In 2004, Clayton Richard was battling for a starting spot on the Michigan Wolverines football team. As a quarterback, the odds were stacked against him. He had Chad Henne ahead of him, and to win the spot, he would have to prove he was better than the future NFL quarterback. Richard had redshirted the 2003 season, and the likelihood of winning out just wasn’t high. Richard would throw just 14 passes in the 2004 season, which led him toward baseball instead of football. He was going nowhere as a back-up for a team with a star quarterback. It was a choice that would benefit him greatly in the long run.
Richard played baseball in high school and had wanted to pursue a career in the sport back then. However, he wasn’t drafted and had committed to play football at Michigan. Now, with his football career behind him, Richard had the opportunity to shake the rust off, play college ball, and perhaps impress a few scouts along the way. One of those scouts would be Mike Shirley.
Mike Shirley was with the White Sox organization, and he had been following Richard since high school. A big, left handed pitcher like Richard commands a lot of attention in baseball circles, and Shirley thought he saw something in the young kid at the time. Shirley had a track record of success with the White Sox and was well-respected in the scouting community. His endorsement would go a long way in getting Richard drafted.
In 2005, Richard pitched in just 33 1/3 innings for Michigan as a reliever. He posted a 2.43 ERA and struck out 27 batters. That was enough for Shirley and the White Sox. They took the lefty with the 245th overall pick in the 2005 draft. He went in the eighth round, but was not discouraged. In fact, many people thought he would have been a first round pick had he returned to Michigan and continued to perform there. But Richard was ready for pro ball and signed with the White Sox just days later, eager to get to work.
The path to the majors was slow at first. Richard struggled to get promoted beyond high-A ball. In 2005, he pitched in both Rookie League play and in Single-A ball. As a member of the Kannapolis Intimidators, the single A affiliate of the White Sox, Richard threw 10 1/3 innings but allowed seven runs. It was far from the type of showing he would have liked after getting promoted out of Rookie League. Richard would continue to struggle with up and down numbers in 2006 and 2007, never making it past high-A ball. However, in 2008 he broke spring training with the Double-A club. Richard was finally moving up.
Richard started 13 games for the Birmingham Barons. He went 6-6 with a slim 2.47 ERA. His BB/9 ratio was just 1.7, and he pitched strong enough to earn another promotion mid-season. With the Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A affiliate of the White Sox, Richard maintained a similar ERA. The major league roster was just a call-up away, and the pressure may have been overwhelming for others. But Richard calmly tossed 44 innings for Charlotte and posted a 2.45 ERA. He even lowered his walk rate to 0.8. That was enough to earn him the promotion of all promotions. Richard was called up to the Chicago White Sox.
Clayton Richard made his major league debut on July 23, 2008, and he hasn’t looked back since. He would eventually be traded to the Padres in the deal that sent former-Cy Young award winner Jake Peavy to Chicago, but Richard has been able to maintain his success with the Friars. With San Diego, Richard is 25-20 with a 3.77 ERA. As a lefty starter in the rotation, Richard’s presence has been invaluable. Now, with Cory Luebke by his side, the Padres have a formidable left-handed two-some.
Of course, Richard’s career could have gone a completely different route. Instead of switching sports, Richard could have toiled away as the Wolverines back-up quarterback, never getting any real game action. He could have finished college undrafted, looking for work in a field other than sports. That’s the story of so many college athletes. Fortunately for Richard, he understood his position, and he knew where his talent laid. Baseball allowed Richard to continue on with a career in professional sports. It wasn’t football, but it also wasn’t a back-up job early. Richard is one of the mainstays in the ever-changing Padres starting rotation.