Clay Buchholz: Searching for Answers

Chip examines the root causes of Clay Buchholz's early season struggles.

Clay Buchholz

Welcome to the latest edition of “What’s wrong with (insert Red Sox starting pitcher here)?”  Today’s subject is Clay Buchholz.

Let’s start with what we know about Buchholz.  He was a first round pick by the Boston Red Sox in 2005 who shot up the prospect charts on the strength of eye popping strikeout totals, solid control, and an impressive array of secondary pitches–two of which graded out as plus-pitches.  He reached the majors in late 2007, and dazzled everyone by throwing a no hitter in his second career start.  After the no hitter, the hype machine blew up, and expectations spiralled out of control.  Almost predictably, the expectations were far too lofty, and he struggled mightily in 2008.  After spending the first half of the 2009 season in AAA, he returned to the majors.  He was inconsistent at first, but eventually settled into the role as the Red Sox’s number three starter; even earning a playoff start in Game 3 of the ALDS.  2010 was a breakout season for him as he put together an impressive 2.33 ERA despite not having peripherals that matched it.  Expecting regression in 2011, Clay started out slowly in April before turning it around in May.  In June, his season ended unexpectedly when he was found to have a fracture in his back.

That brings us up to 2012.

As we discussed all season, much is being expected out of Buchholz this season.  For starters, the Red Sox have two question marks in their rotation in Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard.  While both pitchers have shown promise during their first handful of starts, neither is experienced at the major league level.  Furthermore, both pitchers will have their innings capped in hopes of keeping them healthy.  This leaves greater pressure on the front three starters to not only pitch well, but also pitch deep into games; something that’s even more important given the weakness of the relief corps.

Secondly, Buchholz is in the midst of his age-26 season.  If he’s going to take that next big step toward acehood, something that’s been projected for him, he needs to do it now.  He’s shown flashes of brilliance during his time in the majors, but he’s never quite put it all together.  He has a dazzling array of pitches that includes a blazing four-seamer, a worm-burning sinker, a knee buckling curve, and a devestating change-up.  With an arsenal that deep, one would expect the strikeouts to be rolling in.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.  Through 2011, he was coaxing hitters to swing and miss at pitches at an above average rate, but not on strike three.

As the 2012 season started, Buchholz’s back injury loomed as a giant cloud over him.  Many questioned how he’d perform, and if he could fully recover.  His first four starts have done little to quell those fears.  To date, he’s allowed 23 runs (22 earned) on 33 hits and 10 walks in 22-1/3 innings.  Making things even uglier is that he’s struck out only 11 batters, allowed six home runs, and induced only grounders on 42.9% of his batted balls.  Yikes!  So what’s wrong with Buchholz?  Why is he struggling?

Buchholz’s issues seem to be three fold.  The first issue is that he’s allowing far too much contact.  In seasons past, his contact rate consistently hovered in the 77-80% range, which allowed him to not only avoid contact, but also avoid strong contact.  This is allowed him to get a few easier outs than most pitchers would likely recieve.  This season, he’s allowing contact at an alarming rate of 88.4%.  Just for reference, only three pitchers in the Fangraphs era (2002-2011) with at least 500 IP have exceeded that rate cumulatively:  Kirk Reuter (89.9%), Carlos Silva (89.0%), Kyle Kendrick (88.8%), and Nick Blackburn (88.5%).  It’s not exactly an awe inspiring bunch, is it?  The two that follow, Ismael Valdez (88.2%), and Aaron Sele (88.0%) do little to change that opinion.

Year

Contact %

2008

76.8%

2009

77.6%

2010

79.3%

2011

80.7%

2012

88.4%

* Data compliments of Fangraphs.

The problem with allowing contact is that it increases the hitter’s probability he will get on base and eventually score.  Every time a player hits a ground ball, he’ll get on base roughly 24% of the time.  Fly balls? 15-17% of the time.  Line drives?  Somewhere around 70%.  Strikeouts?  Pretty damn close to 0% with the only exceptions coming on wild pitch scenarios.  This isn’t to say all contact is bad.  In the right situation, with the right pitch, preferrably early in the count (to minimize a pitcher’s pitch count); contact can be a very good thing.  The problem with Buchholz is that he’s allowing far too much contact to be consistently successful.  He’s not fooling anyone with his pitches.  His velocity has dropped across the board this season, which makes me wonder if this is a reminant of the back injury.  If so, a big question remains:  Will it rebound over the course of the season?  And by the same token, will it result in improved contact rates as a result?

Speaking about not fooling anyone with his pitches, let’s take a closer look at his pitch specific swing and whiff rates over the last three seasons.

Swing Rates (2010-2012)

FF

SI

FC

SL

CU

CH

2010

41.34%

47.78%

50.28%

N/A

30.80%

50.10%

2011

35.90%

42.71%

53.52%

N/A

33.92%

48.94%

2012

54.41%

53.13%

52.63%

45.83%

35.85%

39.13%

Whiff Rates (2010-2012)

FF

SI

FC

SL

CU

CH

2010

5.13%

5.01%

11.19%

N/A

8.02%

23.51%

2011

3.59%

5.75%

10.55%

N/A

7.02%

20.85%

2012

4.41%

0.00%

6.58%

12.50%

15.00%

8.70%

* Data compliments of Brooks Baseball. FF- four seamer; SI – sinker; FC – cutter; SL – slider; CU – curveball; CH – change-up.

First off, let’s look at the swing rates because that’s where the most alarming pattern appears.  Granted, small sample caveats apply, but Buchholz’s 2012 swing rates are absolutely terrifying.  In 2010 and 2011, Buchholz registered over all swing rates right around the 45% league average.  This season, he’s produced an overall rate of 48.2% (league average is 44.5%) with three of his pitches (FF, SI, and FC) exceeding the 50% mark.  Making matters more interesting is that batters aren’t just swinging at more pitches in the zone, they’re also swining at pitches Buchholz is throwing outside of the zone.  Not surprisingly, the elevation in his swing rate is a big reason for the corresponding jump in his contact rate.

In contrast, the additional swings Buchholz is experiencing isn’t being counteracted with an increase in whiffs.  In fact, his whiff rates have dropped across the board since 2012 with the only exception being with his curveball.  Most troubling has been the decline of his change-up, and the frequency in which he throws it.  Once widely considered to be his best pitch, he’s struggled to command his change-up and throw it for strikes.  As a result, this is the one pitch he’s not receiving many swings, and certainly not many whiffs (dropped from 23.5% in 2010 to 8.7% this season).  When he batters are swinging at the offering it, it’s being put into play for hits.  According to Fangraphs, the pitch has been worth -4.5 linear weight runs (LWR), which is a testament to it’s general ineffectiveness.

Buchholz’s cutter has also seen a pretty significant drop in whiff rate (10.55% in 2011 to 6.58% in 2012).  to be honest, I’m not quite as concerned with that one for the moment.  As you’ll probably notice, a slider appeared on the Brooks Baseball pitch charts in 2012.  Often times, sliders are sometimes misclassified as cutters, and vice-versa.  If we assume this is the case, the whiff rate on Buchholz’s cutter is actually 8%.  While it’s a decline, tis’ not quite a severe as the initial numbers would seem to indicate.

The third issue appears to lie in his location and batted ball rates.  Let’s start by taking a look at the strikezone chart from Texas Leaguers.

 

Just for the sake of orientation, the left side of the chart is the “right-handed” side of the chart.  Like most  right-handed pitchers, the bulk of his pitches are crossing through the strikezone.  When he misses, he misses up and in or down and away to right-handed hitters.  All of this is pretty typical.

 

Just for the sake of orientation, the left side of the chart is the “right-handed” side of the chart.  Like most  right-handed pitchers, the bulk of his pitches are crossing through the strikezone.  When he misses, he misses up and in or down and away to right-handed hitters.  All of this is pretty typical.

Let’s take a look at Buchholz’s cutter first.  Since cutter’s thrown by right-handers typically bore into the hands of left-handed hitters, let’s look at it’s performing against LHH.

 

The first thing that really pops out at me is the location of Buchholz’s cutter.  His cutter acts typically, with most of his pitches crossing the strikezone on the inner corner (or just off the corner) of the plate. Still, I can’t help but notice the large number of cutters that hang right over the heart of the plate.  He’s leaving them in a problem spot where good major league hitters can turn a mistake pitch into a hit.

How is he performing with the cutter against righties?

 

It’s actually even more gruesome.  He seems to lack any kind of command against righties.  Rather than leaving on the outside corner, he’s living almost exclusively over the heart of the plate.  As a result, it’s not surprising to see that he’s allowing line drives (5.26%) at a rate that’s significantly higher than his 2010 (2.20%) and 2011 (2.34%) rates.  The jump in line drives has cut into Buchholz’s ability to use his cutter to induce ground balls.  In 2012 his rate has dropped to 7.89% from marks around 11% in 2010 and 2011 respectively.  Not surprisingly, this development has increased the number of hits he’s allowed using his cutter thus far in 2012.  Through his four starts, he’s yet to allow a home run with his cutter.  If his poor location is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before one (or several) get hammered into the seats.

Let’s take a look at his change-up location real quickly.

 

Buchholz has thrown his change-up predominantly to left-handed hitters this season, and he’s clearly targeting the “arm side” of the plate.  Similar to his cutter, way too many of his change-ups (at least proportionally) are hanging out over the heart of the plate. As a result, hitters are swinging and making contact at those pitches, which has resulted in a steep increase in the number of balls being put into play (14% to 17%).  Correspondingly, his ground ball and line drive rates have naturally increased as well, which is part of the reason he’s allowed more hits than he did in seasons past.

Ok, so that’s what happens when a batter swings at Buchholz’s change-up.  What happens when they don’t?

 

You’ll notice that the two charts aren’t that different.  As I mentioned previously, he’s seen a steep decline in the number of hitters that are swinging at his change-up.  To be honest, it’s not hard to see why.  In many cases, he’s not throwing it anywhere near the strikezone; frequently missing up an away to left-handed batters.  In fact, only five of those “called pitches” were called for strikes.  Decent major league hitters aren’t going to swing at pitches when the pitcher is struggling with his command.  Furthermore, they’re certainly not going to swing at pitches thrown that far from the strikezone.  Instead, they’ll either wait for a pitch they can drive or take a walk.

Buchholz’s problems appear as if they could be mechanical.  This is frequently the case when a pitcher experiences a loss in velocity and/or difficulty in locating his pitches.  Considering the back injury he sustained, I think it’s safe to guess (although not assume) that he’s neither following through nor finishing his pitches properly.  If he can fix these issues, there’s no reason he can’t turn his performance around.  The season is still young, and he certainly has plenty of talent.  He just needs to work through his issues.  Hopefully, he’ll regain the form we had a chance to see in 2010 and 2011.

Categories: Boston Red Sox Clay Buchholz

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

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