Clay Buchholz

Clay Buchholz and the Tale of Two Starts

For the first time in his career Clay Buchholz was Boston’s Opening Day starter. Starting on Opening Day doesn’t mean much in the specific, but in the aggregate it means the Red Sox are depending a lot on Clay Buchholz. This could be great or terrible because Buchholz has had both great and terrible seasons previously in his career.

So the funny thing about this piece is I got the idea before the season started. I’ll go back in Buchholz’s career, I thought, pick out his best season and his worst, learn about what he does when he’s good and what he does when he’s bad, and then draw some conclusions about what to look for this season. I may still do that, but then Buchholz’s first two starts happened and now we don’t need to go back because we have ready examples of both Cy Young Buchholz and Meltdown Buchholz. Buchholz’s starts have been so polarizing that, according to Bill James GameScore stat, Clay Buchholz has the fourth best start this season (79 GameScore) and also the worst start this season (GameScore of five, so low I have to spell out the number).

Buchholz’s starts have been so polarizing that, according to Bill James GameScore stat, Clay Buchholz has the fourth best start this season (79 GameScore) and also the worst start this season (GameScore of five.)

So why was Clay Buchholz so, so good in one start and so, so bad in the other? To be successful, a pitcher usually needs velocity, and we can measure velocity, but velocity alone isn’t enough. Pitchers also need deception, location, and movement. Deception is difficult to measure, but PITCH f/x gives us good data on the other two. This is a long way of saying we’ll start with PITCH f/x data!

The velocity on Buchholz’s fastball was fine in both starts, so we can dispense with that right away. In fact, I didn’t even need to look it up because can you imagine if Buchholz was throwing 93 in one outing then 88 in the next? The bleating from sports talk radio would block out the sun. Because the sun is still shining I didn’t need to look it up, but because this is Baseball Prospectus, I did anyway. The average Buchholz fastball dropped one mph from the first start to the second. In fact all of Buchholz’s pitches were thrown slightly slower to varying degrees against New York than against Philadelphia. That’s not nothing, but it’s not enough to Hindenburg a start, especially if the differences between the speed of the pitches were similar, which they were. We must hunt further!

Let’s look at location. I pulled strike zone plots for each start from Brooks Baseball. Here they are:

Kzoneplot.BuchholzvPHL

Kzoneplot.BuchholzvNYY

Buchholz’s first start against the Phillies contained many more pitches down, both in the strike zone and below it. In contrast, the start against New York featured many more pitches up in the zone. What’s more, look at the number of pitches thrown below the zones. In Philadelphia Buchholz was keeping the ball down much better. The composition of the two lineups was predominantly left-handed, likely because last season lefties hit for 100 points more of OPS than right-handers against Buchholz. His career splits aren’t so striking, but Buchholz has been slightly worse against left-handed hitters in his career.

Eight of nine hitters in the Yankees starting lineup hit left-handed versus Buchholz, i.e. they were left-handed or switch hitters. Excluding the pitcher, six of the eight Phillies batters were left-handed. The game plan shouldn’t have been too different, yet Buchholz threw a number of pitches on the right side of the zone against the Yankees that he didn’t against the Phillies. You’ll note of the five, one was called a strike (incorrectly), one got a swing and miss, and the other three were put into play for hits. It’s not difficult to conclude from this that Buchholz’s command was off against New York in a way that it wasn’t against the Phillies.

Let’s move on to movement. Buchholz got Phillies batters to swing and miss 10 times. Four of those came on the changeup, and three each on the sinker and curveball. Against New York, there were five swings and misses (on 15 fewer pitches). Four came on the sinker, and one on the fastball. Right there we can see a big difference. When Buchholz is right he gets a lot of mileage out of his changeup. He gets swings and misses, he gets weak contact, and he keeps hitters off his hard stuff. Against the Yankees the changeup wasn’t working, or at least Buchholz didn’t think it was working. According to Brooks, Buchholz only threw the changeup seven times against New York, only two of which were strikes. That could be because the movement on the changeup was different, and it was, but not by much. Against the Phillies the changeup moved 5.22 inches vertically and 7.11 inches horizontally, while against the Yankees the changeup moved 4.65 inches vertically and 6.90 inches horizontally. That’s a difference of 0.57 vertical inches and 0.21 horizontal inches. These are averages of course, but that doesn’t seem like a shockingly huge difference.

It’s odd that a guy could look so different from year to year but it’s downright bizarre the same guy would look so different start to start.

The biggest difference in movement came on the fastball, which (again, on average) broke 2.74 inches less horizontally (i.e. slid less) and 1.69 inches less vertically (i.e. dropped less) against New York than Philadelphia. But it was the sinker, not the fastball, that got hit around against New York. Eight of the 12 Buchholz sinkers put into play were done with no out recorded against the Yankees. The sinker was also the pitch Buchholz used far more in New York than in Philadelphia, throwing 34 of them (43 percent of his pitches) in the Bronx to 26 (28 percent) in Philadelphia.

In the end it looks like Buchholz had a bad start against New York in every sense of the word. His pitches were slower, they moved less and were more likely to stay high in the zone. Just five days earlier the same guy exhibited better pitches and better command and control of them. It’s odd that a guy could look so different from year to year but it’s downright bizarre the same guy would look so different start to start. That’s where we are with Clay Buchholz, though. It’s like growing up in a town, leaving for a day trip, and coming back to find that everything looks different. Then you go into a drug store for a soda and come out eight minutes later and everything looks like it did before you originally left. Did everything change? Which one is the real town? Which one is the real Clay Buchholz? Both, and that’s the real problem.

Photo by Kelly O’Connor, 

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