Through the first six seasons of Clay Buchholz's major league career, he profiled as a good pitcher. His career ERA of 3.92 was 13 percent above league average, he struck out nearly two batters for every one he walked and surrendered less than one hit per inning.
If he could stay healthy—no easy task considering his injury history—Boston could look forward to a 28-year-old pitcher coming into his physical prime giving its rotation quality innings through at least 2015, and possibly even longer if contract options were exercised for 2016 and 2017.
Few outside of Buchholz's immediate family and closest friends could have imagined what's happened early on in 2013. The former first-round pick has gone from good to great, on the verge of becoming baseball's next great superstar ace.
Of course, the early success comes with skepticism and controversy.
#MNTwins manager Ron Gardenhire said he's not buying into the Clay Buchholz spitball scandal. Says Buchholz has always had movement.— Rhett Bollinger (@RhettBollinger) May 6, 2013
While it's impossible to know for sure if Buchholz is or was doctoring the baseball, this much is clear: His game has changed for the better.
In baseball, small sample sizes can yield inordinate results. For example, take last year's April sensation for the Cubs, Bryan LaHair. Remember that guy? He hit .390 in April, banged out five home runs and became the coolest fantasy baseball pickup out there.
Today he's the starting first baseman for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Japan Pacific League.
Regardless of whether you believe in Buchholz's ascension to ace status, he's not heading to Japan anytime soon. Instead, he'll be a hot topic all season as he attempts to sustain a blazing start and lead the Red Sox into contention.
When assessing his early season performance (7 GS, 50.2 IP, 56 K, 18 BB, 1.60 ERA, 2.13 FIP), it's important to weed out what is sustainable from what isn't. In other words, the changes in Buchholz's game that can help him over a long period of time.
First, let's rule out what can't be sustained: LOB (left on base) percentage and HR/FB percentage.
Simply put, Buchholz is stranding baserunners at a mind-boggling rate of 85 percent. On average, pitchers will leave 70-72 percent of baserunners stranded without letting them reach the plate. If Buchholz keeps putting the same amount of men on through hits or walks, eventually more will score.
Through his first seven starts this season, only 2.6 percent of fly balls given up have sailed over the wall for home runs. On average, about 10 percent of fly balls will become home runs. With a ground-ball percentage that is down from his norm, the evening out of Buchholz's HR/FB rate will result in more runs.
Now that those are out of the way, here are three reasons why Buchholz actually does look like an ace in Boston:
1. He's becoming a strikeout machine
Through the first 636.1 IP of Buchholz's career, he struck out 6.7 batters per nine innings through his age-27 season. As far as strikeout ability, that mark put him in the same range as former luminaries such as Jon Lieber and Matt Morris. While both were successful starters, no one confused their careers with Pedro Martinez or Johan Santana's.
With over 50 innings under his belt in 2013, Buchholz is mowing down hitters via the strikeout like never before.
His 9.9 K/9 has him in the top 10 among starting pitchers. He's just behind flamethrowers like Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey and Matt Moore. His current mark puts him ahead of legendary strikeout artists like Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum.
Over the course of baseball history, the best pitchers have often struck out the most batters. While some fans and media members talk about "pitching to contact" to avoid high pitch counts and low innings-per-start totals, retiring batters via strikeout is the quickest way to dominance.
With the understanding that LOB percentage and HR/GB ratio will eventually even out, limiting the amount of balls put into play will yield big results for Buchholz.
2. Batters can't decipher his offerings due to movement
A quick look at Buchholz's pitch data doesn't divulge any secret about increased velocity. No, he's not blowing pitches by batters with 99 mph fastballs. Instead, the movement on his pitches has become so deceptive that batters simply aren't swinging at strikes.
From 2009-12, batters swung at 61 percent of Buchholz pitches that were in the strike zone. This season, they are only swinging at 53.7 percent of those offerings.
What looks like a ball coming out of his hand is actually a strike.
Comparing anyone to Greg Maddux is baseball blasphemy, but Buchholz has his two-seam fastball working at a level that few have achieved since Maddux's run of dominance.
When opposing left-handed batters think a fastball is headed for their hip, bailing out and taking the pitch becomes second nature.
This season, that ball is darting back along the inside corner for a called strike.
The following is a look (via BrooksBaseball.net) at the horizontal movement on Buchholz's pitches during a dominant outing in Toronto last week.
3. Mental approach
Due to recent injury history and an earned run average in the mid-fours last season, it's easy to forget how much success Buchholz had at an early age. From the no-hitter in his second major league start to a 2.33 ERA in the American League East at the age of 25, success seemed to come very easy for Buchholz.
While his work ethic was rarely publicly questioned by a usually intrusive Boston baseball media, it was natural to expect the success to continue as he aged and got stronger.
Of course, that didn't happen.
With failure came perspective. With perspective came an increased work ethic (via Ron Chimelis of MassLive.com).
Add in the return of John Farrell, Boston's former pitching coach turned manager, and you have a pitcher with a mature outlook and confidence to achieve greatness.
Along with co-ace Jon Lester, the Red Sox are rolling out two of the better pitchers in the American League. The path back from a 69-93 season to contention won't be easy to sustain, but having a pair of under-30 arms like that can change the direction of any franchise.