Who Are You: Clay Buchholz
This post is the last of a weekly series which has run each Thursday. Over the offseason, we took a deep dive look at new members of the Phillies roster. Now that we’re just weeks away from settling down with these guys every day, the hope is that this series has provided a requisite introduction in preparation for the coming season.
Clay Buchholz – RHP
Born: 8/14/1984 – entering age-32 season
Height: 6’3? Weight: 190 lb.
2016: 139.1 IP, 4.78 ERA, 15.8 K%, 9.4 BB%, 95 ERA+
MLB Career: 1167.2 IP, 3.96 ERA, 18.3 K%, 8.5 BB%, 109 ERA+
Contract Status: Entering the final year of a seven-year, $56.75 million contract signed with the Boston Red Sox in 2011.
The Boston Red Sox drafted Buchholz with the 42nd pick in the 2005 MLB Draft. Because baseball lacks a basic understanding of how rounds work in a 30-team league, we seem to be calling this a first round pick. So, good for Buchholz, I guess.
A member of the 2004 high school class, Buchholz originally enrolled at McNeese State University, which meant he should have not been draft eligible until 2007. However, he was kicked off the McNeese team for stealing 29 computers from a local middle school and selling them. He transferred to Angelina Community College, where he had a 1.05 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 85.2 innings pitched. Conveniently for Buchholz, his enrollment at a community college allowed him to be draft eligible after his first year. The Red Sox pounced. Funny how stealing computers can work out.
In his first full year in the minor leagues in 2006, Buchholz pitched mostly at Single-A, throwing 103 innings with a 2.62 ERA and 117 strikeouts. That performance earned him a place on both Baseball America’s (#51) and Baseball Prospectus’ (#41) top prospect lists.
In 2007, he moved quickly through the upper levels of the minors. In 125.1 innings between AA and AAA, he posted a 2.44 ERA with 171 strikeouts against only 35 walks. That performance earned him an August call-up to the major leagues in only his age-22 season. In just his second start in the major leagues, he threw a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles with nine strikeouts and three walks. He threw two more games (one of which was in relief) for the team in 2007 before he was shut down after experiencing shoulder fatigue. In total, he threw 148 innings in 2007 with 193 strikeouts.
His performance in the high levels of the minors and his brief major league debut caused Buchholz to shoot up the prospect lists and both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him among the five best prospects in the game heading into 2008.
He opened the season in the Red Sox rotation in 2008, but struggled before an injury to his fingernail and a subsequent demotion to the minor leagues. He was recalled in mid-July. His overall struggles–6.75 ERA, 72 strikeouts, 41 walks in 76 innings–led to him beginning 2009 in AAA. After a July promotion the majors, Buchholz struggled again over 92 major league innings with a 4.21 ERA and only 68 strikeouts.
With patience potentially running thin on the former top prospect, Buchholz came out in 2010 with perhaps the best season of his career to date. He made his first of two career All-Star appearances after a 2.45 ERA in 92.0 innings. He followed that up with 81.2 second-half innings with a 2.20 ERA. His 2.33 ERA on the season was second in the American League to Felix Hernandez and earned him a sixth-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting.
That promise of 2010, in retrospect, may have set Buchholz up to provide Red Sox fans with a half-decade of disappointment and frustration. He missed most of 2011 with a stress fracture in his back. Before his injury, he had a 3.48 ERA in 82.2 innings. He was mostly healthy the following season in 2012, but only managed a 4.56 ERA (92 ERA+) in 189.1 innings. That remains the most innings he has thrown in a single major league season.
In 2013, he made his second career All-Star team with a 1.71 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 84.1 first half innings. However, due to a neck strain suffered in June, Buchholz, for the second time, was unable to pitch in the All-Star game. That neck strain kept him out until September.
The next three seasons represent the pinnacle of health for Buchholz’s career, but also the pinnacle of his inconsistency. He had a 5.34 ERA in 2014, followed by a 3.26 ERA in 2015, and a 4.78 ERA in 2016. Lest you think those are fluky results-based statistical variations, his FIP was similarly volatile: 4.01 in 2014, 2.68 in 2015, 5.06 in 2016.
What should you take from all that? Well, other than that Clay Buchholz is inconsistent, I’m not really sure. Ben Buchanan at Red Sox blog Over The Monster wrote something of a eulogy for Buchholz in the middle of 2016 that contained the following summaries of his career to date:
We dreamed on his potential, celebrated his dramatic arrival, and excused his growing pains in 2008, looking forward to the great times to come. Those seemed to arrive in 2010 and the first half of 2011, but that began what has now become the classic Buchholz cycle: a year of excellence cut short by injury, followed by a horrible year where he just couldn’t get right. Rinse, repeat.Over The Monster
Ten enigmatic years as an average pitcher without a single truly average season to his name.
We’ll be glad to see him go, and glad to see it end after so much frustration.
Over The Monster
Even following and examination of Michael Saunders‘ Jekyll and Hyde first and second halves in 2016, Buchholz is the player in this series that truly earns the question, “who are you?” After posting a 5.91 ERA over 80.2 innings and 13 starts in the first half, he had a 3.22 ERA in the second half. The party-line explanation for that second-half success was that Buchholz began pitching exclusively out of the stretch.
Though 11 of his 19 second-half appearances came in relief, he was actually better as a starter. In his eight second-half starts, he threw 45.1 innings with a 2.98 ERA, 18.5 strikeout percentage, 8.2 walk percentage, and a 3.70 FIP.
Though he is on the wrong side of 30, his velocity has basically held steady throughout his career to this point, and has virtually been unchanged since 2012.
What has changed has been his pitch usage both over his career and over the course of 2016. First his career pitch usage:
Buchholz came into the league as a three pitch pitcher with a fastball, changeup, and curveball. Since, he has added a sinker and a cutter and now uses all five of those pitches in relatively equal proportion, and has done so basically since 2012. As a side note, it’s possible that the decline in velocity in 2012 is attributable, at least in part, to misclassification of cutters and sinkers as four seamers.
If we zoom in on Buchholz’s 2016 pitch usage, we can see another potential explanation for the change in results:
Around July, he began a process of simplifying his arsenal. First the sinker started disappearing (and the cutter did not speak out); then, Buchholz came for the cutter over the final two months. It may be wise to ignore the data from October, given that it comes from only one four-inning postseason start, so the death of the cutter may be overblown by the line extending that far. However, the sinker clearly seems to have taken a backseat to his other pitches. In other words, going to the stretch may not have only simplified Buchholz’s delivery, but also his arsenal.
Simple advice for a pitcher–evidenced by Rich Hill‘s ascendance–is to throw more of your pitches that work and, perhaps more importantly, fewer of the pitches that don’t. For Buchholz, the sinker clearly fits in the latter category.
Batting Average Against
Clearly, the sinker wasn’t really getting it done. Hitters hit over .300 off it in 2014 and 2015, and were nearly on pace to do the same again in 2016. He probably did well to phase it out. What we also get is potential evidence (or advice) against the one October start-fueled speculation that he was phasing out the cutter. Opposing hitters haven’t done much damage against that particular pitch, especially relative to the sinker. In short, expect Buchholz to be a four-pitch pitcher with the Phillies. Fastball, changeup, curve, cutter.
Buchholz seems to do a very good job at releasing all his pitches from nearly the same release point despite the fact that that particular point has changed considerably over the course of his career.
That article about Buchholz changing to pitch from the stretch linked to above also notes that there were some adjustments to his arm angle that went along with that. The evidence from PitchF/X is that, in the second half, Buchholz started throwing more over the top than he had in the first half.
In other words, there are enough changes to his profile over the course of 2016–repertoire, pitching from the stretch, arm angle–to lend credence to the idea that maybe something was fixed in the process. The Phillies, for their part, are likely gambling that those changes in results are, indeed, attributable to some underlying changes. Regardless, surrendering a near non-prospect like Josh Tobias on that theory is a low risk bet.
First: Buchholz threw a no-hitter in his second career major league start. He is one of two pitchers to accomplish a no-hitter in his first two major league starts, joining Wilson Alvarez who threw a no-hitter in his second career start with the Chicago White Sox in 1991.
Second: Howard Eskin can not spell his name correctly:
— Howard Eskin (@howardeskin) December 20, 2016
— Howard Eskin (@howardeskin) December 20, 2016
— Howard Eskin (@howardeskin) February 14, 2017
Two things have plagued Buchholz throughout his major league career: injuries and inconsistent performance. Regarding injuries, it’s hard to be too optimistic regarding his ability to stay healthy given that something comes up seemingly every year. It’s certainly possible that pitching from the stretch and changing his arm angle will help in that regard, but there is no evidence to actually indicate that. Last year, the Phillies took two chances on veterans with injury histories–Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton–and went one for two. The odds feel similar with Buchholz.
I’ve spent the last couple sections trying to find a compelling explanation for Buchholz’s second-half resurgence in 2016. And, while there is pretty clear evidence that there were changes that coincided with his improved performance, the sample is simply too small to confidently conclude that they caused the improvement.
Buchholz will likely slot in somewhere in the middle or back of the Phillies rotation to open 2017. By all reports as well as looking at his PitchF/X profile, it’s clear he still has the sort of stuff that made him effective at various points in his career. So, if all breaks right, it’s entirely possible he ends up being the best pitcher in the rotation. However, as Ben Buchanan noted at Over The Monster, we’ve never seen a median outcome for Buchholz. On the whole, he’s about an average pitcher, but, in any single season, he’s either well above or below average.
At age-32, it’s unlikely the Phillies view Buchholz as a long-term cog in their rebuilding machine, so, if he puts together one of those well above-average first halves, he could be a trade chip (along with Hellickson, Saunders, and Howie Kendrick) and make room for someone like Jake Thompson or Zach Eflin. If he doesn’t pitch well, then he could get his sorry self out of the way to make room for someone like Jake Thompson or Zach Eflin. Either way, the medium-term outlook for Buchholz is that he will get out of the way and make room for someone like Jake Thompson or Zach Eflin.