Last season, one would have expected him to mow down their lineup, go eight innings and allow just two hits.
This season, however, it is different.
In six starts, he is 2-3 with a 4.81 ERA. Almost every stat is worse than last year and many are the worst of his career. Despite his wonderful 2010 season—which saw him lead the league in ERA-plus, make his first All-Star team and finish sixth in Cy Young voting—there were concerns of a huge regression in 2011.
The main reason was the fact Buchholz had the greatest ERA-xFIP (expected fielding-independent pitching) differential in the majors last season.
In short, xFIP is used to calculate a pitcher’s future performance, and Clay’s was so much better, it might be difficult for him to replicate it. He is only six starts in, but so far, those fears appear to have been justified.
Unfortunately, the more one looks at Buchholz’s stats, the more worrisome it gets.
His K/9 has fallen each year of his career and is now just 4.54. That will not be helped by the fact his swing-and-miss percentage is 7.2; his previous low was 9.4.
It can be explained by the fact he is less afraid to pitch to contact now (his contact percentage is 83.5, well above the league average) but he is giving up more fly balls than groundouts.
What will Buchholz's ERA be at the end of the season?
Coupled with an above-average 12.2 fly ball/home run percentage, it paints a worrisome picture.
He has already just three home runs shy of last year’s total and is on pace for around 30, which would be more than double the number he has given up in a single season. It is better to not try and strike out 27 batters a game, though, so he is doing the right thing, just not very well.
It’s not just the long ball he is giving up; his WHIP has risen from 1.20 last year to a career-high 1.78. A .313 BABIP (BA on balls in play, which always averages out at .300) indicates that it is not bad luck which is causing his poor performance.
His command is another concern. He is getting first pitch strikes on only 54.5 of batters and is on pace for a career-high in walks.
It is still very early, though, and he will almost certainly turn it around. Look at his last start and you will see a dramatic difference between that and his first five. He may have given up eight hits in 6.2 IP, but that can be chalked up to a blister which clearly bothered him all night.
The impressive thing was that his command and velocity were much improved.
Buchholz will improve. There is no chance he is going to finish the season with an ERA touching 5.00 and a WHIP approaching 2.00.
So far, though, it appears those fears of a step back were justified and perhaps he will not be in the Cy Young running again this year.