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40 in 40: Boston Red Sox Player Profiles: Clay Buchholz

Clay Buchholz was the AL leader in ERA+ in 2010. While many analysts were quick to point out his unsustainable home run rate (just 5.6 HR/FB) and his extremely low batting average on balls in play (.261), Boston Red Sox fans could not help but feel that the tall young righty, who threw a no hitter in his first major league start, had finally arrived as a major league ace. With Buchholz joining Jon Lester and Josh Beckett atop the rotation,Boston looked able to match aces with any team in American League.

Unfortunately, Buchholz did not last the season. After a June 16 start, he went on the DL with what would later be diagnosed as a stress fracture in his lower back. This injury ended his 2011 season and left the Red Sox rotation is shambles as pitchers like Tim Wakfield, Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller tried to fill Buchholz’s shoes. He would have been ready for a playoff start had the Red Sox not lost the wild card to the Tampa Bay Rays on the final day of the regular season, so he has been able to prepare for the 2012 at full strength.

His early spring training results have been mostly positive. Buchholz has thrown 15 innings and struck out 10 with walking just 3. The two of the three home runs he has given up came in the last outing, when he struggled giving up five runs in five innings. He has looked healthy thus far though, and has thrown all his pitches effectively.

The Red Sox desperately need a healthy and effective Buchholz in the rotation. Before he left the home runs that failed to find the seats in 2010 had already impacted his FIP greatly, with a rise from 3.61 the year before to 4.34 in 87 innings last year. His ERA, however, continued to outperform his peripherals coming in at 3.48. His BABIP was once again extremely low, at .264. With a .281 BABIP in 447 major league innings, it may be that Buchholz’s ground ball stuff is above average at producing weak contact and keeping ERA lower than expected by the more independent metrics.

Repertoire

Clay Buchholz features three fastball variations, much like teammate Josh Beckett. He throws the standard four-seam fastball around 93 mph and can hit 95 with it at times with a lot of “rise. This is his most used pitched, thrown around 40% of the time. He gets an extreme number of groundballs with his four-seamer and his cutter, helping him to a career 50.4%.  He throws a two-seam grip as well, with a slightly lower velocity averaging around 92 mph and that pitch moves toward the catcher’s left hand side (or in on righties). He throws that pitch close to 10% of the time (9.8% last year) Previous to last season, he PitchF/X did not differentiate between his four-seam and two-seam variations, so it is hard to say if the percentages are truly accurate reflection of the usage, but the movement is distinct for each.

Buchholz, like almost any pitcher to come up under John Farrell’s time inBoston, throws a cut fastball as well. The pitch comes in At 90 mph and often resembles a hard slider. Before last season, PitchF/X classified it as a slider, though with the new classification, it is clear they are one pitch, better classified as a cutter. Buchholz throws the pitch between 14-17% of the time and, like Beckett, throws the pitch to same side of the plate, the catcher’s right hand side, regardless of hitter handedness. This means he usees it inside on lefties where it runs toward their hands and away from righties, breaking it away from them.

Buchholz’s best pitch is his change up and it is a good candidate for the best off-speed pitch on the team, with an awesome 22% whiff rate. Unlike Lester and Beckett, Buchholz uses his change against same handed hitters, throwing it almost as much to righties and lefties. He locates the pitch down in the zone most of the time. When facing lefties, he throws it away most of the time. It is really an incredible pitch to watch, with a distinct drop-ff just as it reaches the zone. He typically uses it as an out, but he can throw almost anytime, putting it in the strike zone and daring hitters to try their luck.

A healthy Clay Buchholz would vastly improve the biggest weakness the team had during their 2011 collapse. He has always seemed to be capable of being a more dominant strike out pitcher than he is, with his excellent change up and three fastball variations, but he is very effective just as he is. Generating 50.4%  ground balls and striking out 6.98 hitters per nine makes him a reliable starter who shouldn’t allow too many big hits and who can get himself out of jams with the strike out and with the double. If he is every going to step up his game, it would likely come in the form of fewer walks. Buchholz has walked 3.72 batters per nine, though it has been closer to 3.5 as a full time starter. If he could improve this rate, with his other skills, he could easily begin to rival Lester and Beckett for the title of team ace. Even without improvement, he is an excellent option at the number three starter slot.