to see if Richard is the next in line as a success story for the Pirates, especially when you consider the unorthodox way that Benedict went about fixing him.