How Clay Buchholz Put Cheating Accusations to Rest in Poor Start Against Twins

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How Clay Buchholz Put Cheating Accusations to Rest in Poor Start Against Twins
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

We can put the Clay Buchholz doctoring controversy to bed. After watching him in his latest start against the Minnesota Twins on Monday night, I'm convinced that Buchholz is no cheater.

Odd timing, I know. 

Buchholz was accused of cheating just a couple of days ago, and his first post-accusations start saw him get roughed up for the first time all season. The Red Sox ultimately walked away with a 6-5 win in 11 innings, but not before the Twins got to Buchholz for four earned runs on seven hits and two walks in six innings.

And yes, I'm the same guy who was willing to conclude that Jack Morris and Dirk Hayhurst, Buchholz's two primary accusers, had gripes that were more legit than many fans wanted to believe. After watching him struggle just a couple of days after he got accused of cheating, shouldn't a skeptic like myself be fanning the flames?

No, and I'll tell you why right now.

There was a big ruckus over the condition of Buchholz's left arm in his start last week against the Toronto Blue Jays. If you forget, it looked like this:

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

What you see here are two things: a bit of whiteness and a lot of wetness.

The white stuff was easy for Buchholz and Red Sox manager John Farrell to explain, as both told Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com that it was just rosin. Major League Baseball's official rules state that pitchers can only apply rosin to their bare hands, but pitchers put the stuff on their forearms all the time and are never penalized for it.

The wetness was harder to explain. Buchholz indicated to Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca that it was mere sweat, but Hayhurst wrote that he had heard from sources that it was sunscreen even though the roof at Rogers Centre was closed.

A heaping amount of sunscreen, of course, could conceivably look like sweat to the naked eye, which may have been why Blue Jays manager John Gibbons never asked the umpiring crew to inspect Buchholz. As Hayhurst noted in his book Out of My League, sunscreen can indeed be used as a helpful gripping agent. 

I wrote that I was going to have my eye on Buchholz during his start against the Twins. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe reported that the umpires and MLB would be too:

I assumed that they were going to have their eyes mainly where I was going to have my own: on Buchholz's left arm. It was the star character in the doctoring controversy, after all.

So how did it look on Monday night?

I just so happened to take some screenshots. Here's one from the third inning:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com

And for good measure, another from the sixth inning:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com

There's no sign of anything. No wetness, no rosin, no nothing. Curious, right?

Not really.

First, we know that Buchholz was putting rosin on his left forearm. Alex Speier of WEEI.com was quick to make a note of that as soon as Buchholz did it, and here's a photo of him doing it:

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The logical conclusion to draw here is that the rosin wasn't showing so much on Monday night because it didn't have any wetness to stick to. And as for why there was no wetness to stick to, that part's easy to explain.

It was chilly in Boston on Monday night. ESPN.com has 52 degrees listed as the temperature at Fenway Park, but there were moments when up-close shots of Buchholz revealed that it was cold enough to see his breath.

Basically, it wasn't sweating weather.

It was a different story in his start against the Blue Jays, as the roof was closed and the temperature was much higher. Baseball-Reference.com says it was 68 degrees, almost 20 degrees warmer than it was in Buchholz's Monday night start.

Therefore, the notion that it was sweat that was covering Buchholz's left arm in Toronto adds up pretty well. He may have been mixing it with rosin to get a nice, sticky grip on the ball, but so what? That's not an act that MLB is going to start policing, nor should it.

So that's that, but what about the results? Doesn't it look bad that the results were so poor while Buchholz clearly wasn't doctoring the ball?

Of course it does, and I should point out that I wrote that I was going to continue to be suspicious if a dry forearm came coupled with poor results in Buchholz's start against the Twins.

But I also noted that flat stuff was going to have to be a part of the deal, and flat stuff certainly isn't to blame for Buchholz's subpar outing.

Hardball Talk's Matthew Pouliot summed it up nicely in one tweet:

"Missed his spots" is a nice way of saying "didn't know where the hell the ball was going." Buchholz was more wild than usual, especially early, and you can see from his ball-and-strike data over at BrooksBaseball.net that he missed out on a couple of strike calls on balls in the zone. That'll happen when you're not hitting your spots.

But Buchholz was still very deceptive. He racked up nine strikeouts in large part thanks to 20 swinging strikes. That topped his previous season high by seven. Not too shabby seeing as how the Twins came into the game ranked in the bottom third of the league in swinging-strike percentage, according to FanGraphs.

As for movement, last week's controversy was centered on Buchholz's two-seam fastball, which moved enough to downright offend Mr. Morris.

"What do you think? Look at the pitches. Fastball at 94 that goes like that," Morris told Gordon Edes, making a darting gesture with his hand. "On a fastball?"

ESPN.com's David Schoenfield looked at some movement numbers and found that Buchholz's hard stuff did indeed seem to be moving more than usual against Toronto. I'll admit that the numbers he dug up caught my attention and added to my suspicion. 

FanGraphs' Eno Sarris, however, took a closer look at the PITCHf/x data in a piece for ESPN.com and saw that what was really happening was that Buchholz's two-seamer had reverted back to the wicked movement it had a couple of years back. 

And the trend continued on Monday night.

Thoughts on Clay Buchholz after his latest performance?

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According to BrooksBaseball.net, the average horizontal break Buchholz got on his two-seamer (classified as a sinker) against the Blue Jays was minus-7.58 inches. The data from his Monday night start against the Twins—which, granted, is still raw as of this writing—shows that the average break on the relatively few two-seamers/sinkers thrown by Buchholz was minus-7.53 inches.

In other words, basically the same.

It wasn't just his two-seamer either. The average horizontal movement of Buchholz's four-seamer against Toronto was minus-4.36 inches. Against Minnesota, it was minus-4.41 inches. 

Once again, basically the same.

UPDATE: Tuesday, May 7 at 12:50 pm ET

The data from Buchholz's Monday night start has since been updated with reclassified pitches. The new data actually shows that the average horizontal movement on Buchholz's two-seamer/sinker was minus-6.01 inches, and that the average horizontal movement on his four-seamer was minus-3.05 inches.

I don't consider this updated data to be damning, however. These numbers fall pretty well in line with Buchholz's season averages: minus-6.38 inches for his two-seamer and minus-3.39 inches on his four-seamer. These pitches didn't have the wicked movement against Minnesota they had in Toronto, but they still had some decent movement going on.

Before you object, Buchholz did have one hard pitch on Monday night that was moving better than usual: his cutter.

Against Toronto, the average horizontal break on Buchholz's cutter was plus-1.87 inches, well below his season average of plus-3.39 inches. If he was cheating, his cutter certainly wasn't benefiting.

Against Minnesota, the average horizontal movement on Buchholz's cutter plus-3.96 inches. He threw it often on Monday night, presumably to combat the number of lefty hitters he was facing, and he clearly had a very good feel for it.

I wrote that Buchholz either had a really good feel for his hard stuff against the Jays, or an unusually good grip on it. It's pretty clear that he had a really good feel for it, and that he still had a pretty good feel for it against the Twins. This despite the fact he was pitching with a noticeably dry arm in much cooler weather.

So here's me backing off Buchholz. I still believe there were good reasons to be suspicious of him after his start against the Jays, but he proved on Monday night, even while struggling, that the reason for his success this season is a decidedly simple one.

He's not cheating. He just has really good stuff that's playing a big part in a really good year.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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