Boston Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz has jumped out to arguably the best start of any pitcher in baseball this season. While it is unlikely he will keep up his current torrid pace, signs indicate that he can continue contributing outstanding production.
The 28-year-old right-hander is off to the finest start of his career, having posted a 5-0 record and 1.19 ERA in his first five starts. In 37.2 innings, he has allowed just 25 hits while striking out 39 and walking 13. Additionally, he has gone at least seven innings in each of his starts and has given up two or fewer runs each time.
Pitching in his seventh major league season, he is 51-32 with a 3.77 ERA in 112 career games (110 starts) but has struggled with health and inconsistency. The only two seasons he had as many as 16 starts in his previous six years in Boston came in 2010 (28 starts) and 2012 (29 starts).
The Providence Journal’s Tim Britton explained in a couple of tweets why what Buchholz is doing this year has been both rare and historic:
Clay Buchholz is the first MLB starter in 11 years to go at least seven innings with 2ER or fewer in his first five starts of the season.— Tim Britton (@TimBritton) April 26, 2013
Buchholz done. He's the first Red Sox starter to go at least seven in his first five starts since Pedro in 2000.— Tim Britton (@TimBritton) April 26, 2013
Buchholz’s connection to the legendary Pedro Martinez goes beyond his stand-out early-season numbers. WEEI’s Alex Speier wrote that Buchholz was a 2005 compensatory first-round draft choice Boston received from Martinez signing as a free agent with the New York Mets.
Few pitchers have or ever will match Martinez’s production with the Red Sox (117-37, 2.52 ERA in seven seasons). However, Buchholz has become a very solid starter, and a number of factors suggest he will continue building upon his outstanding start to the 2013 season.
With a caveat that five games is a small sample size, FanGraphs.com’s data suggests that Buchholz may have harnessed his stuff and matured into a better pitcher.
His average fastball velocity of 91.6 mph is the lowest of his career. Despite the loss of speed, his vFA/C (Fastball Runs Above Average per 100 pitches) of 0.97 is his highest since 2010, when it was 1.14. In addition, his Runs Above Average per 100 pitches value on his cutter (4.04), curveball (2.28) and changeup (2.31) are the highest of his career.
His 9.3 strikeouts, 6.0 hits and 0.2 home runs allowed per nine innings represent career bests, while he has surpassed the 3.0 walks he has allowed per nine innings this year just once before.
Is Clay Buchholz for real in 2013?
Combining those statistics with his pitch values and the fact that there have been no significant changes in how frequently he has thrown his various pitches provides solid proof that he is commanding his stuff better than ever.
The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported that Boston manager John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves mandated that Red Sox pitchers, especially Buchholz, pick up the pace between pitches this season. This was to not only to keep hitters off balance but also to prevent the pitchers from thinking too much.
It appears Buchholz has succeeded in adopting that approach. FanGraphs.com shows that he is averaging 23.3 seconds between pitches, which is the best mark of his career and nearly 2.5 seconds better than last year’s mark of 25.6.
Looking at his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) counters any argument that his success has been due to luck. The .264 average he’s allowed this year is right in line with his career mark of .281. It is also nearly identical to the .261 he permitted in 2010, when he had his best season as a major leaguer, going 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA.
Buchholz has also maintained his success when working with different catchers.
Buchholz’s dominance has come against diverse competition. Four of his five starts have come at home. He has also faced three teams with winning records, including the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, who both rank in the top four in runs per game in the American League.
It’s highly unlikely that Buchholz will finish with a 1.19 ERA. However, if he remains consistent in the various improvements he appears to have made, there’s no reason why he won’t be one of the best pitchers in baseball at the end of the 2013 season.
Statistics via Baseball-Reference (except where noted)