Buchholz’s initial outing indicative of what’s to come?

After a strong finish last year, pitcher Clay Buchholz’s initial appearance this spring did little to reaffirm fans of their high expectations for the 25-year-old entering the season.

Facing former no-hit victim and American League East division foe, the Baltimore Orioles, Buchholz surrendered three runs (all earned) on five hits, while walking a pair and striking out one during his two innings of work.

However, such as the case in most instances, statistics alone fail to tell the entire story -- a fact not lost on Buchholz himself; "First outing of the spring, [I was] a little jumpy on a couple of pitches," Buchholz said. "Other than that I felt like I had good stuff; good movement on my two-seamer. Changeups, when I threw them right, were good. And I threw a couple of good curveballs. I just have to put it all together. It’s really early in spring for me. I’ve got a couple more outings before we think it’s anything bad."

This season, much like the last, has been billed as Buchholz’s breakout campaign -- and elevated expectations for Clay Buchholz extend beyond those who comprise Red Sox Nation.

Speaking on Buchholz’s attempt at securing a spot in the starting rotation for the onset of the regular season, Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, "I think we all want him to take this and go with it. And he looks so strong."

With all that being said; Is the promising young pitcher -- so highly touted for his potential upside -- doomed for yet another year of inconsistency, or will 2010 finally see the complete realization of that potential?

Prior to debuting with the Boston Red Sox in August of 2007, Clay Buchholz was no stranger to success on the baseball diamond. A standout while pitching for Angelina College, Buchholz was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in round one (42nd overall) with the team’s supplemental draft pick -- obtained when Pedro Martinez signed with the New York Mets following the 2004 season.

Aided by an exceptionally advanced arsenal of pitches, it took little time for Buchholz to shoot up through the Red Sox’s minor league system and establish himself as one of the organization‘s most promising prospects. While he is best known for his devastating 12-6 curveball, which has been labeled the best in the entire organization, it may in fact be in his changeup that is his most effective pitch -- an accurate indication of the talent and potential possessed by Buchholz.

Facing unrefined minor league hitters with such an advanced repertoire of secondary pitches, Buchholz was able to excel without having developed a fastball that sufficiently complimented his various off-speed options -- a necessity at the major league level.

During a short stint with the Red Sox in 2007 -- which famously included a no-hitter in just his second MLB start -- Buchholz was extremely effective, to put it mildly. After beginning 2008 in a similar fashion to the way that he started the year prior, dominating the minor leagues, Buchholz was recalled to Boston -- only this time with different results.

In 2008, Buchholz’s dependency on off-speed pitches became more apparent to the rest of the league, and without enough confidence in his fastball to effectively set them up with, they were rendered useless. As hitters around the league adapted, Buchholz did not. The decrease seen in the percentage of fastballs thrown by Clay from 2007 to 2008 (dropping from 52.9% to 47.4%) was only paralleled by his diminishing effectiveness -- ultimately resulting in demotion.

Buchholz’s emergence as a dependable starter towards the end of 2009 is the likely source for increased optimism this season. In six September starts last year, Buchholz posted a 4-1 record to go along with a 2.90 ERA. Not coincidentally, the percentage of fastballs thrown in 2009 increased 7.4% from his struggle-laden 2008 campaign.

Last week’s start against the Orioles, his first of the spring, brings validity to the universally high expectations for Buchholz this season.

Buchholz vs. Orioles (3/7): 2 IP, 3 R, 3 ER, 5 H, 1 HR, 2 BB, 1 K

 

How does a line like that offer a positive outlook for 2010? The answer becomes clear upon closer examination of Buchholz’s outing.

Buchholz started the game off quickly, getting Adam Jones to hit a weak fly ball on a perfectly located first-pitch fastball. He then got ahead of Ty Wigginton in the count with another well-located first-pitch fastball, before inducing a weak fly ball to left field for the second out.

Enter adversity (in this instance, the role of adversity will be played by Orioles’ slugger Nick Markakis).

Catcher Victor Martinez again called for a fastball to start the at-bat spotting his glove low and away from Markakis -- a spot that Buchholz drilled for a called strike. Pitch number two was another fastball low and away -- again Clay hit his spot -- this time getting Markakis to foul it back for strike two. Martinez again opted to go with the same pitch, only this time middle-in to the left handed hitter. Buchholz’s third straight fastball was even a little bit further off the plate in comparison to where it was originally intended -- normally a good "waste pitch" given the circumstances -- this ball, however, was deposited over the right field wall by Markakis.

What did he do wrong? The answer is: Nothing.

Nonetheless, he was visibly shaken; vintage Buchholz circa 2008.

With Miguel Tejada now at the plate and an opportunity to show the ability to recover, Buchholz did nothing of the sort. Instead, he walked Tejada on seven pitches. Of those seven pitches, four were fastballs. Of those four fastballs, three weren’t even close.

Now with an all too familiar feeling of impending doom, in stepped Matt Wieters. After jumping ahead of Wieters 0-1 with a called strike, Buchholz then proceeded to bounce a breaking ball followed by three straight fastballs that missed the plate badly, walking his second straight hitter.

At this point in the seemingly unavoidable meltdown, Victor Martinez had seen enough to know that his young pitcher needed to slow down, and so he took a trip to the mound.

After the visit, Buchholz quickly jumped ahead of Luke Scott with two called strikes, before spinning an impressive curveball getting Scott to fly out to shallow right field for the third and final out. Despite wiggling out of the jam with minimal damage, Buchholz had seemingly referred back to his old ways as all three pitches to Scott were of the off-speed variety; not a good sign.

Buchholz’s frame in the bottom of the second inning doesn’t look like much of an improvement from the first on paper -- two earned runs on four hits -- but surprisingly, it was.

With Garrett Atkins batting, Buchholz starts off with two straight fastballs; the latter missing terribly and the former evening the count at 1-1 on a called strike. Atkins then roped the next pitch, a perfectly placed curveball, down the left field line for a leadoff stand-up double.

Miguel Abreu then took the first pitch he saw, another fastball, and served it into the outfield putting runners on the corners with nobody out.

Next was Cesar Izturis who tapped a well-located fastball to the right side of the infield; the infielders couldn’t make a play anywhere, and it was ruled an RBI single.

The lineup turns over as Adam Jones digs in, now with runners at first and second and still nobody out. After mixing up his first four pitches, Buchholz threw a 2-2 darting fastball with a ton of movement to the outside corner of the plate and low in the zone (hitting Martinez’s spot directly) -- a perfect pitch -- yet, one that Jones somehow poked up the middle for an RBI single.

The score was now 3-0. There were still two runners on base, and still nobody out in just the second inning. For only having retired a total of three hitters in the game, Buchholz’s pitch count was abnormally high. But with circumstances at their most dire, this is where we first catch a glimpse of the new and improved Clay Buchholz.

Despite the fact that his last fastball was the best one he had thrown all day and it still resulted in an RBI single, Buchholz again leads off with the pitch to Wigginton. After a deep breath, Buchholz again located the pitch to perfection, only this time it was hit softly to third where Jed Lowrie turned a routine 6-3 double play.

Enter redemption (fittingly, the part of redemption will again be played by Nick Markakis).

Seemingly sporting a newfound confidence in the pitch that he had so often deserted in similar situations prior to this one, Buchholz confidently started the sequence off with two well-located fastballs on the outside half of the plate -- freezing Markakis with both, and again jumping ahead in the count 0-2. After Markakis spoiled another great curveball, Buchholz blew a final fastball past the bat of Markakis to stop the bleeding. He didn’t just punch him out, he made Markakis look bad.

The first inning was an accurate depiction of Buchholz’s career to this point. The moment he was faced with adversity, he became shaken; nibbling the corners with his fastball and creating self-induced turbulence.

However, the second inning is one that should offer a bit of foreshadowing into what fans can expect from Buchholz this season. After surrendering a couple hits to Izturis and Jones despite making good pitches, Buchholz settled down and proceeded to escape the situation with limited damage -- even relying on his fastball in doing so. In fact, 65% of Buchholz’s 37 pitches on the day were fastballs. While that number is heavily influenced by the fact that it was his first spring training outing, the success he had while relying on the pitch towards the end is a cause for excitement. His newfound confidence in the pitch was noticeable.

If Buchholz can continue gaining confidence in his fastball, his already advanced off-speed pitches will feed off of it, and vice-versa -- and in that scenario, Red Sox fans need not worry about being disappointed.

Next up for the Red Sox: Watch as Clay Buchholz gets the start today against the Pittsburgh Pirates, 1:05 p.m. ET, Fort Myers, FL.

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