Clay Buchholz had an absolutely dazzling season in 2010, and appeared to be on his way to becoming the Red Sox’ ace. The then-26-year-old right-hander went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA that year, earning an All-Star appearance in his first real full season as a starter for the big league club.
Since then, Buchholz has been slightly above mediocre at best, compiling just 2.6 rWAR over the last two seasons after netting 5.4 wins in 2010.
His regression in 2011 could be seen from a mile away. Buchholz’s opponents BABIP was a paltry .261 the previous year, while his HR/FB rate was a microscopic 5.6 percent. In 2011, Buchholz’s BABIP maintained (.264), but his HR/FB rate shot up to 10.1 percent (right around league average), thus explaining his 3.48 ERA. He still posted 1.8 WAR in just 82.2 innings, but it was clearly a wakeup call for the righty.
And if 2011 was a regression year for Buchholz, 2012 proved to be alarmingly worse. His ERA shot up to 4.56 in 189.1 innings of work, and he ended up netting Boston just 0.8 wins by the end of the year. That’s an acceptable figure for innings-eating fifth starters in the American League East, but not for the caliber of pitcher that the Red Sox expected Buchholz to become.
Now entering his age-29 campaign, Buchholz has a lot to prove to both the organization and the fans. Luckily, there are reasons to be optimistic that he can turn himself into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Buchholz’s strikeouts dipped a bit in 2012, as his 6.13 K/9 was the lowest of his career, but it was not that much lower than his career 6.66 mark. And with the decrease in strikeouts came yet another decrease in walks, which Buchholz has been able to accomplish each season since 2008.
Buchholz is not the horse the Red Sox once thought he could be, when he paired a 94 mph fastball with a devastating 12-to-6 hook. Now, his typical heater now clocks in around 92-93, according to FanGraphs. Buchholz is, for all intents and purposes, a pitch-to-contact pitcher these days, who can occasionally pull of a strikeout in a needed spot.
Buchholz has also adjusted his repertoire in recent years, likely to make up for the slight dip in velocity. According to FanGraphs, Buchholz threw a slider 18.7 percent of the time in 2010, but has thrown none since. Instead, the righty has opted for a combination of a cutter and split-finger fastball. Meanwhile, he threw his four-seamer just 43.8 percent of the time in 2012, down from 54.1 percent two years prior.
All of this points to the notion that the Red Sox and Buchholz have decided that he is better off trying to hit spots and keep hitters off balance, rather than trying to blow them away with stuff that just isn’t there anymore.
So what does that mean? Well, let’s not assume that all pitch-to-contact pitchers are Aaron Cook. Guys like Mark Buehrle, Kyle Lohse and even Hiroki Kuroda have had pretty solid careers despite posting less-than-impressive strikeout numbers. The key to all three of them, though, is that they keep their walks down. Buchholz appears to be on that path as well.
Of course, pitchers who attract contact are also more susceptible to shifts in batted ball variance, or “luck.” In 2012, Buchholz was victimized by a 13 percent HR/FB rate and a treacherous 69 percent left-on-base percentage, way down from two straight seasons at 79 percent. All of this spells a comeback for the right-hander in 2013.
If the Red Sox can get three wins out of Buchholz this season, fans should be very happy. Boston may not have the ace it once thought it had, but if Buchholz continues to decrease his walks while still showing an ability to pull out strikeouts in tough spots, he should end up being a reliable starter for years to come.