The Curious Case of Clay Buchholz
Last week it was announced that longtime Red Sox mainstay and two-time all-star Clay Buchholz would move to the bullpen after a dreadful start to the 2016 season. While Buchholz will likely be a frontrunner to fill the rotation spot left after the demotion of fellow struggling starter Joe Kelly, the move should be a wake up call. In 2016, Buchholz is 2-5 with a 6.35 ERA and a minuscule K/9 of 5.9 through 56.2 innings pitched, his worst totals in a season with at least 60.0 innings pitched since 2008. His move to the bullpen comes after four straight starts of pitching six innings or less and giving up at least four runs (Stats via ESPN Stat Cast).
Blessed with some of the best natural stuff in the game, Buchholz has all the tools to be an effective pitcher at the big league level. Sometimes it’s baffling to watch him struggle so badly with the stuff he has. While no longer capable of touching triple digits like he was when he first arrived in the big leagues, Buchholz’ fastball velocity has remained consistent throughout his career. He averaged 92.7 mph on his fastball in his first full season in 2008. In 2016 his fastball is averaging 91.6 mph. Despite the relative consistency in velocity, opponents’ production against his heater has been all over the place. In 2013, the second of his all-star seasons, opponents hit .211 against his fastball with a slugging percentage of just .303. So far in 2016, opponents are hitting an even .300 and slugging .667. He has always mixed his secondary pitches very well, throwing roughly the same amount of changeups, curveballs, and cutters in his career, but has seldom been able to put all his weapons together at once. In 2010, Buchholz’ first all-star season, he had problems leaving the curveball out over the plate, and opponents hit .297 against it. In 2011 it was the slider, with a .313 average against. In 2012 it was the two-seamer, .304. And in 2015 it was the cutter, .290 (stats via FanGraphs PITCHf/x).
When healthy he has proven to be effective. He pitched a no hitter on September 2nd, 2007 in only his second start in the Majors. In 2010, he pitched 173.2 innings, giving up only 142 hits and compiling a 2.33 ERA. He was virtually unhittable when healthy in his second all-star campaign in 2013, with an ERA of 1.74 and an opponent batting average of .199; unfortunately, a neck injury cost him nearly three months. However, he has never had a season of 200 innings pitched and has only thrown more than 113.1 innings three times in his career. It’s extremely hard to rely on a guy who is supposed to be a front line starter when he can’t stay on the field long enough to make a difference (stats via ESPN Stat Cast).
2016 has been a mystery for both Sox fans and Buchholz himself. Maybe his poor statistics are a result of an underlying injury. Maybe he’s still trying to knock off some cobwebs after his season was cut short a year ago due to yet another injury. Or maybe he’s just struggling to find confidence in his stuff after getting off to a rough start. Whatever the case may be, the Red Sox and Buchholz need to figure things out before long. Boston has been able to mask their spotty starting pitching this year with a potent offense, but the teams at the top of the American League East have serious offensive firepower themselves, meaning starting pitching may make the difference in the final standings. Clay Buchholz would do a lot to alleviate some of the frustration in Red Sox Nation if he could take his reality check to heart and finish the 2016 strong.