Has Clay Buchholz Been Tampering With The Baseball?
While there wasn’t much baseball to talk about in Boston last year, the Boston Red Sox are off to a hot start this year and currently stand in first place atop of the American League East Division. Amongst the many player resurgences and revitalization projects the Red Sox have enjoyed this year, starting pitcher Clay Buchholz should definitely command the most attention. The tall, lanky Right-Hander has certainly seen a fair measure of success and failures throughout his career, but lately, has out-pitched his career norms by leaps and bounds. Buchholz is off to a 6-0 start, and has compiled a minuscule pitching line of 1.01 ERA/0.96 WHIP/.178 BAA, resulting in his name being plastered across the Major League Baseball pitching leader-boards. Nevertheless, it seems something else has been plastered onto Buchholz as well, and with the claim hinges his early season success.
Dirk Hayhurst, a former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, but probably better known as an author and current broadcaster for the Jays accused Buchholz of doctoring the baseball with a substance he identified as “most likely Crisco”, as Buchholz shut down the Jays on May 1st en route to his MLB leading 6th win of the season. In Hayhurst’s own words:
Forget the hair, I just saw video of Buchholz loading the ball with some Eddie Harris worthy slick’em painted up his left forearm. Wow.
— Dirk Hayhurst (@TheGarfoose) May 2, 2013
Here’s a picture of Clay Buchholz supposedly caught in the act, also courtesy of Hayhurst:
Could be rosin, could be something else. Looked awfully fishy, is all. twitter.com/TheGarfoose/st…
— Dirk Hayhurst (@TheGarfoose) May 2, 2013
At first glance, there is definitely something on Buchholz’s arm, but what is it exactly? Here is what Boston manager John Farrell had to say in retaliation to these comments:
[quote]It bothers me immensely when someone is going to make an accusation—and in this case, of cheating—because they’ve seen something on TV. He’s got rosin on his arm. Rosin was designed to get a grip. He’s got it on his arm. I’ve seen some people that have brought photographs to me. They’re false. The fact is that the guy is 6-0. He’s pitched his tail off. People are going to point to cheating? Unfounded.[/quote]
Buchholz would later go on to say pretty much the same thing in defense of himself, his response was a typical one and expected. Such accusations have been made in the past and unless the MLB decides to take action, there is really nothing that can happen to the accused. Does Hayhurst have a point though? It is worth noting that Hayhurst used to be a pitcher himself in the MLB. Moving up through the minors, he probably has seen every trick under the sun, if a pitcher was actually tampering with the baseball, you can bet Hayhurst would have a better insight into the matter than most people. At the same time, he’s also a broadcaster that gets paid to draw attention to the Network and himself. So what’s the verdict?
Glancing through the statistics, it’s easy to see Buchholz is outperforming his previous statistics in any year by a wide margin. What stands out the most however are two stats, his SO/9 which has gone from career norms of about 6.5 to the 9.5 mark so far this year and Opponent BAA, which has gone from a career average of around .250 to .178. Why do these two statistics stand out? Well, it shows that opponents are hitting him less and striking out more frequently. In other words, he is getting harder to hit. Now, while you could also attribute this to Buchholz nearing his pitching prime and having figured it out at the age of 28, or his .248 babip (Batting Average of Balls in Play), which may mean he is getting a little lucky, a closer look at his pitch movement reveals perhaps a deeper truth.
While Buchholz’s pitch repertoire has varied greatly over the years, he’s settled with a cutter, a sinker, a curve and a change-up as his primary secondary pitches over the past three years. For simplicity’s sake we will look at the cutter , because out of all the pitches, the movement of this pitch is most reliant on the rolling and snapping of the fingers, or in other words, how the ball “comes off” the fingers (you can watch Sports Science for a better explanation). Brooks Baseball has generously provided us with a year-to-year trajectory and movement chart of pitches measured by pfx HMOV&VMOV/IN. (Horizontal/Vertical movement by inches) and by this, we will see Hayhurst’s accusations gain some ground.
Buchholz’s cutter has averaged +1.05 HMov and a +6.36 VMov from 2010 – 2012. So far this year, the vMov of the cutter has stayed steady at +6.93 Vmov but the HMov has jumped to +3.51. This means that on top of the vertical movement Buchholz already has on his cutter, it’s horizontal movement also doubled. Is this an exponential improvement or is Buchholz tampering with the ball ? Some people will point to Buchholz’s release point, which has changed a little from the end of last year to the beginning of 2013 but it is still very hard to drastically improve the movement of a pitch just like that. Has Buchholz really figured it out? Or is Buchholz merely adjusting to adapt to the substances he applies onto the baseball?
Does Hayhurst have a point? You be the judge. But one thing’s for sure, if Buchholz keeps pitching the way he does, it definitely won’t be the last time we hear of this topic.