Game 6 of the American League Championship Series will go down at Fenway Park on Saturday at 8:07 p.m. ET. For the Boston Red Sox, a win means a trip to the World Series. For the Detroit Tigers, a loss means watching the World Series on TV.
The pitching matchup will be Max Scherzer vs. Clay Buchholz. And if we consult what the paper has to say about the matter, neither club would rather have a different pitcher on the mound.
Scherzer is probably best known for his 21-3 record in the regular season, but he also posted numbers to please the more geeky-minded baseball observers. Scherzer compiled a 2.90 ERA and was the American League leader in FanGraphs' WAR.
Buchholz, meanwhile, was limited by health woes to only 16 starts in the regular season. But in those 16 starts, he posted a sparkling 1.74 ERA. By itself, that number says Buchholz is the best pitcher on the Red Sox and that Clayton Kershaw, he of the 1.83 ERA, is a chump by comparison.
But yeah...not so much, really.
That's what's on paper, and then there's reality. And in the case of the Game 6 pitching matchup, the reality is that Scherzer vs. Buchholz isn't actually a matchup of two elite aces.
It's more of a matchup between one elite ace and a guy who's neither here nor there at the moment. Buchholz isn't totally without hope heading into Game 6, but the match undeniably favors Detroit.
Scherzer and Buchholz met in Game 2 of the ALCS at Fenway Park last Sunday, a game the Red Sox won by the final of 6-5. Boston didn't do its damage against Scherzer, however, as he dominated to the tune of one earned run on two hits and 13 strikeouts over seven innings.
For his part, Buchholz was largely ineffective. He was able to give the Red Sox 5.2 innings, but he allowed five earned runs on eight hits. Two of those left the ballpark.
It's not just Scherzer's performance in Game 2 that makes him the favorite in Saturday's prize fight. His performance in both of his starts this postseason puts Buchholz's two performances to shame.
Note: The relief appearance Scherzer made against the Oakland A's is not factored in here.
The only thing Buchholz has done better than Scherzer in the postseason is limit walks. Everything else makes it clear that Scherzer is at the top of his game, while Buchholz is at, well, somewhere below the top of his game.
If there's a silver lining for Buchholz, it's in his history against Detroit's key hitters. Even after he got battered around in Game 2, while Scherzer was blowing Red Sox hitters away, the matchup histories of these two pitchers still favor Buchholz.
Take a look at Scherzer's history against the Red Sox lineup he's likely to be facing in Game 6, with postseason plate appearances included, and some fairly big numbers stand out.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have all handled Scherzer well, and it's good for the Red Sox that these are also the four guys who have faced him the most.
As for the Tigers against Buchholz, the numbers that Detroit's eight key guys have against the Boston right-hander are a bit more subdued:
Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta and Austin Jackson all have over 20 career plate appearances against Buchholz, but not one of them has really owned him. Buchholz has even handled Cabrera well, and it's worth noting that his one and only career homer against Buchholz came on a mistake changeup in Game 2.
Another thing that bodes well for Buchholz is that he may not have to face Alex Avila in Game 6. Avila has had it pretty rough in the ALCS, and he got banged up so badly in Game 5 that he had to make an early exit. According to MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, the Tigers aren't sure their catcher will be ready to go by Saturday.
There is a limit to how much these past histories matter, though. Small sample sizes of any kind can be a you-know-what. Buchholz's history against the Tigers didn't help him in Game 2. Likewise, Scherzer's history against the Red Sox didn't hurt him in Game 2.
A better way to look at the lineup matchups is through the lens of platoon splits. To that end, both Scherzer and Buchholz will be going up against lineups primarily comprised of right-handed hitters. That's a matchup that favors Scherzer:
Buchholz was hardly out of his element against right-handed hitters during the regular season, but his performance looks petty compared to Scherzer's. That's true of all pitchers except for Jose Fernandez, in fact, as he was the only other right-hander to hold opposing righties to an OPS as low as .494.
It was against Boston's right-handed batters where Scherzer picked up eight of his 13 strikeouts in Game 2, and the pitch that did the bulk of the damage was his slider. Per Brooks Baseball, Red Sox righties struck out six times against Scherzer's slider.
Laying off Scherzer's slider is a key for the Red Sox in Game 6 that I've already touched on in another article. In that one, I also noted that the Red Sox can't allow themselves to be overwhelmed by Scherzer's fastball like they were in Game 2.
Don't worry, I'm not about to repeat what I said in that article point for point. There is, however, something to be said about what fastballs mean to Scherzer and Buchholz at this juncture.
Scherzer and his heater have a good relationship, mainly because he trusts it completely. And given the velocity and movement his fastball has, who can blame him?
In the postseason, the relationship between Scherzer and his fastball has only gotten stronger. Here's some super-cool (also telling) data from Brooks Baseball:
|Split||Usage||Velo||Strike %||Swing %||Whiff %||BIP %|
|2013 Reg. Season||56.06||93.96||32.44||46.04||10.50||14.66|
Scherzer has been going to his heat more frequently in October than he did in the regular season, and the results have been fantastic. He hasn't been picking up more strikes or getting hitters to go after it more often, but he's picked up more whiffs and has allowed shockingly few balls in play.
Buchholz, meanwhile, is in a completely different boat.
With a deep arsenal of pitches at his disposal, Buchholz doesn't have to rely on his four-seamer as much as Scherzer. But it was still Buchholz's primary pitch during the regular season, as Brooks Baseball says that close to 30 percent of Buchholz's pitches were four-seamers. No other pitch topped 25 percent.
But things have been different for Buchholz in October—distressingly so, in fact.
Consider the following:
|Split||Usage||Velo||Strike %||Swing %||Whiff %||BIP %|
|2013 Reg. Season||29.45||92.74||37.53||38.56||9.07||15.26|
First, note the difference in Buchholz's four-seamer this season compared to 2007-2012. He was a little more comfortable using it, for one, and that had a lot to do with its performance. He picked up more strikes and more whiffs and allowed fewer balls in play with his four-seamer than he had been accustomed to. For what was really the first time in his career, Buchholz's four-seamer was a weapon.
But look what's happening in the postseason. All of a sudden, Buchholz can't throw his four-seamer for a strike to save his life, and he also hasn't been throwing it by anybody either. And as you can see, it's not a matter of velocity.
Which pitcher has the edge in Game 6?
This is a bit of the old Buchholz coming to the forefront, and that's not a good thing. Establishing his four-seam fastball was a huge part of his success in the regular season, and now his four-seamer has abandoned him at a time when he needs it the most.
Just as distressing is the fact that Buchholz hasn't been able to find a suitable stand-in for his four-seamer as a primary pitch.
Buchholz has taken to using his two-seamer as his primary fastball in the postseason, but the results haven't been great. According to Brooks Baseball, hitters have a .400 average against Buchholz's two-seamer with three extra-base hits.
Buchholz's cutter also didn't prove to be up for the job. He threw cutters for 25 of the 82 pitches he let loose in Game 2, and on those, the Tigers picked up a pair of hits and didn't strike out once.
This was bound to happen. The cutter can be a deadly pitch for some hitters, but only the Colorado Rockies were more productive against cutters than the Tigers this season, according to FanGraphs. And as Brooks Baseball can vouch for, they have some guys in their lineup who just aren't afraid of cutters thrown by right-handed pitchers:
Hunter has a decent average against right-handed cutters, but no real power. The same goes for Avila. Everyone else, however, has hit right-handed cutters for average, power or both.
Buchholz's two-seamer has largely failed to make an impact this postseason. A cutter-heavy approach didn't work the first time around against the Tigers and is unlikely to work the second time around.
These are indications that Saturday would be a great time for Buchholz to get his four-seamer working again. If he can get back to throwing it for strikes and using it as a legit swing-and-miss weapon, he has a shot at looking like the Clay Buchholz who was was untouchable in the early portion of the season.
It's likely that Buchholz is going to have to be that guy who keeps the Red Sox in the game against Scherzer. The right adjustments should allow Boston hitters to give him a tougher battle than the one they gave him in Game 2, but Scherzer's a guy who can adjust right back and use his terrific stuff to hang a few zeroes on the board.
It will be up to Buchholz to match him stride for stride. If he doesn't prove up to and equal to the task, the Red Sox might have themselves a date with yet another overpowering pitcher in Game 7.
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