The Red Sox Don’t Have Better Options Than Clay Buchholz

Clay Buchholz is not a great starting pitcher.

Great starting pitchers are consistent. They can rely on plus stuff or plus command or some mix of the two to get outs at will. They pitch deep into games, take the ball every fifth day and find a way to keep their teams in games when they don’t have their best stuff. They have respectable haircuts. Any Red Sox fan who’s followed the team even for just 10-or-so years knows what this looks like — Jon Lester, prime Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, etc. Hopefully we’ll see it again with David Price.

Why bother to outline the very obvious qualities that combine to make great pitchers great? Because the hysteria regarding Buchholz has reached such a level where a reaffirmation of baseball truths we hold to be self-evident is necessary. There are few measured, reasonable Buchholz takes nowadays. There seem only to be pitchfork-waving mobs and blind optimists, the former zealous in their wish to jettison Buchholz into the sun and the latter steadfast in their belief that Good Buchholz is always just around the corner.

I posit — very boldly — that the reality of the situation lies between the hot takes and the Bad Buchholz deniers. Clay Buchholz is not a great pitcher, though he is a pitcher occasionally capable of greatness. He’s also not a horrendous pitcher, though he’s most certainly capable of stinking up the joint.

What Clay Buchholz is is a flawed pitcher on a staff full of them, and while he’s frustrating as all hell to watch, he’s pretty clearly one of the five — and probably one of the four — best starting pitching options on the Red Sox right now.

Let’s start with Buchholz. Through his first seven starts this year, he has a 5.90 ERA, a 5.00 FIP and a 5.36 DRA. That’s pretty bad! He’s striking out the lowest percentage of batters in his career (15.7%) while walking the third-highest (9.9%). His ground-ball percentage is down (40%), his HR/9 is up (1.4) and to this point he’s cost the team -0.1 WARP. All that only accounts for 37 innings, but there’s no denying he’s been awful in three of his starts, baddish in two more, brilliant in one and good in another.

In a vacuum that’s probably a starter you’d look to replace. Buchholz has been largely non-competitive in five of his seven starts this season, and his track record suggests it might be weeks or months before he turns it around, if he turns it around at all.

However, that ignores a) the sample size and b) that as recently as 10 months ago, Buchholz was a dominant starting pitcher. It’s easy to forget now, but Buchholz was really, really good for a majority of 2015, at a time when the Red Sox in general were awful. He produced 2.6 WARP in just 113.3 innings, earning a 3.26 ERA, 3.07 DRA and a 2.65 FIP. Is it frustrating that he missed so much time? Yes, but that’s par for the course for Buchholz, who, at $13 million, isn’t being paid like an elite starting pitcher.

We don’t need to look very far in the rearview mirror — 2014 — to see the last time Buchholz was bad for the majority of a season. But if we put more weight on recent history, he’s also still clearly capable of being pretty good. Maybe that profile doesn’t have a place on the Mets or Nationals, but it sure as hell does on this Red Sox team.

For a quick dose of reality, let’s check in on the rest of Boston’s starting options:

– David Price, who’s probably fine but has been terrible
– Rick Porcello, who was terrible as recently as last year
– Steven Wright, who has no track record of success
– Joe Kelly, who is like Buchholz without the intermittent success
– Eduardo Rodriguez, who is hurt
– Henry Owens, who just issued three walks as I typed this
– Brian Johnson, who has the luck of a Stark child
– Roenis Elias, who is bad
– Sean O’Sullivan, who makes me miss Kyle Weiland

Obviously Price and Porcello aren’t going anywhere, and Wright has earned his spot. One assumes that when Rodriguez is healthy, he’s all but guaranteed a shot at sticking in the rotation as well. But among the other five names on the meager list above, Buchholz has the best track record of recent success and it’s not really close. Does that say more about the Red Sox’s rotation than Buchholz himself? You betcha. But that’s the world we live in.

As for help from outside the organization? Don’t go looking on the waiver wire, because there aren’t 150 better starting pitchers than Clay Buchholz. There might not even be 100 better starting pitchers than Clay Buchholz. Good starters aren’t distributed equally, sure, but they’re hard to come by — that’s why Dave Dombrowski just backed up a truck for Price. Don’t believe me? Now that Stephen Strasburg is off the market, here’s what the FA class looks like this coming offseason: 

Some of those pitchers might end up making $15 million-plus next year. If Buchholz’s 2017 option is picked up, he’ll be making $13.5 million. Know who else is making between $13-14 million this year? Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Harrison. You’d rather have Liriano, obviously, but there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Buchh should come next in that tier. Point is, it’s not a good time to be dabbling in the middle portion of the SP FA market.

Want the Red Sox to go out and trade for another starter and use their cadre of prospects to improve a team that looks like it could be pretty good this year? Sounds great — heck, depending on the cost I think I agree. But even if the Red Sox pull off such a move, why deplete depth by cutting a pitcher who would be unemployed for about six seconds? You think Price, Porcello, Wright, Rodriguez and Hypothetical Pitcher X will all make it through the season healthy, happy, and effective? They won’t. And when you’re watching Owens treat every hitter like Bryce Harper and seeing Buchholz throw quality starts for the Pirates in July, you’ll be sorry.

When you whiff in free agency and you can’t develop starters, Clay Buchholz is what you get.

Perhaps we could look at this differently if Jon Lester or John Lackey had been extended. Maybe it would be a different conversation if one of Kelly, Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster or Anthony Ranaudo had panned out as starters. But none of those things happened, and when you whiff in free agency and you can’t develop starters, Clay Buchholz is what you get. Clay Buchholz might be more than you deserve.

None of this will make Buchholz any less frustrating to watch the next time he walks the first three hitters in an inning or hangs a curveball to the other team’s no. 3 hitter. It’s totally reasonable to be tired of the Clay Buchholz routine, and totally understandable if, as a fan, you’ve had enough. (Just please for the love of god stop attributing it to a lack of heart.)

But it’s not reasonable to expect the Red Sox to cut bait with an affordable pitcher who’s had five crappy starts, especially when the rest of their rotation is clearly the team’s biggest weakness. Sean O’Sullivan started last night. Sean O’Sullivan. That should never happen again, but it’s far more likely to if the team cuts Buchholz to “send a message” to a group of 25-40-year-old professionals who are currently playing .600 ball.

Your heart can hate Clay Buchholz all it wants, but your head should recognize that as of right now, he’s a necessary frustration. With a $13.5 million option for 2017 and no impact help ready on the farm, odds are he will be for next season, too.

Photo by Winslow Towson/USA Today Sports Images


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2 comments on “The Red Sox Don’t Have Better Options Than Clay Buchholz”


In a parallel universe the Sox re-signed Rich Hill for 2016 and I still never heard of Sean O’Sullivan.

u are rite he is the best we have just he does not get hurt

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