'Clay Buchholz' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Hey Bobby V!  Grady Little called.  He wants his slow hook back.

Ok.  Well maybe things aren’t quite that bad, but it certainly hasn’t been great either.  In fact, I’d call Valentine’s penchant for leaving his starting pitchers in the game about four or five batters too long to be the most disturbing managerial trend of the young Red Sox season.*  We saw it during Daniel Bard‘s second start, and saw a near reprisal during Beckett’s start on Sunday against the White Sox.

* Only slightly ahead is his love of going to Justin Thomas in high leverage situations, and his insistence on batting Mike Aviles in the lead-off spot.  I know Aviles is getting on base, but eventually his performance will fall back to earth.   

Yes, I’m sure you could subtitle this sentiment “Great Moments in Second Guessing”,  and you’d be absolutely correct in a lot of cases.  A manager’s job is very difficult.  He needs to consider both the short and long-term impacts of every game when making a decision.  He needs to balance trust in his players along with doing what’s best for the team.  While this isn’t an easy task, there are moments in a game where a decision becomes so obvious, most fans will start yelling at their televisions when the manager chooses to passivity rather than pro-activity.  This is true especially in cases where “the inevitable” seems as if it’s about to happen.

“The inevitable” in this case reared it’s ugly head again on Monday night.

I think it’s safe to say that Clay Buchholz has struggled through his first four starts.  In case you missed my analysis of the nature of his struggles, you can find it here.  On the off-chance you’ve forgotten how he’s performed so far this season, let’s do a recap:

  • April 8th – Clay’s first start of the season comes against the Tigers.  Things started out very poorly for the right-hander as he allowed four runs on four hits and a walk in the first inning.  Things didn’t go well the rest of the way either as he was pulled after four innings (78 pitches).  On the day, he gave up seven runs on eight hits and two walks while striking out only two.  Not good.
  • April 14th – His second start of the season.  This time against the Rays.  It starts out very poorly as he gives up four runs (including a three-run homer to Luke Scott) in the first inning.  He calmed down and pitched very well over the next six innings giving up only one more run on four hits, two walks, and five strikeouts.  His final line wasn’t attractive, but he deserves a lot credit for digging deep and pitching well after a rough start.
  • April 20th – His third start; against the Yankees.  Not many ways to sugarcoat this one.  He gave up six runs on nine hits and two walks in six innings.  Worst of all, he allowed five home runs on the day, a career worst.  Considering the number of base runners he allowed, it could have been a lot worse.
  • April 25th – Fourth start against the Twins.  This one should have been pretty easy.  The Twins are one of the worst teams in baseball, and he should have cruised along after being staked a 7-1 lead.   After getting a swinging strikeout to start off the sixth, the wheels fell off.  He allowed three straight hits and a walk before Valentine pulled him.  He called in Scott Atchison, Justin Thomas, and Matt Albers in to put out the fire, but instead they threw gasoline on it.   Regardless of whether or not they could have stopped the bleeding, it would not have been a good start for Clay as he allowed 13 base runners in 5-1/3 innings.

This brings us to Monday night.  Through the first six innings, Buchholz had looked pretty solid.  He certainly had a few hiccups with his control during the first, second, and fifth innings, but for the most part he looked solid.  he mixed his pitches well, registered a fair number of swings and misses, and threw first pitch strikes to 21 of the 30 batters he faced.  His change-up, a pitch he’s shied away from using as of late, was thrown 13 times, and induced three whiffs.  His four-seamer had some additional giddy-up last night as it’s average velocity was nearly a full tick above his season average.  His cutter location was much more effective last night against lefties, but it still caught too much of the plate when he threw it to right-handed hitters.  Overall, it was a pretty solid evening up to that point.

Then came the seventh inning.  Coming into the inning, Buchholz had only thrown 72 pitches, which prompted me to make this tweet prior to the start of the inning.  He started off the inning by allowing a single on a curveball over the heart of the plate to back-up catcher Anthony Recker.  Immediately afterwards, he followed that up with a five-pitch walk to Daric Barton.  He made easy work of his next two batters before walking Jemile Weeks on eight pitches to load the bases.

At this point, most of us are screaming at the TV.  Buchholz is obviously gassed.  He’s leaving pitches a little over the plate.  He’s walking guys.  His velocity is still there, but he’s not getting the kind of follow-through he needs to finish his pitches off properly.  Despite the obvious signs Buchholz is finished, does Valentine go to his bullpen?  No, he does not.  Coco Crisp, batting left-handed, pulls a first pitch cutter thrown down and in (but not far enough) to shallow right to drive in two runs.  Josh Reddick, another lefty, comes to the plate with two on base.  Again, do you think Bobby V calls for an arm from the pen?  Not so much.  Buchholz works him into a favorable 1-2 count before Reddick golfs this curveball into the right field stands for a three run home run.**  Finally, Valentine emerges from the clubhouse to relieve a clearly irritated and distraught Clay Buchholz.

** By the way…according to pitch f/x, Buchholz didn’t throw this pitch in a bad location.  The curveball crossed the plate about fifteen inches above the ground.  Reddick just did a really good piece of bad ball hitting.

So what took Valentine so long to go to the bullpen?  On one hand, I respect his decision.  Buchholz has been struggling all season.  In his way, Valentine was showing his trust and respect in the 26-year old pitcher by allowing him the opportunity to work himself out of a jam.  The Red Sox were up 11-1 when trouble started brewing, so the likelihood the game would spiral out of control were incredibly slim.  If he gets out of the jam, it’s possible the shot of confidence boosts his performance going forward.

On the other hand, Buchholz was in desperate need of a moral victory.  Leaving the game after 6-2/3 innings after only giving up one run while he was pitching would have provided that kind of victory.  If the bullpen comes in and gives up the three runs on base, he’s only partially at fault, rather than wholly at fault.  Even if we were to accept Valentine’s decision to allow Buchholz to face the switch hitting Crisp, his decision to let him face the lefty Reddick is incredibly confusing.  In a small sample of 85 batters, lefties have produced an ugly .460 wOBA against him this season.  Furthermore, the game was 11-3 with two runners on first and third at that point.  Why leave a tired pitcher in the game to allow additional damage?  All of the signs seemed to be pointing toward pulling Buchholz, but Bobby V ignored them.

My biggest issue with Monday night’s occurrences during the seventh inning is that it completely taints Buchholz’s performance.  Overall, he had a very solid night.  Yes, he walked a few guys, but his overall command was very good.  (He threw 63 of his 99 pitches for strikes.)  His velocity and location showed some improvements; especially with his change-up.  He was generating a few more whiffs.  Lastly, his release point was more “over the top” as it was in 2010 as opposed to slightly “off to the side” as it has been this season.  We were finally starting to see flashes of the Buchholz we all know exists.

Unfortunately, Bobby V’s poor pitching management washes all of that away.  Instead of talking about those improvements, we’re talking about his mental make-up, and his ability to pitch in the major leagues.  A guy we once saw as the savior to our 2011 season is suddenly being named as the pitcher Aaron Cook (yes, he of the woefully unimpressive 13/11 K/BB ratio in 33-1/3 AAA innings) should replace in the rotation.  It’s a shame.

Yes, Buchholz has started out very slowly.  Hopefully, last night (seventh inning not withstanding) will be the start of his turnaround.  If he can build upon what he did Monday night, it won’t be long before he’s back to his old self.