The deeper meaning to Friday's pitchers' duel

May 19th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Do-Hyoung Park’s Twins Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CLEVELAND -- The pitching matchup in Friday’s series opener between the Twins and Guardians brought a good, crisp pitchers’ duel -- the type that starting pitchers are always aglow about. Minnesota right-hander and Cleveland right-hander traded effective innings deep into the night.

And when Woods Richardson was asked about the quality of that pitchers’ duel after the game, he added that the specific matchup carried a lot of meaning for him.

“It’s not a lot of times you see two Black starting pitchers facing each other,” Woods Richardson said. “It’s just been on my mind. You don’t really see that many Black baseball players in general, let alone two starting pitchers.”

“Being able to go out there and see him walk out of the bullpen as I'm walking in was pretty cool,” McKenzie said.

Woods Richardson and McKenzie knew each other entering the day. They’d been introduced by some mutual friends several years ago, and they interact with each other on social media -- and will see each other more often now that Woods Richardson has a consistent rotation spot in the same division.

They also share one of the most unique distinctions in baseball: being Black starting pitchers in a league in which that has grown to be increasingly rare.

According to the 2023 report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), only 6.2% of players (59 in total) on Opening Day rosters leaguewide identified as Black or African American, the lowest percentage since TIDES began collecting data in 1991. In 2024, there were 57 Black players on Opening Day rosters leaguewide (6.0 percent of players). By Woods Richardson’s and McKenzie’s counts, they’re two of only eight Black starters in MLB.

As to why that is? McKenzie and Woods Richardson have various ideas.

“I think it was a stigma in baseball for a long time,” McKenzie said. “You saw it in football, too, where they said Black players couldn't be quarterbacks, just because of the mental toll it takes. So I think just being able to go out there and know that I'm commanding a lot of the game, it's something that I take with a lot of pride.”

Though McKenzie has dealt with health issues since 2023, he’s one of the game’s more effective young starters, still only 26 and carrying a 3.68 career ERA in five seasons. He noted that this matchup against Woods Richardson was his second time facing another Black starter this season, after facing Jack Flaherty on May 6.

“The fact that I got to do it twice within a two-week span is super dope to me, because I know it's not common,” McKenzie said.

Woods Richardson has finally broken into the Majors more consistently this season at age 23 and appears to be settling in with a 2.97 ERA in his first six starts. He spoke of the economic barriers that often exist for young Black athletes looking to get into baseball. He considers his current status in a starting rotation an “honor” and a “blessing,” especially once he took the next step in his career as a pitcher instead of as an infielder.

“It's that people who grew up in our communities were not fortunate enough to play baseball,” Woods Richardson said. “Equipment is way too expensive. Travel ball's way too expensive. Yeah. The rarity to have that, it's severe, because kids really don't have the money to play baseball. We just play football or basketball, because it's way cheaper.”

Woods Richardson is someone who used resources such as MLB’s DREAM Series as part of his journey. He participated in 2017 alongside Hunter Greene and in ‘18 with Kumar Rocker, among others. And much like how he looked up to pitchers such as CC Sabathia, Marcus Stroman, Chris Archer, Dock Ellis, Satchel Paige, LaTroy Hawkins and others, he’s hoping that games like Friday’s can make him part of the precedent for the next generation, too.

“It's just setting an example for those kids who kind of look like me and say, ‘OK, yeah, we can do it.’ I was one of those kids,” Woods Richardson said. “I believe if more Black players got into the game, you would see a lot of excitement, a lot of speed, a lot of talent, a lot of IQ.”