BY STEVE KRAH
Clayton Richard wasn’t satisfied with the status quo.
The professional left-handed pitcher was not willing to settle.
So when the Lafayette, Ind., native became a free agent after the 2019 Major League Baseball season, he decided a transformation was in order after appearing in 275 MLB games (210 as a starter) since 2008.
The former Indiana Mr. Baseball (he was Indiana Mr. Football, too) sought a way to re-work his mechanics.
“My performance was not matching up with what I desire to be,” says Richard, who went 1-5 with a 5.96 earned run average in 10 starts with the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays and was released Sept. 12 (his 36th birthday). “I decided to make a tangible change to improve production.
“It’s going great. I’m really happy with it.”
A 6-foot-5, 235-pounder, Richard participated with Team USA in the World Baseball Softball Conference Premier 12 — an Olympic qualifier held Nov. 2-17 in Jalisco, Mexico.
He was not in a spring training camp when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down live baseball.
The southpaw did travel to Driveline Baseball headquarters in Kent, Wash., to begin his transformation process. He labeled it Project 2020. His journey was explored by David Laurila for Fangraphs in April.
He established a plan of action and came back to Lafayette and started implementing it. He built a barn next to his house and goes out there every morning.
“I’m throwing into a net quite a bit, which isn’t the most fun,” says Richard. “But the net never lies. It shows you exactly where the ball went.
“A good catcher can manipulate pitches.”
The pitcher also wrote down his plan, painstakingly laying out the details.
“Before the baseball world came to a screeching halt, I was frequently asked ‘What are you doing now?’ by friends and family alike,” writes Richard in the introduction to the project. “Although the question was simple enough, I honestly didn’t feel comfortable enough to delve into exactly what I was doing with my time – mostly due to the fact that I didn’t think the majority of people really care where my spin axis was that week.
“Like most unsigned free agent pitchers in professional baseball, it is much easier to state, ‘just throwing every day and waiting for the right opportunity.’
“The reality is I have been up to a lot more than simply throwing a few baseballs everyday. I have used the last few months to make significant changes this off-season. The effectiveness of my pitching repertoire had changed for the worse over the past two seasons.
“Based on that, I could choose to continue down the same path, one with an aim to execute pitches at a higher rate but likely be relegated to a LHP bullpen role, or veer headfirst into changing how my pitches profiled to RHH in an effort to level out the platoon splits for longer outings.
“I honestly debated the choice many times over – my wife likely got sick of my asking her or talking to myself. Ultimately, I came up with a plan to revamp my arsenal to return in time as the starting pitcher, the role I have worked to become since first pitching in my backyard with my dad squatting behind the plate and my mother standing in the box.”
Clayton is the oldest of Barry and Cindy Richard’s three children ahead of daughters Casey (Davenport) and Taylor (Bumgarner). Barry is a retired Lafayette Police offer and has served as sheriff of Tippecanoe County and the executive director of Lyn Trece Boys & Girls Club of Tippecanoe County. Cindy has worked with troubled teenagers.
Most of Richard’s charitable work in baseball has been centered on at-risk youth. He and his wife have worked with the Lyn Trece BGC and and clubs in San Diego.
“We only get to play baseball for so long,” says Richard. “The impact off the field really lasts.”
Richard was the Padres’ nominee for the Heart & Hustle Award (given out annually the the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association to a current player who not only excels not he field, but also “best embodies the values, spirits and traditions of baseball”) and the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award (given annually to a Major League Baseball player “whose on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to higher levels of achievement”).
“To be honored with those types of things is really humbling,” says Richard. “It shows what’s really important in life.”
A 2003 graduate of McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Clayton played football for Mavericks head coach Kevin O’Shea, basketball for Rick Peckinpaugh and baseball for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jake Burton.
What sticks with Richard about Burton?
“His discipline and organization of team activities,” says Richard. “Those two things he did at such a high level.
“He taught so many young men the value of being on time and working hard. We were always busy. There was never time to stand around. There was always something you could be doing.”
Richard related to that. He grew up in a household that stressed discipline.
“It was an attribute that was preached and followed,” says Richard. “We’d make sure we’re on time, saying yes. It was those little details about how you carried yourself that made a big difference.
“Those are things we’re trying to teach our children now.”
Clayton and Ashley Richard have three kids — sons Cashton (7), Cannon (6) and daughter Kile (3).
Recently, the family has been going out to a local field.
“It’s our time to be together and play baseball,” says Richard.
While there might not be organized youth baseball this summer because of the pandemic, Richard expects there to be sports for them in the fall.
“Maybe flag football or soccer?,” says Richard. “We keep sports in their own season so they don’t get burned out. We don’t want them playing one sport all year.”
From his own experience and talking with elite athletes, Richard is a believer in participating in multiple sports for a well-rounded experience.
“There’s the competitive advantage of always being in-person,” says Richard. “There’s the social advantage of having teammates.”
Basketball teaches agility and conditioning. Football gives the opportunity to interact with others and be a leader.
The Richards have been doing eLearning with kids. But it’s something they did before the pandemic quarantine. Homeschooling was done because of inconsistent residence, a byproduct of pro baseball.
Richard says schooling kids at home has its advantages.
“It cuts all of the stagnate time and we get to spend more quality time with them,” says Richard. “The details you instill in their education is taken care of.”
Clayton Richard and Ashley Buckingham met at the University of Michigan, where he was a pro-style football quarterback and baseball pitcher and she was a middle blocker on the volleyball team. She prepped at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind.
When did baseball become Clayton’s primary sport?
“Sept. 12, 2004,” says Richard, who was then a redshirt freshman. “That was the day after Michigan was upset 28-20 against Notre Dame. Sophomore Chad Henne was kept at quarterback for that game and moving forward. “I saw writing on the wall. I knew my football career at Michigan was probably coming to an end.”
Soon after the Rose Bowl, Richard went to the baseball team. He appeared in 21 games and went 0-1 with five saves and a 2.43 ERA. He was selected in the eighth round of the 2005 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago White Sox and signed by Anderson, Ind.-based scout Mike Shirley.
Richard made his big league debut with the White Sox in 2008 at 24. He was dealt to the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline in 2009. He elected free agency after the 2013 season.
He underwent Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery in February 2014 and pitched in the minors with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates organizations that year.
Richard was traded to the Chicago Cubs and returned to a big league mound in 2015. He returned to the Padres in August 2016 and remained with them until he designated for assignment in December 2018. That same month Richard was traded to the Blue Jays.
For his career, he is 69-84 with a 4.51 ERA and 824 strikeouts in 1,284 2/3 innings.
Richard has been described as a contact pitcher.
“You never set out to have guys hit the ball,” says Richard. “Weak contact on contact on the ground is a really good thing.
“Guys who typically have a lower spin rate tend to sink the ball. That creates more early contact and more early outs with balls on the ground.”
As he began “Project 2020” in earnest, Richard met with Driveline founder/owner Kyle Boddy and started working with manager of online training Dean Jackson.
More from 2020 Project:
“I need to use my past as a compass to my future. I am too evolved in my career to think what I have done doesn’t matter while looking to improve.
“My Past: I learned how to throw a football first.
“Why that’s important: If I desire to make some fundamental changes to my delivery, I need to be willing to change in complete, as the foundation of my throwing process was built around throwing a football.
“I had to make arm, body, and mechanical compensations mid-career due to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. (TOS: the compression of the brachia plexus that is the highway of nerves, arteries and/or veins that controls and supplies to the arm. In myself it manifested as drastic pain in the anterior shoulder).
“Why that’s important: I need to be aware of why I started to do ‘strange’ things throwing a baseball and understand that it’ll be difficult to kick those old habits.
“I made additional compensations in 2018 to get past knee issues.
“Why that’s important: For very much the same reason as the TOS. My body had compensated to cover up inefficiencies, and I had to retrain myself to get back to my old self.
“The combination of these three athletic factors left me with a delivery that was nonathletic and not overly effective, so I tried to throw the old delivery out the window.
“Getting rid of that old delivery has been much like getting water out of a tire. You can see it. You don’t want it there. Yet, you are forced to keep flipping over that tire again and again because only a small portion comes out with every flip.
“The easier part for me was self-evaluating thru identifying pitches and zones that needed improvement from my past. The info was sadly pretty clear to me that not much of my arsenal was effective vs RHH other than my slider. The worst part of the self evaluation was that the slider was largely ineffective last season also due to a whole host of reasons.
“What I also found was that my sinker at the bottom of the zone – my bread and butter that generated ground balls — had turned from a viable option to one that was generating less and less favorable results.
“My change-up as well had blended into a pitch that too closely mirrored the not so great metrics of my sinker. My analytics study showed my ability to cut and spin the ball was also compromised, due to the lower arm slot and release angle that had been an effective and physically necessary approach a couple of seasons prior.
“A few years ago after another brief self evaluation, I moved to the other side of the rubber, spent the offseason trying to manipulate the change up, and reintroduce a cut fastball into my mix.
“To my naked eye, these worked great and I was oozing with confidence. The ball flight suggested they were good, catch partners loved them, and bullpen catchers were on board. Everything was smooth and positive until a RHH got into the box and took swings at the pitches.
“Going into this offseason, I set the goal of raising my arm angle to create a better four seam fastball vs RHH. This adjustment would change my approach angle, movement profile, and velocity. The new angle would also allow me to differentiate my off-speed from the FB more effectively.
“I felt like I had a good idea of what I wanted to accomplish but didn’t want to lose out on the opportunity to consult specialists in this area of pitching.
“Last year, I worked with a longtime pitching coach that requests to be anonymous. This year I had started to follow Driveline (DL) through social media and been reading up on their research. I decided to reach out to Kyle Boddy. He quickly responded and gave me all the information I needed. I made the trip to Washington to check out Driveline.
“Their information surprised me a bit but offered a roadmap of the last few months: my lower body was not creating much force, and my delivery was not syncing up efficiently enough to create optimized velocity into the ball.”
Richard offered a summary of his Driveline Report:
“Key Notes: Arm action is overall clean and efficient, elbow is a bit low at ball release. However, this is not currently having a negative effect on the rest of the arm action.
“The trunk opening early into foot plant is most likely pulling the arm out of efficient positions too early in the throw.
“Trunk opens early into foot plant. Hip/shoulder separation and timing are inefficient with room to improve.”
Biomechanics details: “Richard’s upper body kinematic positions are within normal to above average ranges for the most part. He does a great job creating above average scap retraction into foot plant (47 degs). Low shoulder abduction at ball release (79 degs). Besides that, no other glaring inefficiencies noted.
“He does a good job staying stacked with good forward (-10 degs) and lateral (4 degs) trunk tilt early into foot plant. However, there are some other inefficiencies noted. Richard’s trunk is opening early into foot plant (21 degs). This is limiting Richard’s ability to create hip/shoulder separation (18 degs) and timing from peak pelvis to peak torso angular velocity (0.0111 secs). This is most likely a product of inefficient trunk/pelvis positions at foot plant making it hard to create separation and sequence efficiently. Hip/shoulder separation drills should be emphasized to work on this by holding counter-rotation and staying stacked with the trunk while the pelvis opens into foot plant.
“Below average kinematic velocities noted; COG velocity (2 m/s); torso angular velocity (980 degs/sec).
“Joint kinetics within normal ranges.”
Richard has taken that data and gone to work.
“With those notes, I had all the information I needed to start down my path of change,” writes Richard of his plan. “Here is a sample formula for a delivery that I will refer to a few times moving forward: Just as 10+10+10+10+10+10+10+10+10+10=100, Mindset+Focus+Breath+Feet+Legs+Hips+Torso+Arms+Hand+Sights=Delivery or an Executed Pitch.
“This is an oversimplification pitch delivery to try to illustrate my point. Every pitcher will have a unique equation that reaches their own version of 100.
“When a pitcher changes one small thing in his delivery, he will no longer be at his desired 100.
“Example: I moved my throwing foot to be more flush with the rubber (had to exaggerate to feel as if my toes were pointing at the plate to get there).
Changing that ‘10’ in my foot to an ‘8’ left my solution at ‘98’. Then, I had to go step by step through the rest of my delivery to see what else needed adjusted to get back to 100. In this case, it was just my sights.
“The foot adjustment happened quickly, and my sights adjusted without much issue. Some fixes come relatively easily, but other changes require many frustrating training sessions to find out what was changed and what correlated adjustment needs made.
“Here are a few of the most frustrating parts I encounter when setting out to make a significant change:
“Seeing what is wrong and not feeling it.
“Feeling an adjustment made and not seeing it.
“Expectations not lining up with reality.
“Physical restrictions limiting a faster progression (in my case, blisters).
“I have also figured out you have to go through the frustrating parts to make progress. If you are not getting sore in new places, experiencing blisters, throwing balls off the backstop, then you’re likely not making much of a change at all.
“Making a fundamental change takes hundreds, even thousands of reps, and the outcome revealed is often incremental. My mind and body have worked together so long and over so many reps, it takes a while to break up the chemistry they have going.
“I started working from home while staying in contact with Dean Jackson of DL. We decided to start working from the ground up. Working on my lower half was a very frustrating process.
“Before the past couple of years, I had never put any thought into what my lower body was doing when I was pitching.
“The first part of my lower half adjustment was easy enough: moving my throwing foot flush with the rubber.
“I originally moved my heel off of the rubber to even out my delivery equation when I moved from the other side of the rubber to face RHH two years ago.
“I was having trouble with my command and made a quick fix to change the way by body angled to the plate vs changing something else.
“In getting my heel closer to the rubber, it improved my ability to get into my left hip. What felt good was often wrong and what felt foreign was generally right where I needed to be.
“I spent months trying to get more out of my legs to no avail. I was going back and forth with Dean, almost daily, toiling over changes that could make the positive impact we so desired. He did a remarkable job promptly responding and sending video examples when necessary.
“My mind was totally on my legs, but that is exactly where I was going wrong: I was putting too much emphasis on them. If I think back to when things were going well before the knee issues, there was no thought put into what my lower half was doing.
“Thinking about how it moves, I’m essentially locking it up. I stole a cue from Trevor Cahill, who sent me a video of him getting his foot down before an obstacle (keeping his glove foot on the throwing side of the midline to the plate). “That is what clicked with me after countless attempts to get my lower half moving ‘right’. What I had been doing was putting so much focus into my leg movement that the process of the lower half going down the slope was taking too long for my foot get down. It was just the opposite of what I was trying to accomplish.
“The next step was how my torso was moving in space at a couple of different points through my delivery.
“Closing off my upper half relative to my hips; Hip/Shoulder separation. The elite throwers do this very well. Over time, my natural ability to do this had been compromised by the many adjustments made to command the ball.
“One of the first attempts was to try to ‘glove tap’ at leg lift. Rob Hill suggested it, and this helped a little, but I didn’t feel that it made as drastic of a change as I desired.
“One day, I remembered back to learning to pitch for the first time in the back yard with my father. I originally misunderstood what he meant when he was telling me ‘all the way back’.
“We would play out imaginary at-bats and call ‘balls’ and ‘strikes.’ If I were to fall behind, he would exclaim, ‘Come on Clayton. All the way back!
“Six-year-old me understood this as reaching my glove and ball all the way back towards second base as far as I could before I delivered the pitch. I didn’t understand ‘all the way back’ as a saying to get back into the count until embarrassingly late in my baseball days.
“So, I used the input from Rob and my father to start getting a little more counter rotation with my upper half by driving my hands back at leg lift.
“Getting on top of the ball: One of the biggest obstacles to get the ball to act how I want it to is to get more ‘on top’ of it. My spin axis has gotten pretty low since my return from TOS.
“My spin axis was measured around 9:45. This leads to a terrific amount of arm side run, but in the past couple years it was not enough to keep the RHH at bay. I needed to find a healthy way to raise my hand and effectively raise my spin axis. “One thing I have heard from many pitching coaches and baseball minds more advanced than mine, is that you don’t mess with a player’s arm angle.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t always listen to this wisdom, and I battled to change mine at times earlier in my career, which led to some arm issues. That left me with the challenge to get my hand more vertical without raising my arm relative to my body.
“Enter Torso Tilt: I elected to use my torso to ‘lean’ glove side in an effort to raise ‘arm angle’ and get my spin axis to a more desirable slot. This worked initially, but then proved to be very inconsistent in terms of spin axis.
“The ball was coming out of the same slot consistently, but the axis was very inconsistent.
“I couldn’t figure this out for a long time. I was throwing with RHP Parker Dunshee and took note of his arm slot that is relatively low compared to his 1:00 spin axis.
“We talked it over, and I tried changing the positioning of my thumb on the baseball. Boom. Spin axis at or above 10:30 nearly every pitch following adjustment.
“My thumb was on the side of the ball and I moved it under or essentially polar opposite of my power fingers.
“After my four-seam fastball was starting to profile how I envisioned it, it was time to start commanding that pitch and doing so at higher intensity levels.
“One thing that I have found when implementing changes into a delivery is that I can perform them fairly easily in drill work or super low intensity situations. The real challenge lies in creating my new outcome as soon as a higher level of intensity is introduced and there is more focus on the outcome of the pitch.
“The moment in which I envision a hitter in the box or try to execute a pitch, my mind/body has a tendency to revert back to the form in which it performed that action in the past.”
“Outside of family, there is nothing in my life that has had as much of an impact on my actions and mindset as baseball. I had a high school football coach that would routinely acknowledge ‘pain is a good teacher’.
“There is not much more painful than giving up a home run to give up the lead or lose an MLB game. Those game experiences of pitches that I was beat on are burnt into my mind and body. If I try to tell my body to throw that pitch, my mind will override a poor decision to stay away from that uber painful experience it was once put in.
“It also provides a level of comfort with the delivery that has worked, for the most part, over the course of my career.
“Unfortunately, that delivery that I revert back to is not one I want moving forward while facing RHH. So, I have to make a habit out of making the uncomfortable, comfortable.
“This is where slow-motion video and pitch measuring tools such as Rapsodo really provide an advantage.
“It is impossible to find big league level talent to take swings off you every time you take the mound to work things out.
“The combination of Rapsodo and film have been introduced to somewhat fill that void.
“Nothing can fully replace the feedback of a big-league hitter, but the metrics and video provided from these sources has been a big step forward in seeing the necessary changes, and if I was making the changes the way I had envisioned.
“Now, instead of ‘feeling’ like that was a good pitch, I can look up and check to see if the numbers backed it up. Whenever I think of mental cues and how our mind perceives our body to be moving,
“I recall a conversation with former MLB veteran and fellow Hoosier, Joe Thatcher. I faced him his senior year of high school, and he threw ‘normal’.
“He developed into a Big Leaguer as a guy that dropped down and was very difficult on LHH. I asked him, “When did you start throwing like this?” when we were teammates in SD. He replied, ‘I feel like I’m throwing the same as everyone else, completely normal.’
“It goes to show, no matter how good we are or how far we have come, very rarely is the vision of our mind’s eye 20/20.
“All too often, early in the process, what felt like a great pitch only felt great because it was closer to how I used to throw.
“I wanted to feel weird and make the weird feeling my new normal. This process takes thousands of throws. It can take thousands of throws at each level of intensity.
“Playing catch — Flatground, Side Work, Live BP, Simulated Game, MiLB Game, MLB Game. As I have worked at each level, I have found that there are certain obstacles that pop up because of my body/mind recalling how it used to perform.
“Back to the process – Command: At this point, many of the variables in my delivery equation have been manipulated.
“The only thing remaining is throwing until my new sights line up with where the ball is actually going, without regressing towards what I’m comfortable with.
“This remains easier said than done. Thousands of throws, even a few off the glove were made in this process.
“I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with so many intelligent baseball minds over the course of my career. In these times of introspection, I will find myself recalling the cues Darren Balsley used to help me improve my sinker, or how Jim Benedict helped get my velo back after the TOS. Whether it was sights under the glove or the concept of throwing it easy and pulling down, I still draw from those interactions and now I have the 4S FB that I desire.
“Unfortunately, I do not throw 101 mph and have the luxury of living off of one pitch. I am forced to incorporate my off speed to compete at the highest level.
“Every time I use a different grip, some part of my delivery is driven back in time due to the muscle memory of that grip. Some grips take weeks to figure out what was not adding up, like my slider (turns out I was failing to drive my hands back at the top of my leg lift like I was with my FB).
“Other grips took just a few throws to iron out the kinks, like my CH. The new hand placement has allowed for the reintroduction of my cutter and curveball, which was kind of like learning new pitches all over again due to the lack of action those pitches have seen over the past few years.”
“I still have some work to do in getting the release points of my off-speed to mirror more closely that of my FB.
“However, they have gradually gotten closer over the last couple of weeks, and I just need to flip that tire a few more times. A couple more flips and the water will likely be out of it – just like I will be back to my ‘new, old self.’”
There is uncertainty about when the Major League Baseball season is going to begin — if at all — and if there will be Minor League Baseball in 2020.
Richard’s agent, John Courtright of ISE Baseball in Chicago, is monitoring the situation.
“The opportunities may be few and far between,” says Richard. “I’m going to be ready to compete.”
Clayton Richard’s old heel position.
Clayton Richard’s new heel position.
Clayton Richard’s old hand position.
Clayton Richard’s new hand position.
Clayton Richard delivers the baseball for the San Diego Padres in 2009. (Sean M. Haffey/San Diego Union-Tribune Photo)
Clayton Richard has pitched in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres (two different stints), Chicago Cubs and Toronto Blue Jays. (MLB Photo)
Clayton Richard pitched the Toronto Blue Jays in 2019. The former McCutcheon High School and University of Michigan player made his Major League Baseball debut in 2008. (MLB Photo)
Clayton Richard, of Lafayette, Ind., has been pitching in Major League Baseball since 2008. At 36, he is re-working his delivery to increase his production. (MLB Photo)