Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz Is Due For Another Sub–3.00 ERA in 2011

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Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz Is Due For Another Sub–3.00 ERA in 2011
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Last year, Clay Buchholz was one of the bigger surprises in baseball. In his first full season on the MLB level, he finished with a 17-7 record, 2.33 ERA (second in the AL), and a 1.20 WHIP.

He finished sixth in Cy Young voting, and might have garnered more attention had he not missed nearly a month of the season from June to July.

It's also worth a mention that Buchholz was the clear winner when it came to ERA+ (park adjusted ERA). His 187 ERA+ was the best total in the AL, well ahead of guys like Felix Hernandez (174), and David Price (145).

However, a closer look at the stats might indicate that Buchholz was somewhat "lucky" in 2010.

His BABIP (batting average against balls in play) was .265, a fairly low average. BABIP is used to measure how well a team fielded around a pitcher, and to a certain extent how fortunate a pitcher was that uncontrollable circumstances, like hit location, contact, and team fielding, worked in his favor. 

Also, some of Buchholz's peripheral stats weren't as favorable. His 6.22 K/9 was lower than the league average of 7.13. His 3.47 BB/9 was higher than the league average of 3.28.

Given the fact that Buchholz makes roughly half his starts in one of the better hitters' parks in all of baseball, and has to make a few appearances per year in Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards, and the Rogers Centre (all favorable hitters' parks), such a favorable bottom line, given his less-than-stellar peripherals, could be interpreted as "luck," at least to a certain extent.

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Logical? Sure. Is it relevant information? Definitely. Does that mean Buchholz is due for a large drop off next year? Well, not necessarily. 

For starters, Buchholz had just a 31.5% fly ball rate, the eighteenth best among qualified starters in the MLB. Buchholz gave up just nine home runs all season long. Additionally, his 0.47 HR/9 rate was lower than the league average of 0.96.

I also should disprove the fact that the Red Sox had a good defense in 2010. Despite an offseason campaign that boldy pronounced the new goals of "pitching and defense," the Red Sox struggled in both aspects.

Much of the sabermetrical goodness that helps determine how fluky a pitchers season was is hinged on the fact that they either did or didn't have a good defense behind them, or performed in favorable or unfavorable pitchers parks.

Well, the Sox didn't have a good defense last year. Just take a look at some of their defensive totals and metrics:

They committed 111 errors (23rd most in baseball), featured a .982 fielding percentage (23rd worst overall, third worst in AL), -2.3 UZR/150 (21st worst overall, fourth worst in AL), -15.1 UZR (23rd worst overall, third worst in AL), and a -3.0 ARM rating (19th worst overall, fifth worst in AL).

Even if you aren't familiar with all of these statistical measurements, they all mean one thing: the Red Sox were a subpar fielding team in virtually every aspect of the game.

Elsa/Getty Images
Injuries to guys like Dustin Pedroia were one of the main reasons the Red Sox had a poor defense in 2010.

Much of this has to do with Gold Glovers going down (Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis), injuries to solid fielders (Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, Marco Scutaro), and the subsequent defensive shuffling that resulted (Bill Hall, Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, Jed Lowrie, Kevin Cash, Eric Patterson, Ryan Kalish, Yaimaico Navarro, etc., etc., etc.).

For virtually the entire second half of the 2010 season, the Red Sox were putting out an entirely different lineup each night.

So, unless you're going to tell me that every ball was hit at Adrian Beltre while Buchholz was on the mound, you can't really credit Buchholz's success to a solid defense.

Also, it's fairly obvious that Buchholz loses when it comes to performing in pitcher friendly venues. Eighteen of his 28 starts (nearly 65%) were made in Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Rogers Centre, Camden Yards, or U.S. Cellular Field.

All four parks were eighth or higher in PPF (park pitching factor) in 2010, which measures how much a park favors either the hitter or the pitcher. All five parks significantly favored the hitter.

Clay didn't have a great defense behind him, and he didn't perform in pitcher-friendly parks. It would be nearly impossible to attribute his success to either of these factors.

However, Clay's peripherals still weren't that great. But, there's still a reason that he posted the microscopic ERA that he did. 

For starters, Buchholz at age 26 already has some of the best stuff in baseball. His changeup is already comparable to guys like Johan Santana and Cole Hamels.

He throws a left-handed changeup as a right-handed pitcher, which has always been his calling card around the league.

However, it might be Buchholz's fastball that does the most damage. I once heard Kevin Millar (former Red Sox player and Baltimore Oriole present during Buchholz's no-hitter in 2007) describe it as a "heavy fastball."

This description does it justice. What Millar meant has nothing to do with the actual weight of the ball; rather, Buchholz throws it with such force and such movement, that it actually appears to be going faster than it is.

Last year, he averaged 94.1 mph on his fastball, and he's capable of getting it up into the high '90's if need be. He throws both a regular and cut fastball, and is capable of locating it to either half of the plate, up or down.

When it comes to win value for fastballs, Buchholz was in esteemed company in 2010:

wFB: Run value above the average fastball – 2010
Tim Hudson – Atlanta Braves 32.1
Ubaldo Jimenez – Colorado Rockies 30.0
Trevor Cahill – Oakland Athletics 27.7
Cliff Lee – Seattle Mariners & Texas Rangers 26.4 
Felix Hernandez – Seattle Mariners 25.5 
Ted Lilly – Los Angeles Dodgers & Chicago Cubs  24.5 
Johan Santana – New York Mets 24.3 
Matt Cain – San Francisco Giants 23.6 
David Price – Tampa Bay Rays 23.5 
Clay Buchholz – Boston Red Sox  20.8 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of the 10 players on this list, seven finished with a sub-3.00 ERA. Only Matt Cain (3.14), Cliff Lee (3.18), and Ted Lilly (3.62) finished with ERA's higher than 3.00.

Also, of the 10 players on this list, eight used changeups as a significant part of their repertoire. The two who didn't were Tim Hudson and Ted Lilly.

Hudson relied heavily on his fastball in 2010, throwing it 63.8% of the time. He limited his walks (2.9 BB/9) and kept the ball on the ground (1.81 Ground Ball/Fly Ball; 2.77 Ground Outs/Air Outs).

Lilly also relied heavily on his fastball, and mixed in a mediocre to ineffective curve, slider, and change-up. His lack of a second above-average pitch is probably why he has the highest ERA of anyone in this group.

But what does this all have to do with Buchholz? My point is that a prominent fastball-changeup combination is the best in baseball for getting weak contact and swings and misses.

Other guys not mentioned here who feature a strong fastball and changeup: Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, Roy Oswalt, Josh Johnson...you get the idea.

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All of these guys use their combo's in different ways and to varying degrees of success and overall usage, but all of these guys can be described as having above average fastballs and change-ups.

I think this is the overwhelming reason why Buchholz' bottom line was so good last year. Because of his ability as a pitcher, he was able to overcome a great deal of the mistakes he made on the mound.

For instance, with RISP (runners in scoring position), batters hit just .161 off Buchholz with 0 HR.

With RISP and two outs, batters hit just .109 off Buchholz, scoring 11 runs on just 7 hits in 64 total AB's.

These stats are important for a number of different reasons. First, Buchholz' one biggest problem was always the mental aspect of the game. He often struggled with his focus, especially when he had runners on base. Well, that obviously wasn't much of an issue in 2010.

Secondly, it's important to note that Buchholz is capable of putting up such good numbers when he has a season where his peripheral stats were, for the most part, lower than his career averages.

In 447.0 total innings of minor league work across parts of six seasons, Buchholz has accumulated 508 strikeouts. That's a 10.2 K/9 ratio.

Buchholz is a strikeout pitcher who hasn't started striking people out yet (just 120 in 173.2 IP last year). Obviously, a fastball-changeup combination lends itself most readily to getting swings and misses.

The fact that he didn't strike as many batters out last year shows again that Buchholz was focused more on pitching, not just throwing. It's not a question of if Buchholz starts striking more batters out, it's when. 

Buchholz' overall major league 3.8 BB/9 ratio isn't stellar, but he posted a 2.5 BB/9 ratio in the minor leagues.

Again, if you've ever seen Buchholz work, he's not really someone you can characterize as wild. As he gets older and gains more major league experience, it would be reasonable to expect a dip in walks.

All signs point to an improvement in peripheral stats in 2011 and beyond. 

While it might be easy to characterize Buchholz' 2.33 ERA as "lucky," there are few pitchers who post averages that small without some sort of regression.

The fact that Buchholz hasn't yet peaked should delight Red Sox fans; he's only going to get better as time goes on.

Prediction for 2011: 19-9, 2.89 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 199 SO

Dan is a Boston Red Sox and Celtics featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter at danhartelbr.

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