Suddenly, a member of the Boston Red Sox's starting rotation has a question mark hanging over him.
The starter in question is Clay Buchholz. The Red Sox have yet to decide when he'll start against the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series because, according to Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald, manager John Farrell is uncertain how much Buchholz has left in the tank.
Farrell said Buchholz isn't injured "to the point of keeping out of starting" but granted that the right-hander has indeed seemed to "hit the wall" in the sixth inning his last couple times out.
The situation is vague, but the general vibe one gets is that there's some fatigue going on and that the Red Sox aren't sure how much it will subside. Or when, for that matter.
For now, Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe reports that the plan is for Buchholz to start. The only decision the Red Sox have to make in that case is whether he'll start in Game 3 or Game 4 in St. Louis.
Or maybe Buchholz won't be able to start at all.
It's not likely as things stand now. But given the vibe the Red Sox are giving off, it's a possibility that shouldn't be ruled out.
No matter which way you slice it, the Red Sox are not in an ideal position. Buchholz could have given them a huge boost in the postseason after coming back from a lengthy injury absence and finishing the year with a 1.74 ERA, but he's struggled in the three starts he's made in October, and now this.
The bright side for the Red Sox, however, is that Buchholz's status need not cost them the World Series. There are ways they can ensure it doesn't.
Let's assume for now that Buchholz does end up starting in St. Louis. Since Buchholz isn't dealing with an injury serious enough to have already forced Boston's hand, that's the most likely scenario.
If Buchholz is tabbed to start, the Red Sox are going to need a contingency plan.
It's clear based on Buchholz's last two starts that stamina is an issue for him. If his velocity is any indication, he lost some arm strength as he went along against the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series and lost a whole bunch in a hurry when he started in Game 6.
You can take a look at how Buchholz's velocity trended in Game 2 over at Brooks Baseball. Buchholz was sitting at 93 with his heat in his first 40 or so pitches, but only got that high a couple of times in his last 40 or so pitches. Towards the end of his outing, he couldn't even muster 92 miles per hour.
Things were even worse in Game 6. Per Brooks Baseball, Buchholz's last 92 mph heater happened before he had even thrown his 40th pitch. In his last inning, he couldn't even hit 90.
Bear in mind that Buchholz wasn't pitching either game on short rest. A normal turn through a rotation gives a pitcher four days of rest. Buchholz started Game 2 and Game 6 of the ALCS on five days' rest. It appears that his arm has simply had about enough of this season.
So if the Red Sox do move forward with Buchholz has a starter, the safest thing they can do is anticipate him only being good for five innings. Part of the plan should be to have a quick hook ready for him.
Before Buchholz even throws a pitch in the fifth inning, Farrell should have Brandon Workman up in the bullpen. Workman showed in the ALCS that he's the best option to come in and replace a struggling starter; he's the guy who relieved Buchholz in Game 2 and Game 6 and Jake Peavy in Game 4. All told, Workman worked 4.2 innings and allowed three hits, two walks and no runs.
A big difference for Workman in October has been his curveball, which Brooks Baseball says he's taken to using close to 30 percent of the time. He hasn't allowed a hit on it so far in the postseason. He's temporarily reinvented himself as a fastball-curveball pitcher, and it's working.
Now, in the event that Buchholz can't start, Felix Doubront would seem be the guy ready to step in for him. Peter Abraham reported that Doubront threw a simulated game on Tuesday, an indication that the Red Sox want him to be ready just in case.
If it comes to Doubront having to start in Buchholz's place, the Red Sox might actually be better off.
One reason the Red Sox might be better off with Doubront in Buchholz's place is simply because Doubront is a left-handed starter. The Cardinals don't like facing such pitchers.
Courtesy of Baseball-Reference, here are the telling regular-season splits.
|Cardinals Starting Pitcher Splits|
The heck of it is that it's not the dregs of the Cardinals lineup that are wholly responsible for these numbers. Some of their stars just plain didn't do well against left-handed pitching.
Carlos Beltran, for example, had an .871 OPS against right-handers but just a .729 OPS against lefties. The righty-hitting Allen Craig surprisingly had a lower OPS against lefties. Fellow righty hitter Matt Holliday only managed an .099 ISO (Isolated Power) against lefties.
In addition to his handedness, Doubront has something else that would conceivably allow him to dominate the Cardinals: a changeup.
The Cardinals weren't very good against changeups in the regular season, ranking 17th in the league in changeup runs above average, according to FanGraphs. In particular, some of their key hitters really struggled to hit changeups thrown by left-handed pitchers.
The following numbers come from Brooks Baseball:
|Cardinals Lineup vs. LH Changeups|
Only Allen Craig and David Freese have been any good against lefty changeups, and one of them might not be able to help the Cardinals in the World Series. After a month off, Craig's timing may not be where it needs to be.
If it isn't, it would be Matt Adams in place of Craig against Doubront. He doesn't have a hit against either a lefty changeup or a lefty curveball this year, and Doubront throws both.
As for what would become of Buchholz if Doubront takes his spot in the rotation, that will depend on how messed up he is. If the Red Sox decide to boot him from the rotation because he's too messed up to pitch, period, he'll be done.
But if the Red Sox decide to boot Buchholz just because they concluded his arm is in no shape to pitch deep into a game, he'll presumably head to the bullpen. And therein lies a fascinating possibility.
If Buchholz could sit 93-94 with his heat early in his last two starts, then he would likely be able to do so pitching out of the bullpen. Buchholz would also be free to simplify things by choosing just one secondary pitch to prioritize.
You know, sort of like what Lincecum did in the 2012 postseason. According to Brooks Baseball, he went to his split-change 27.91 percent of the time in October after going to it only 16.05 percent of the time in the regular season. He racked up 12 of his 20 postseason strikeouts on it.
The Red Sox would presumably rather not be playing Buchholz's situation by ear at this juncture, but his status doesn't necessarily have to hurt their chances of winning the World Series. Whether they play it extremely safe with Buchholz or put him in the bullpen in favor of Doubront, the Red Sox have the pieces to weather whatever storm might be brewing.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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