Boston Red Sox: 9 Good Signs from Clay Buchholz Already This Spring

Frank LennonCorrespondent IMarch 28, 2012

Boston Red Sox: 9 Good Signs from Clay Buchholz Already This Spring

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    A disclaimer, to start.

    I love Clay Buchholz.

    I've loved him since September 1, 2007, when he no-hit the Baltimore Orioles, 10-0, in just his second major league start. According to Elias Sports Bureau, he became the third MLB pitcher since 1900 to throw a no-hitter in his first or second start. He was also the first Red Sox rookie to do so.

    Since then, it's been a roller coaster ride for the now-27-year-old right-hander, who was a 2005 first-round draft pick of the Red Sox.

    In 2008 he fell apart, going on the DL in May, losing the touch on his fastball and being demoted to Triple-A. After a recall in July he did not win another decision, ending the season 2-9 with a ghastly 6.75 ERA and a WHIP of 1.763.

    He split 2009 between Pawtucket and Boston, but pitched pretty well in the second half after Tim Wakefield was hurt. He ended up with a much-improved 7-4 record, 4.21 ERA and 1.38 WHIP.

    In 2010 he got it all together, earning an All-Star team selection after starting the season 10–4 with a 2.45 ERA. He then went 4–0 in August with a 1.03 ERA, and was named AL pitcher of the month. Buchholz finished the season with a 17–7 record, a 2.33 ERA and a 1.203 WHIP. His ERA+ of 187 led the league, and resulted in some Cy Young consideration.

    He started off well in 2011, going 6-3 in 14 starts before back troubles sent him to the DL in June. Initial reports suggested that he would be back in a couple of weeks after the inflammation calmed down, but the problem persisted. He was finally diagnosed with a stress fracture of the lower back and was shut down for the season.

    His importance to the Red Sox success in 2012 cannot be overestimated, and initial reports from spring training suggest that he may be in for a terrific year.

    Here are some of those considerations.

1. The Realization by All That a Healthy, Effective Clay Buchholz Is Crucial

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    According to his scouting report, one of the reasons for his inconsistent performance since his meteoric start has been a lack of confidence. That in turn led to major struggles with command, leading to lackluster results.

    However, it's pretty clear that one of the reasons the Red Sox starting pitching collapsed down the stretch last year was because Buchholz was not available.

    I think he knows and accepts that now.

    “If he’s healthy he’s going to have 20 percent of our starts. I would say that’s a very, very important part of the games we’re going to play,’’ manager Bobby Valentine told Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. “He’s got outstanding stuff and if he can carry it to the mound often enough, he’ll be a big factor in our team this year. He looks like a very good pitcher to me.’’

    Abraham agrees; he later wrote, "Clay Buchholz is the key to the season. If he gives the Sox 180-plus solid innings, they can get away with three good starters and whatever else happens. If he can't, they could be an 85-win team."

    Other reporters and bloggers covering the team are unanimous in their assessment of the importance of Buchholz to the success of the 2012 team. Here are examples of this sentiment:

    The Best Sox Blog writes, "Buchholz’s recovery is vital to the Sox success this year. Without him the rotation can’t even come close to competing with the Yankees or Rays."

    Erik Venskus of Boston.SportsThenandNow.com: "If he pitches close to what he did in 2010 then you take a lot of pressure off of the guys in the back end of the rotation. In a lot of ways Buchholz is the key to this team’s success in 2012."

    Chip Buck, Firebrand of the AL: "If the Red Sox want to seriously contend for a championship this season, they’re going to need a healthy Buchholz to pick up where he left off.  In a rotation filled with uncertainty, he’s the key to the Red Sox’s success."

    The bottom line is that filling out the rotation has been the biggest worry GM Ben Cherington has going into the 2012 season. He signed a smorgasbord of aspirants for the fourth and fifth starter jobs, and then chose two home-grown products (Bard and Doubront) to fill out the rotation.

    Yes, guys like Cook, Padilla and Ohlendorf are available if anyone falters, but Buchholz is now the glue between the front and back ends of that rotation.

    Perhaps knowing that everyone has confidence in him will give Buchholz the confidence he needs in himself to succeed.

2. His Back Seems to Be Fully Healed

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    Buchholz, who has been on a regular work schedule this spring, has shown no ill effects from the stress fracture in his back that ended his season last June.

    If you recall, Buchholz had actually been activated for the final game against Baltimore last September. He did not pitch and the Red Sox season ended—there was still a question about how his back would hold up. The team sent him to pitch a few innings in the instructional league after the season ended, just to see how his back would hold up.

    This was an anti-climax to be sure, and initially he was not thrilled about the idea of continuing to pitch after the season ended.

    Looking back on it, Buchholz agreed that his successful outcome was the best thing that could have happened for his confidence going into the offseason.

    "I've been past that for a while," he said about his back issue. "There hasn't been any (negative) responses. Until something comes up, that's when I would back off a little bit. I haven't felt anything."

    "If Friday's performance by Clay Buchholz was an indicator for the season to come, there is a collective sigh of relief because it would seem that Buchholz is healthy and ready for the 2012 season," wrote Cee Angi of OvertheMonster.com.

    "While back pain and injury are fickle and could potentially resurface, the progress is positive in a season where a healthy rotation is the main focus after last season's injuries."

3. He Is Pitching More Innings This Spring

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    Red Sox brass is hopeful that Buchholz can reach the 200-inning plateau this year. (In fact, one could argue that it's imperative that he reach that mark, to reduce wear and tear on the bullpen.)

    The concern is that the 27-year-old right-hander has only pitched more than 92 innings in a season once, and that was in his All-Star 2010 season when he managed 173.

    Buchholz believes that he has not been pitching enough innings in spring training to get him prepared for pitching deep into games once the bell rings.

    In 2011 he pitched 21 spring training innings, and struggled in April with an ERA of 5.33. As Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal observes, "After pitching into the seventh inning in his first outing of last season, a loss at Texas, Buchholz went four starts until he pitched into the seventh inning again. He didn’t pitch seven full innings in a start until the middle of May."

    By then he was stretched out enough to pitch into the seventh inning four times in six starts, getting his ERA down to 3.41 by the end of May.

    Buchholz is well aware of this. "I know that I need to get my pitch count up because I wasn't ready for my first couple starts last year," he told NESN's Didier Morais.

    Not only that, but he needs to pitch more innings, so that he gets the feel for throwing 20 pitches, sitting down on the bench for a while, then getting back up to throw 20 or so more.

    For Buchholz this spring, it’s not just about how many pitches he throws—it’s also about the number of innings.

    As MacPherson points out, "If he pitches the exhibition game in Washington on April 3, five days before his first scheduled start of the regular season, he could log somewhere around 25 innings pitched for the spring."

    Let's hope that's enough.

4. After a Shaky Start, His Command Has Improved Drastically

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    Throughout his career Buchholz has battled command issues, particularly with his fastball. For a pitcher who depends on control, this struggle with consistency (along with the injuries) has prevented him from rising to the elite tier of AL starters.

    At the start of spring training he also demonstrated some lack of fastball control, but fortunately he seems to be improving each time out.

    Former Red Sox pitcher Dick Drago, who lives in the Tampa area, has had the opportunity to see Buchholz pitch a couple of times this spring.

    "So so far, so good," Drago told me. "He's gotten better each start, commanding both the fast ball and the breaking ball. He's throwing strikes."

    Sporting News reported that on Sunday, March 18, he threw 49 strikes in 63 pitches against the Rays, while working on his curveball and changeup. Buchholz allowed one run and four hits in five innings as the Boston Red Sox won 8-4.

5. His K/9 and K/BB Rates Are Improving

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    I know that it's a small sample, but so far he has struck out 10 and walked only three in 15 spring training innings. While six strikeouts per nine innings is nothing to write home about, the 1.8 BB/9 is very promising. That's a K/BB rate of 3.333, almost double his career rate of 1.85.

    One of the things that makes Buchholz especially valuable is that he has the capability of excellent control, which should lower his WHIP and eventually his ERA. Not walking hitters is one of the best ways to stay out of trouble in the big leagues; making batters swing at the ball is the best path to a successful pitching career. After all, pitchers win more than seven out of every 10 battles when the ball is put in play.

    When Buchholz has faltered in the past it has been due (other than injuries) to an inexplicable loss of command, especially of his fastball.

6. Shades of 2010 Form?

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    Clay Buchholz was a Red Sox first-round draft pick in 2005, and had almost instant success in the minor leagues. For example, in two seasons at Double-A Portland, he went 8-2 with an ERA of 1.77 and an otherworldly WHIP of 0.836. He struck out 11.9 batters every nine innings, and walked only two, for a 5.83 K/BB ratio.

    As often happens with young pitchers, however, those ratios decline when facing elite hitters at the major league level, and that certainly happened with Buchholz, especially in 2008.

    While Buchholz pitched very well in 2010, earning a spot on the All-Star team and finishing with a 17-7 record and an ERA of 2.33, there are many who feel that he has still not pitched up to his full potential.

    "We’ve only seen flashes of the potential dominance we were expecting," writes Chip Buck. 

    In a way, he is still an unknown quantity. 

    Granted, injuries have had a lot to do with that; 2010 was the one season in his five-year MLB career in which he was completely healthy. He made 28 starts in 2010, 12 more than he made any other year. He also pitched 173 innings; his next-highest total was 92.

    Buck makes a good observation about the small sample of his 2011 results:

    Starting with his May 7th start, he produced a 2.57 ERA with a very encouraging 43/13 K/BB ratio in 49 innings.  (All while still inducing a ton of ground balls.)  He was attacking hitters, throwing strikes, balancing his pitch selection, and inducing a greater number of whiffs.  He seemed to be growing into an ace before our very eyes.

    The key to success for Buchholz is clearly his command of the strike zone. His strikeouts have remained relatively constant; it's the increased walks that have hurt him.

    His encouraging start in spring training, combined with his last efforts in 2010, make us optimistic that he may have turned that corner.

7. Pitch Selection

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    The 2007 no-hitter version of Clay Buchholz featured a "gravity-defying curveball" combined with "an immaculately released changeup", as Alex McPhillips of MLB.com described his two "out" pitches.

    Cee Angi of OvertheMonster.com did a very good analysis of how his offerings have changed over time.

    She reports that he has moved more towards a fastball/slider combination, "with a filthy change-up in the mix to boot, and that curve that, as Kevin Goldstein put it, 'batters falling down while trying to hit it' wasn't phased out, but was pushed aside."

    She adds that he changed slider grips and forms two years in a row, resulting in a 90 mph cutter as opposed to the 81 mph breaking ball that he featured a few years ago.

    To up his already high ground ball rates, he has added a sinking two-seam fastball to his repertoire. 

    Even though he was very successful "pitching backwards" when he first came up (i.e., relying in his knee-buckling curve and excellent changeup to set up his fastball), big league hitters have adjusted.

    As a result, Buchholz has become more aggressive, depending on his fastballs (two-seam and four-seam) to get more ground ball outs.

    According to Angi, the plan for 2012 seems to be reintroducing the curve, use of which had dropped drastically between 2008 (20 percent of his pitches) and 2011 (12 percent of his pitches).

    Angi concludes, "Since his slider is no longer a slider, taking on that harder, tighter cutter movement and speed, additional use of that hard curve would, in theory, give hitters just one more thing to worry about."

    To summarize, here's the scouting report on his pitches: "Buchholz throws a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a slider that he refers to as a cutter, a 12-6 curveball, and a straight changeup. His changeup and 12-6 curveball are considered elite pitches."

8. He Has the Security of a Long-Term Deal

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    Clay Buchholz has been considered one of the Red Sox's top pitching prospects since 2005, when he was drafted as sandwich pick—42nd overall—compensation for Pedro Martinez leaving as a free agent.

    One of the reasons many players sign long-term deals that might be viewed as favorable to the team is because of their concern about injury. What happens if they get hurt before that first big free agency payday?

    That's exactly what happened to Buchholz last year. He signed his four-year, $30 million deal with the Red Sox last April, and in less than four months he was sidelined for the season with a stress fracture in his lower back.

    Buchholz told Alex Speier of WEEI.com that he was relieved that he had signed the contract. he would have beaten himself up over it had he rejected the offer and then been hurt without any long-term security. 

    "That would have been hard for me, because I would have definitely pushed myself to get back a lot sooner and maybe hurt myself worse," said Buchholz. "That helped out a little bit."

    A little bit? Ya think?

    Seriously, though, that security blanket allows Buchholz to approach this and future seasons in a far more relaxed state of mind.



     


9. Finally, His Average Draft Position in Fantasy Leagues Is Ticking Upward

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    Because of his off-year in 2011, many fantasy analysts think Buchholz will outperform expectations this year. In Yahoo! drafts, he has an average draft position of 199.8, while at ESPN his ADP is 188.7.

    At ESPN he is the 76th-ranked staring pitcher, and with those relatively low ADPs Buchholz is being recommended as a sleeper/value pick in a number of fantasy advice columns, such as this one on B/R.

    As a result, he is being drafted slightly higher in the most recent drafts.

    ESPN describes his fantasy value as follows.

    Buchholz is a bit of an enigma. Entering 2011, he was at a career crossroads of sorts. He had outpitched his peripherals in 2010, so it was commonly accepted there would be some correction to his 2.33 ERA. However, the scouting community still raved about his stuff and expected the right-hander to take a jump with respect to skills, helping to minimize the effect of regression. The problem was Buchholz's season was ended prematurely because of a back injury incurred in June, after compiling only 82 2/3 innings. In the limited sample, there were signs that both the number-crunchers and scouts were right. Regression in the way of a 1.09 HR/9 rate reared its ugly head, but Buchholz did slightly improve his strikeout and walk rates, though it would have been nice to have a full season's worth of data to better judge if the upticks were real. As is, assuming Buchholz is healthy -- and the reports are positive but backs are always tricky -- we are pretty much back at square one. If they do not improve, Buchholz has the peripherals of a middle-of-the-rotation sort, but he has the pedigree and potential to be more.