Too Early To Extend Clay Buchholz? Why The Red Sox Should Be Patient.

After the 2008 season, the Red Sox locked up three young players on multi-year contracts extending past their final arbitration years. Dustin Pedroia, the American League MVP and former Rookie of the Year, received a six-year, $40 million deal. Kevin Youkilis' breakout season was worth a cool $41 million over four years (that Youkilis is so close to free agency is, honestly, a bit surprising). And then there was Jon Lester, who had taken over the role of the team ace from Josh Beckett, picked up $30 million over five years.

Altogether, the three players have been worth 30.3 WAR over the past two seasons-this despite Youkilis and Pedroia missing significant portions of 2010-and show no real signs of slowing down. The Red Sox front office can pat themselves on the back for that offseason.

So why has Clay Buchholz not been extended a similar offer? Recently, the Boston Media has been abuzz with talk about the Sox' emerging ace, leading to the revelation that, no, the team has not been in contact with Clay's agent regarding an extension.

Personally, I'm not surprised.

The Numbers

It's no secret (at least around here) that Clay's 2010 was not necessarily all it was cracked up to be. Coming in second place in ERA in the American League? In front of a defense crippled by injuries? Against the American League East? It sounds pretty impressive, but the tiny 2.33 ERA belies higher peripherals. A 3.61 FIP? Still pretty ace-like. A 4.20 xFIP? Not so much.

That's not to say that Clay Buchholz will fall off a cliff next year. After all, we don't need to look any further than the aforementioned Jon Lester to see a pitcher with all the potential in the world pulling off a lucky season before bringing his peripherals down to his results instead of the other way around. In 2008, Lester had an ERA of 3.21, a FIP of 3.64, and an xFIP of 4.08. In 2009, the ERA took a slight bump, while the xFIP plumetted to 3.13.

Comparing Lester and Buchholz is actually pretty easy, too. They both had ace billing coming up through the minors, and regularly racked up more strikeouts than they pitched innings, though Lester's may come off looking a little more uneven surrounding his bout with lymphoma and recovery. In their respective "breakout" seasons, while both lived up to the ace ERA, their K/9 fell of to 6.50 for Lester and 6.65 for Buchholz.

Obviously, Lester's have bounced back, with his strikeout rate coming in second only to Tim Lincecum, who of course gets to face pitchers. The question is, will Buchholz'? There are some positive signs. Buccholz 72 batters in 76 innings back in 2008, so we know he can do it. His swinging strike rate remains the same, too, at around 9.5%. The difference seemed to be that batters are just making more contact when they swing at bad pitches-a development that has been attributed to the development of his 2-seam fastball. If anything, Buchholz has kind of been getting unlucky on his strikeout numbers, coming in well below guys who induce similar swing profiles-guys like C.C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander.

His walk rate might be another story. While his numbers were very low throughout the minor leagues, Buchholz relies heavily on his secondary stuff, which just doesn't work if you throw it for strikes too often. He has in the past thrown quite a few more strikes than he did in 2010, but that might not be too much of a problem for a guy like Buchholz. He induces plenty of ground balls, and when that changeup and curveball are on, they can both be absolute wipeout pitches.

Making A Deal

So, having explained why I don't expect Clay to be a one-hit wonder, why, then, is this non-extension no surprise? Well, consider what can happen over the next year. Is Clay's bargaining position going to get significantly stronger? After all, though he will be on the way to arbitration after 2011, agent Bobby Straface's job is just all-too-easy right now. By the old statistics, the closest comparison is Felix Hernandez, all of six points of ERA below Clay. That's the same Felix Hernandez who just picked up a five-year, $108 million extension from Seattle after just one year of arbitration.

Put the deal off a year, or even just a few months, and you have a couple of possible scenarios. Clay could come all the way down to Earth, looking like the #3 guy he was in 2009, and the Sox have avoided signing a good-not-great pitcher to a long-term deal when they can just enjoy the benefit of having a very cheap, solid guy for a few more years. Or he could turn out to actually be a Felix Hernandez or Tim Lincecum type, in which case the Sox aren't going to be that put out about adding a few million onto his deal for the added security. Most likely, though, is that Clay falls back to Earth some, is still very good, but has his price come down towards where a Jon Lester type contract is the better comparison.

Right now, the Red Sox are in pretty bad bargaining position. They can't be sure of what they have in Clay Buchholz until he pitches again, but unless Clay actually is a Greinke-type who knows the advanced statistics and what they say about him, the gulf between what the Sox will consider him to be worth and what he thinks he can do in 2011 will be wide enough that all the problems of arbitration will have to come up.

And this is Clay Buchholz we're talking about-a guy who had a lot of his 2010 success attributed to his ability to get out of his own head. What if the Sox come to the table and tell him he's mediocre because his strikeout rates are low? If Buchholz comes out and has a solid season with both ERA and peripherals around 3.50 or so, then both sides can write off 2010 as being a career season without really taking anything away from Clay's status as a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter-a much better environment to sign an extension in.

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