Clay Buchholz is Forcing the Issue

Just when you think you’ve talked about him enough, Clay Buchholz does something good again.

He’s been moved back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation so many times that it’s hard to believe that he made two full months worth of starts before being used as a reliever for a while. Then the Red Sox realized that Roenis Elias and Henry Owens weren’t going to cut it, and Sean O’Sullivan and Steven Wright weren’t going to be healthy, so back comes the prodigal son of oscillation. What a wild ride it’s been.

Last night, I joined a lot of people in staring at awe at my TV screen as Buchholz locked down the San Diego Padres’ bats. While that’s not a tall order, it’s still 6.2 innings of one-run ball, with six strikeouts to go with it. If you’re not impressed by Buchholz doing that – and I don’t blame you one bit if you’re not, you have high expectations, I get it – he’s done this 6+ IP, one-run-or-less thing for three straight starts now, and his victims in the last two starts were Detroit and Tampa Bay. It made me come to a realization that apparently resonated with others:

Since his last truly bad start on July 2nd, where he allowed six runs to score (but only three were earned! Baseball!) to a terrible Angels lineup, Buchholz has only given up two home runs: one being off the bat of a Red Sox-murdering Evan Longoria in a very bad spot, and the other to Ryan Schimpf last night. He’s only walked eight batters, and five of those walks came in just two of the 15 appearances he’s made.

Back comes Clay Buchholz, the prodigal son of oscillation.

The reason he’s been so good is that he’s cut down on the walks and homers. In the first half, Buchholz had a 10.5% walk rate and a 1.90 HR/9. That’s pretty objectively terrible. If he wasn’t handing out free passes like Owens, he was giving up bombs. Sometimes they both happened in the same inning, and sometimes I turned off the TV. But now, that walk rate is at 5.5% and the HR/9 is now 0.49. So a 50% reduction in walks, and a 75% reduction in homers. Couple that with a slight uptick in his strikeout rate and you’ve got something resembling a useful pitcher. Buchholz is toting a K/BB of 3.13 since the All-Star break, which is second-best on the team in the second half, behind Rick Porcello and his stupidly great 8.14 mark. If it wasn’t for the other starters also being very good, Buchholz would be standing out even more than he already is.

Clay Buchholz looks pretty good right now. And that statement absolutely terrifies me.

Buchholz is nearing the end of his contract, but the Red Sox hold a $13.5 million option for 2017. Thanks to how well he’s doing now, that decision isn’t obvious anymore. But the risks are.

For starters, we’ve seen this before. The 2013 season happened, whether Cardinals/Tigers fans believe it or not. Buchholz’s oscillation hit its highest peak and, man, did he dominate. Until he got hurt, of course. And then came back and dealt with all kinds of statistical regression on top of it. Turns out he was getting a ton of called strikes, and subsequently, a ton of strikeouts looking. Jeff Sullivan talked about it back then, and the conclusion was that it wasn’t a step forward, but just a temporary spike. A surge in swinging strikeouts is more representative of a pitcher’s strikeout potential, while called strikeout numbers tend to bounce around and prove to be more fluky. Buchholz’s 2014 confirmed the latter, and he dropped from his apex to his nadir. Almost like a sequel to his 2013 season, Buchholz’s 2015 campaign was very good, and he rose back up once more! His 2016, at least for a few months, was very bad. Rise and fall, ebb and flow. He is the prime example of  what the word “mercurial” means.

No one knows what to make of him if the option is picked up. Looking at trends, you’d expect him to be good, even great. But he’s also been injured in those odd-numbered years, and hasn’t pitched more than 115 innings in any of them. Conversely, he’s been perfectly healthy in his even-numbered years, and apart from 2010, he’s been horrible. Now that’s he’s good currently, what do you make of him? Can he keep this up?

Despite a 3.32 FIP, Buchholz’ batted ball profile doesn’t really portend success.

The peripherals don’t really believe he can. Despite a 3.32 FIP, his batted ball profile doesn’t really portend success. He’s traded in some grounders and fly balls for an increase line drives from 16% to 19%, and he’s allowed harder contact a little more than he did in the first half of the year. The only thing that’s somewhat normalized is his HR/FB, which sits at 4.7%, which is more than 5% lower his career average. Other than the fact that he’s kept it in the park far more, not much has changed with the contact he’s allowing. The lack of walks helps it look better.

So that’s where the Red Sox are currently. Do they pick up the option and hope the lottery ticket has a few good numbers, or do they let the rest of the league gamble instead? If Buchholz keeps this up, it might actually be the former. The market for starting pitching this winter is pretty bad, because as of now, it’s Rich Hill and a bunch of guys that would make you audibly wince if you saw him starting for your team. None of those options would be someone that you could claim to better than Buchholz with complete certainty. Plus, $13.5M might be bearable with what you’d have to work with, and that’s taking into account free agency and whomever is pitching in Triple-A.

It might not be a slam-dunk, this-is-obviously-good-and-not-bad decision, but it’s probably worth picking up the option and trying to roll a hard six with Buchholz’s frustrating inconsistency. All Buchholz has to do is keep pitching like he has, and thank Steven Wright for not knowing how to slide back into second base correctly, because that bum shoulder of his gave Buchholz the chance to hit another high in the sine graph of his career.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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