It’s a classic saying that centers around wildly-talented athletes who play either the quarterback position in football and/or pitch when playing baseball — million-dollar arm, ten-cent brain. It’s a two-story house that’s elegant when you step inside, but when you go upstairs, there’s not as much value on the second level.
Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz can easily be characterized as such, as his issues lay above the neck between the ears. He’s battled trying to stay out of his own head, and it has haunted the pitcher since beginning his major league career in 2007. It’s big reason why he’s never pitched in an All-Star Game (he’s been named an All-Star twice, but was hurt both times) and has never thrown more than 189.1 innings or made 30 starts in a season despite having ace-like stuff.
It’s why he’s having yet another disappointing season, going 5-6 with a 5.50 ERA in 16 starts with a 1.527 WHIP, throwing just 91.2 innings over 16-plus weeks of baseball. Watching Buchholz, even the naked eye can tell that he doesn’t trust his stuff, and he doesn’t have confidence in the pitches he’s making.
Knowing Buchholz, it’s easy to notice a pitcher who doesn’t only not trust his stuff, but he doesn’t trust his body either. He’s a guy doing too much thinking and not enough pitching. The more he struggles, the more he thinks. When he puts runners on base, he slows the game down. He worries about the guys on the paths as opposed to doubling down and focusing on the hitter in the batter’s box.
When Buchholz has no problems, he’s as good as any pitcher in all of baseball. It was seen in his final start before the All-Star break when he went the distance against the Houston Astros, striking out 12 and allowing just three hits in the Sox 11-0 win. Or in a broader context, his 2010 and 2013 seasons (first half at least) when he was 100 percent and trusted all the parts of the machine as Boston’s ace.
But then there was 2012, when he was coming off a back injury that shortened his 2011 campaign, or the first half of this season, after missing three months of 2013 with a neck ailment. When he sees a crack in the foundation — or even fears it — he panics and folds.
With the bases empty, opposing batters have a .273 batting average against Buchholz, a slight dip from the overall .297 hitters have against the 29-year-old righty. With a runner on first, the average rises to .321. When he gets to second, it rises to .375. At ninety feet away, it falls to .364, but the OPS goes up to 1.326, a big uptick from the .891 OPS with a man on second.
In other words, the closer a runner gets to crossing home plate, the more prone Buchholz becomes to making a bad pitch that he gets punished for. With runners in scoring position, opposing batters are hitting .327 (32-for-98) with an .841 OPS with seven extra-base hits against Buchholz.
Once he gets in trouble, he has a hard time getting out of trouble. And it only escalates from there. Buchholz’s inability to stay on his game the more men get on base was on display in Wednesday night’s 6-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Putting the first two batters he faced on to begin his outing after the Red Sox offense gave him a 3-0 lead to work with, he surrendered a double to Jose Bautista with runners on first and second. With runners on the corners — a situation in which opposing hitters have hit .462 off Buchholz in 2014 — and two outs facing Josh Thole, the Jays’ backup catcher launched an RBI double to left.
It was an inning that began on the wrong foot and snowballed. And it was an inning Buchholz never recovered from, as he went on to strikeout just one batter while hitting the ninth batter in the Toronto order twice.
It’s not about stuff. The stuff has been there. And Buchholz doesn’t look lost, either, like he did in 2012 when came out of the gate with a 9.09 ERA through his first six starts. It’s been about going out there and pitching and not worrying about things he can’t control. That’s something Buchholz hasn’t been able to do which is an issue that’s 100 percent mental.