In sports and life, perception can easily become reality.
For baseball fans in Boston, it can be very, very easy to buy into the healthy Clay Buchholz as an equal or better version of the pitcher that dominated the first half before succumbing to injury.
Despite two more victories, 11 innings pitched, nine strikeouts and zero earned runs allowed in two starts since returning last week in Tampa Bay, Buchholz isn't quite back yet.
For a team steamrolling toward the postseason, the next two weeks will be crucial in allowing Buchholz, regardless of results, the innings and time to work on his command and effectiveness before October begins.
To be clear, Red Sox Nation should be thrilled with the progress and performance of their undefeated right-handed pitcher since his long awaited return, but that doesn't mean his status should be confused with the dominant outfit from April and May.
Before diving into a visual breakdown of Buchholz's command from early in the season and on Sunday night against New York, digest this quote (via WEEI) from Red Sox catcher David Ross after the latest outing from the oft-injured pitcher.
"Out of 100 percent, I'd say he's 85 to 90 still. He's not even 100 percent," said Ross. "That's a great thought. A great thought. I knew he wasn't sharp but still managed his way through a lineup."
Considering that two teams desperate for runs and victories in the AL wild-card race, Tampa Bay and New York, have not put up an earned run against an 85 percent to 90 percent version of Buchholz, the Red Sox star can be dominant if his 100 percent shows up by October.
From the naked eye, it's hard to tell why Buchholz isn't as dominant as he was early in the season, but replay and statistics certainly help.
As C.J. Nitkowski accurately stated (heard during the breakdown in the ensuing video) early in the season, the key to dominance from Clay Buchholz is command of all his pitches. Few arms in baseball can generate the type of movement that Buchholz can, but the effectiveness of his stuff is only there if he knows where each pitch will end up.
Despite not allowing an earned run over his past two starts, Buchholz has walked five batters in just 11 innings. In his first 84.1 innings this season, or prior to his June shutdown, the 29-year-old walked a total of 29 batters.
Furthermore, Buchholz's ability to generate swings and misses stemmed from outstanding movement. Not only could he command his pitches where he wanted them to land, but opposing hitters were fooled into thinking strikes were actually balls.
On Sunday night against New York, Buchholz generated three strikeouts across six innings but was not fooling hitters the way he did earlier in the season. Weak contact was induced across the Yankees lineup, but swings and misses weren't as apparent as earlier in the season.
Of course, Red Sox fans likely don't care about the process when big results follow. As Alex Speir astutely points out in that WEEI.com piece, Buchholz is up to 95.1 innings with an outrageous ERA of 1.51.
Early or late, pre-injury or post-recovery, Buchholz has limited opposing offenses to fewer runs per nine innings than any starter in baseball has for a long, long time.
When the postseason starts, Boston likely needs Buchholz to resemble the dominant pitcher of April and May, but if he can somehow, someway navigate lineups like Detroit and Oakland without his best command, another championship banner in Fenway won't describe the achievement in style points.
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