Most Baserunners Allowed Without a Run

The job of a pitcher is to prevent runs from being scored by his opponent. Preventing baserunners is so closely tied to this job that they are often considered dual responsibilities. However, every once in awhile there is a pitcher who manages to do one of the two jobs well while doing the other poorly.

J.R. Richard pitched 10 seasons for the Houston Astros from 1971-1980. He was a fairly good pitcher, even considering the era of depressed offense and his park. The Astrodome was notoriously killer on hitters, being as pitcher-friendly as Petco Park in San Diego is now, per Baseball-Reference’s park factors. Still, he eclipsed 200 innings in 5 straight seasons, passed 300 strikeouts in 2 seasons (leading the league both times), and had a career ERA of 3.15 (8% better than league average over that time, adjusted for the park). He had 3 top ten Cy Young finishes, including a 3rd-place in 1979.

How ridiculous were those jerseys? Really? You put his number on his thigh? Was "juicy" on the butt also in consideration?

Despite his overall quality, Richard was always wild on the mound. He led the league in walks 3 times, wild pitches 3 times, and even managed a horrendous 6.3 BB/9 one year. Thanks to his high walk and strikeout totals, he profiled as the type of pitcher who could give up a plethora of baserunners without letting one score. And, in fact, he holds the record for most men allowed to reach base without giving up a run. On July 6, 1976, he pitched all 10 innings of a 1-0 win against the Mets. He walked 10 batters and gave up 8 hits for a record total of 18 baserunners. Surprisingly, he was aided by just 2 double plays and 1 caught stealing. Instead, he relied on 7 K’s to keep runners stationary and epic ineptitude on the part of Mets’ hitters. They stranded 15 (!!) men by going 1-16 with runners in scoring position. The lone hit was a 5th inning single by Dave Kingman that must have been an infield hit because it left Bruce Bosclair right where he started, at second base.

J.R. Richard played with fire by allowing 18 of the 45 batters he faced to reach base (40%), but fortuitously avoided getting burned. The question that I can’t answer: is this a good record to hold, a bad record to hold, or somewhere in the nebulous middle-ground? On one hand, a lot of studies show that the sequencing (i.e. the order you get outs, hits, and walks) is mostly  luck, not skill. That would mean that he is just luckier than a guy who gave up 18 baserunners in 10 innings and allowed 10 runs to score. On the other hand, he pitched a shutout. And any record involving you throwing a shutout has to be good, right?

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