Clay Buchholz

Who’s Better Right Now: Cole Hamels or Clay Buchholz?

The first thing you should know about this column is that it’s a purely recreational exercise. There’s nothing to it beyond measuring the Red Sox’s clear No. 1 starter versus the best pitcher on the trade market, and how good they are at baseball, right now. This year’s Sox aren’t out of it yet but they’re not in it, either, and until they are we’re left with pastimes like this.

In measuring Clay Buchholz versus Cole Hamels, the first thing to concede is that Hamels has clearly had the better career until this point. His greatest strength has been durability. He owns a career 3.48 FIP to Buchholz’s 3.92, which is a nice enough advantage before you consider that he’s thrown almost twice as many innings as Buchholz despite being only a year older. Hamels is nearing 2,000 career innings on the bump; Buchholz only passed 1,000 earlier this month. This is how Hamels’ career WAR sits above 38 and Buchholz is just above 13.

As the saying goes, health is a skill, and it’s one Buchholz clearly does not have. The contrarian in me says that this could be construed as a plus for Buchholz, given the potential for as-yet untapped electric innings in his arm and the fact that Hamels is, in the parlance of our times, “due” for an injury. But nah: the contrarian’s assistant in me says that argument’s mostly a load of bunk. Injuries are so often degenerative in both the short- and long-term, in ways we often don’t know until later, that the only sane conclusion to draw is that health begets health unless we can prove otherwise. Maybe if Hamels was nearing 40, this would be different, but he’s just 31 years old.

Still, it’s encouraging for the Red Sox that Buchholz and Hamels have thrown basically the same number of innings this season, and Buchholz has been better. Their ERA/FIP/xFIP lines are similar enough to potentially neutralize this fact, but I trust your interpretation to be as kind as mine to Clay:

Hamels: 3.26 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 3.28 xFIP, 1.7 WAR

Buchholz: 3.48 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 3.19 xFIP, 2.7 WAR

You don’t even need to play the “take out the bad start” game with Buchholz for these numbers to be stunning. With the obviously caveat that yes, it’s a half-season of baseball, here’s an incomplete list of players who have been better than Hamels and worse than Buchholz, as judged by WAR. Spoiler: they’re really good.

Zack Greinke
Dallas Keuchel
Madison Bumgarner
Gerrit Cole
Carlos Carrasco
Jordan Zimmermann
Michael Wacha
Matt Harvey
Johnny Cueto
Felix Hernandez

Combine that crazy list, which includes a King, a Dark Knight and a World Series MVP, with Buchholz’s performance last night against the Jays in Toronto — that most thumping of teams — and you can see Clay’s high-water mark. Is it higher than Hamels’? Probably… not. Hamels himself is a World Series MVP, and for the dizzying highs of Buch’s career, Hamels has been slowly raising the tide for damn near a decade.

The winner here is Hamels, but there are no losers, either. In any one game, there is plenty of reason to think down-and-dirty Buchholz might be better than Mr. Banana Republic himself. They’d make a great one-two punch in any order, that’s for sure, but I’m fairly sure we won’t see that, at least not this year. The gap between the team we have and the team that would trade for Hamels is just too large. A rising tide lifts all boats, but it’s of no use when you’re already lost at sea.

Photo by Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports Images

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