Clay Buchholz is Having a Cy Young Caliber Season
On August 17, 2007, the Boston Red Sox sent a 23 year old right handed pitcher to the mound by the name of Clay Buchholz, a first round draft pick in 2005, to face the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Buchholz had a decent debut outing, pitching six innings and allowing three runs in an 8-4 victory. In his second career start, facing the Baltimore Orioles, Buchholz pitched a no-hitter, striking out nine and walking three in the historic outing. Buchholz would make two more appearances in 2007, one in relief, and gave the Red Sox Nation some hope of a strong front-line rotation pitcher for the coming years. However, some struggles in the Majors over the next two years pushed him between the Majors and Minors.
Buchholz came back to form in 2010, winning 17 games and posting a 2.33 ERA, to go along with a league-leading ERA+ of 187, striking out 120 in 173.2 innings, good enough to place 6th in the Cy Young award voting that season as well as an All-Star selection.
Unfortunately for Buchholz, an injury would shorten his 2011 season, a year that looked to be a solid one from the get-go until it was cut short after his June 16th start of that year. 2012 proved to be another down year for Buchholz, posting an ERA over 4.50 but a respectable record of 11-8 on a Red Sox team that turned out to be highly disappointing.
With the Red Sox turnaround of 2013, Clay Buchholz has been able to be a leading factor. While he is currently on the DL with a neck injury, the numbers speak for themselves. He is 9-0 with a league-leading ERA of 1.71 and ERA+ of 254, a WHIP that is barely over 1.000, and currently holds the league lead for H/9 and HR/9 with 6.1 and 0.2, respectively. He’s also putting up a career high in K/BB rate, with a 2.79 ratio at the time he went down (81/29 K/BB). His K/9 is also up from previous years, sitting at a respectable 8.6, nearly a full two points over his career K/9 of 6.9.
Why is it that Buchholz is having a much better season this year than previous ones? Health, of course, always comes into play. But what has changed with his actual play? Why is it that Clay Buchholz is having a higher rate of success this season? According to Fangraphs, Buchholz has increased the use of his cut fastball, while steadily decreasing the amount of change-ups he’s thrown. He’s also thrown less breaking pitches this year compared to last, but a little more than his career average.
Perhaps it’s the confidence in his fastball [48.7% thrown this year compared to last year’s 43.8%] that has been a big change. His velocity is consistent with the last two seasons on every pitch, and the pitches he gets batters to swing at that aren’t in the zone have decreased from last year (30.7%), although that is above his career average (29.0), as well as pitches seen in the strike zone (43.1%, career low). Pitches in the zone have been swung at with less success, however, currently at 86.1% (career 86.5), which may suggest better placement of pitches.
The number of pitches that Buchholz has thrown have only been swung at 43.3% of the time this year, which is almost a full two percentage points below his career average. This possibly suggests that batters are just being less aggressive with him, which is supported by the Z-Swing% (percent of pitches inside the zone that were swung at), being at an almost career low 60% (career: 64.5%) and overall swing% being at 43.3%, career being at 45.2%.
Perhaps it’s the specific batters in a line-up that Buchholz retires that makes a big difference. Here are his numbers by the line-up slot:
As it’s shown, Buchholz has actually had the most success against the cleanup hitters in lineups, striking out 14 of them without walking a single one. He’s also had success against the three-hole hitters, although he has walked a decent amount of them. The most difficult spots for him have been the 2 and 5 hitters, with the 8 hitters having moderate success against him, but since those three spots are spaced out, and he’s gotten the guys out in between, may be the biggest key to his success. Batters are also hitting just .228 against him with runners in scoring position.
Look for Clay Buchholz to return to the mound soon and continue to help the Red Sox with their strong surge atop the impressive and formidable American League East (all teams within 6.5 games of first), and possibly get an appearance in the All-Star game for the American League at Citi Field on Tuesday, July 16th. He definitely deserves a spot on that roster.