Why Clay Buchholz Could Lead the Boston Red Sox Staff in 2013

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Why Clay Buchholz Could Lead the Boston Red Sox Staff in 2013
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Clay Buchholz promises to be a bright spot for the 2013 Red Sox.

Boston Red Sox fans don't have a ton of reasons to tune in to watch their favorite team these days. Sure, the Sox have a comedy-of-errors thing going on that can be entertaining at times, but it's not worth all the losing the team is doing.

And if we're being honest, the Sox aren't looking like a team that will be a ton of fun to watch in 2013, either. The club effectively went into rebuilding mode when Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez were dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers in late August, and all signs point towards the Red Sox not going for a quick fix by throwing money around in free agency this winter.

In all likelihood, 2013 is going to be a bridge year. The emphasis will be not on contending, but on getting ready to contend in 2014 and beyond. Next season will be a lot like a baseball version of the movie Training Day, sans the overacting.

Cultivating a strong pitching staff will be priority No. 1 for the Red Sox in 2013. Boston's pitching began to fall apart in 2011, and it has been a total disaster in 2012. Next season will be about re-establishing pitchers like Jon Lester and John Lackey, and the Sox will be looking to make something out of young hurlers like Felix Doubront.

They'll also be looking to further cement Clay Buchholz as an ace. And if you're a Sox fan looking for a reason to be excited about the 2013 season, that's one of them.

Buchholz's career has been an enigma to this point, but he has everything he needs to establish himself as Boston's unquestioned ace as soon as next season. Here's why.

 

He's Already Good

I referred to Buchholz's career as an "enigma" above, and I'm well aware that a word such as that carries certain negative connotations.

But let's be fair to Buchholz. His career has featured a few disappointments here and there, but there are a lot of good things that have taken place, too.

We are, after all, talking about a guy who threw a no-hitter in just his second career start, and his 2010 season was one for the books. He won 17 games and posted a 2.33 ERA that was good for third among all MLB hurlers. Only Felix Hernandez and Josh Johnson had better ERAs in 2010.

Buchholz was limited to only 14 starts in 2011 due to problems with his back, but he performed reasonably well in those outings. He compiled a 3.48 ERA while holding hitters to a .241 batting average and a .706 OPS. Numbers such as those are acceptable for a No. 3 starter, which is exactly what Buchholz was at the time. 

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Buchholz was on pace to give up over 40 home runs at one point this season.

Buchholz was probably the worst pitcher in baseball through his first nine starts this season, compiling a 7.84 ERA and allowing opponents to post a .954 OPS. He had just as many walks as he did strikeouts, and seemingly every hit he gave up was a screamer.

Ever since, however, Buchholz has a 2.93 ERA in 19 starts, in which he's limited opposing hitters to a much more respectable .644 OPS. He's struck out 100 and walked only 35 in 138.1 innings pitched.

You have to figure that part of Buchholz's resurgence this season is owed to him simply shaking off the rust that had accumulated in the months he was out of commission with a bad back. But just as importantly, his success is owed to his ability to adjust to hitters' tendencies just as well as he did in 2010 and 2011.

If you head on over to FanGraphs and dial up the charts that show the progression of Buchholz's opponents' batting averages in 2010, 2011 and 2012, you'll see that he's tended to start slow before figuring things out. Once he has, he's been able to consistently get hitters out at a rate equal to or better than the league average.

Granted, the advanced metrics tell us that Buchholz's success over the last few seasons has been an anomaly. Per FanGraphs, he posted a FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 3.61 in 2010, a figure that was over a full run higher than his actual ERA. His FIP was 4.34 in 2011, and it's 4.46 this season.

However, you can only chalk up so much of Buchholz's good work over the last three seasons to simple luck. He's a lot like Jered Weaver in that his ability to pitch to contact effectively isn't really respected by advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP, which tend to favor pitchers with higher strikeout rates. Weaver has proven that you don't need to be Justin Verlander in order to be an ace pitcher, and that's exactly the path that Buchholz is trying to walk.

We don't think of Buchholz the same way we think of Weaver, of course, and that's because Buchholz is still at a point in his career where he's trying to master his craft. The good news for him in this regard is that he's spent more time on the mound this season than he has in any other. Along the way, he's definitely been successful in further developing his stuff and his style.

Translation: He's getting better.

 

We Still Haven't Seen Buchholz's Best

When Buchholz won 17 games with a 2.33 ERA in 2010, he did it primarily with two pitches: his fastball and his changeup. He stuck with those two pitches because hitters failed to provide him with enough reasons to change things up, so to speak.

According to FanGraphs, hitters hit just .230 off Buchholz's fastball in 2010 and just .196 off his changeup. These low averages ultimately translated to very strong pitch values: 17.1 for his fastball and 6.3 for his changeup.

Things were different in 2011. Opponents hit over .300 against Buchholz's fastball, dropping its value into the red at minus 5.7. He was doing more harm than good when he threw his fastball, and in turn his changeup saw a decrease in overall value. Hitters only hit .170 against it, but the value of Buchholz's changeup dropped from 6.3 to 1.5.

In a way, it's the same old song this season. Buchholz's fastball still has a negative value. What's worse is that hitters have a .223 average against his changeup, resulting in a value of minus 0.7. Clearly, his fastball-changeup combination isn't what it used to be.

But this is OK. The degree to which hitters have adjusted to Buchholz's fastball-changeup combination has forced him to start relying more on other pitches, namely his curveball and his cut fastball.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Opponents hit .176 against Buchholz's curve in 2011, a sign that it was time to bring it back.

Those with good memories will know that Buchholz's curveball wasn't featured all that much in 2010. He only threw it about eight percent of the time, in part because his changeup was the only offspeed pitch he really needed and in part because hitters had a .297 average against his curveball.

Buchholz's Uncle Charlie has returned with a vengeance this season. He's throwing it about twice as often as he did in 2010, and hitters are hitting just .235 against it this year. The result is a respectable value of 1.7.

Buchholz's cutter has been an even bigger weapon. It's basically taken the place of his slider, and for good reason. It's a pitch that he can use inside on lefty hitters, and it provides a different look that has helped him reestablish some of his fastball's effectiveness. It still has a negative value, but hitters are hitting .274 off his fastball after knocking it around the tune of a .301 average in 2011. Buchholz's cutter has a value of 5.1, the highest of any of his pitches.

Buchholz didn't have his fastball, cutter, curveball and changeup working in tandem earlier in the season. With a few hiccups here and there, these four pitches have been working in tandem over his last 19 starts, and the results speak for themselves. The advanced metrics will say he's gotten lucky, but it's certainly better to be lucky than it is to be flat-out bad. Buchholz is no longer bad because he's shaken off the rust and because he's figured out how to use all four of his primary pitches to keep hitters guessing.

The learning process Buchholz has gone through this season should continue to pay off in 2013. Given what he's done over the last three months, it's not crazy to think that he could post an ERA in the low 3.00s, which could result in a 15-win season if the run support is there.

If Buchholz continues to push the envelope, he could be even better than that. The last thing hitters want to see is Buchholz reestablishing the fastball-changeup combo he had in 2010 while also featuring a good cutter and curveball. If it comes to that, we could see his K/9 get a boost, which would surely lead to dominant numbers across the board.

Basically, 15 wins and an ERA in the 3.00s isn't necessarily Buchholz's ceiling. He could once again post an ERA in the low 2.00s, which would surely allow him to make a run at a 20-win season.

He'd be the ace of any staff with numbers like those. But on the staff the Red Sox are likely to have in 2013, numbers like those would basically make Buchholz a god.

 

Shoot, Who Else Do the Sox Have?

With Beckett gone and Daisuke Matsuzaka's days in Boston numbered, Boston's rotation for the 2013 season doesn't exactly have a clear shape.

We know that Buchholz will be back. It's a good bet that Jon Lester will be back as well, and John Lackey will be healthy after missing this season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Aside from them, the Red Sox will likely stage a competition between Felix Doubront, Franklin Morales and others for a rotation spot. They could make things easier on themselves by signing a low-risk, high-reward free agent (e.g. Brandon McCarthy).

Regardless, it doesn't look like Boston's 2013 rotation is going to be the next coming of, say, the Philadelphia Phillies' 2011 starting rotation. Buchholz will have ace potential, but the other guys will merely be trying to prove they belong.

This is especially true of Lester. Between 2008 and 2011, an average season for him consisted of 16 wins, a 3.33 ERA and 200 innings. He may hit 200 innings this season, but he has yet to hit double-digit wins, and his ERA is an ugly 4.96. He's gone from being an ace to being a liability.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
On the bright side, Jon Lester has a higher WAR this season than Jered Weaver.

To be fair to Lester, he hasn't been a huge liability over the last few weeks. He has a 3.97 ERA over his last 10 starts, to go along with a decent opponents' OPS of .674. Be this as it may, he's not the same pitcher he once was, and the inconsistency of both his stuff and his confidence makes one wonder if he will ever again be the pitcher he once was.

Then there's Lackey, whose mission for 2013 is to prove that he's not utterly useless on the mound. He had a 6.41 ERA in 2011, a year in which opponents hit .308 off of him and posted an .852 OPS. He just couldn't fool anybody, no matter what he was throwing.

Doubront is a guy who could fool some people, but he needs to get his control, er, under control. He's walked over four batters per nine innings this season, and he's surrendered 22 home runs in just over 150 innings. His curveball and changeup are solid, but he'll only be able to rely on them so much until he gets better command of his fastball.

To assume that Buchholz is going to be the ace of Boston's staff in 2013, therefore, doesn't require much of a leap of faith. Of all the guys the Red Sox have lined up for their 2013 rotation, Buchholz is the one who's actually progressing forward as a pitcher. Everyone else is either stuck in the mud or in the middle of a regression.

So come next season, Buchholz won't have to worry about anyone stealing his thunder. He'll stand alone as the ace of the Boston Red Sox.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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