A Pitch f/x Look at Clay Buchholz

I've always been a huge, almost irrational, Clay Buchholz fan from his very beginnings.  Something about his combination of unhittable changeup and knee-buckling curveball has always appealed to me.  Since I've recently gotten a pitch f/x database set up, I wanted to dive into his pitches, not with a theory or agenda necessarily, but just to do something interesting while I learn how to work R.  I doubt that I'll be able to discover his secrets in such an amateur, unfocused study, but with my finals out of the way and spring break upon me, I decided to explore.  Most of this story will be told through charts and pictures with my much-less-effective commentary added on.  Note that, unless otherwise stated, all of this data will be drawn from 2010 only.

First a fast and dirty summary of Buchholz's 2010.  We all know about his sparkling 2.33 ERA, and most of us understand that regression is bound to hit him somewhat, due to his middling 6.22 K/9, 3.47 BB/9, and 4.20 xFIP.  He posted a very low .261 BABIP, 5.6 HR/FB%, an a high 79 LOB%.  But there is also hope, mostly based on his 9.4 SwStr%, squarely in Wainright-Sabathia-Verlander territory, along with the improvements in presence and maturity that we've all seen.  This is not going to be very future-looking post, but I do believe that he will get better skill-wise, though he has to regress results-wise.

A quick warning: this is pretty long, with quite a few graphs and charts.  All graphs are from the catcher's perspective, so left is inside to RHH.  I also encourage you to click through to the larger versions, they're much easier to read and interpret.

Buchholz's Pitches

By all accounts, Buchholz throws 5 distinct pitches.  A mid-90s four seamer, a low-90s two seamer, a high-80s slider, a low-80s changeup, and a high-70s curveball.  MLBAM distinguishes these pitches into 4 groups: fastball, slider, changeup, curveball.


From his pitch deflection chart (movement due to spin), we see that MLBAM does a pretty good job.  They don't categorize his two-seamer, but considering that his fastball ranges from 91-97 and has a very wide spread of movement, I think it's fair to say that it's missing a two-seamer.  Looking at the average velocities from pitch f/x, we get pretty much what we expected.  His fastball at 94.1, slider at 89.9, changeup at 82.0, and curveball at 78.3.  Also, I should note that his slider is not a prototypical slider  I will refer to it as a slider here, but it's almost like slider-cutter or slutter, whatever you feel like referring to it as.

Usage vs. All vs. R vs. L
Fastball 53.3% 53.1% 53.5%
Slider 19.6% 17.5% 21.5%
Changeup 18.5% 19.7% 17.6%
Curveball 9.0% 9.6% 7.4%

No huge changes in usage between batters here.  He throws his fastball a bit over 50% to both batters, leaning on his slider and changeup as his main offspeed pitches.  I was actually surprised, expecting him to use that curveball that he was so famous for more often, but it seems obvious that his changeup has more and more become his go-to pitch.

SwStr% vs. All vs. R vs. L
Overall 9.5% 12.1% 7.2%
Fastball 4.4% 6.0% 3.1%
Slider 11.1% 12.6% 10.1%
Changeup 22.9% 29.9% 16.4%
Curveball 8.1% 9.0% 7.1%

I think here we can see why the changeup has become his best pitch.  30% of changeups he threw ended up as swinging strikes.  We might be getting into SSS a bit, as no one has really done research on when SwStr rates stabilize.  We do, however, have a sample size of about 250 pitches for changeups vs. RHH, and K/PA become fairly reliable around 150 BF, and you'd think SwStr% would become reliable before that, etc. etc.  Either way, I think that it's fair to say that, especially against RHH, Buchholz has one of the elite changeups in the game.

CH SwStr% vs. All vs. R vs. L
Shaun Marcum (R) 28.3% 29.0% 28.0%
John Ely (R) 27.6% 27.9% 27.4%
Cole Hamels (L) 27.5% 27.5% 27.3%
Kris Medlen (R) 27.2% 26.1% 28.2%
Tim Lincecum (R) 26.3% 23.6% 27.6%
Dan Hudson (R) 23.1% 28.5% 19.7%
Clay Buchholz (R) 22.9% 29.9% 16.4%
Jorge De La Rosa (L) 22.1% 21.2% 25.9%
Hisanori Takahashi (L) 21.8% 21.2% 31.0%
James Shields (R) 21.3% 26.7% 17.7%

Here are the top 10 changeups by SwStr% in 2010 for pitchers with >300 changeups thrown.  The league average SwStr% is about 8.5%, while league average on changeups is about 14.0%.  There's already some interesting things here. Changeups seem to be divided into two main groups, those that are a lot more effective vs. same-handed hitters, and those that are more even (probably related to straight vs. circle vs. splitter changeups).  Buchholz's changeup isn't anything extraordinary against opposite-handed hitters, but it's one of the best against same-handed hitters.

Related to this is work done by Lucas Apostoleris.  In summary, Buchholz's change had the 3rd best whiff rate for pitches with 250+ swings, sitting at .462 behind only Hamel's change at .480 and Marmol's slider at .465.  What is even more remarkable is Buch's whiff rate in the zone, where his change gets a .413, best for 250+ swing pitches and ahead of #2 Hamel's change at .355.  That's a huge, amazing difference.  Buch's change's whiff rate is over 100 points higher than #10 Felix's change at .298.

Whiff% vs. All vs. R vs. L
Overall 20.7% 25.4% 16.4%
Fastball 9.9% 12.7% 7.2%
Slider 21.7% 23.9% 20.1%
Changeup 46.5% 57.7% 34.9%
Curveball 26.0% 26.2% 25.8%

Here's the whiff rates on all of Buch's pitches.  I got slightly different numbers than Lucas, but they can be pretty safely ignored (order of 0.2-0.3%).  Nothing particularly new here.  All his pitches are better vs. RHH, while his changeup absolutely dominates RHH while being much more mortal to LHH.  This does make me think that Buch could really benefit from developing a true cutter (as opposed to his mostly-slider-kind-of-cutter), as he could use a go-to pitch against LHH to compensate for the decreased effectiveness of his changeup.  And that he should throw his changeup even more against RHH.  Yes, of course it will get less effective, but if his changeup is that much more effective than his fastball by every metric, he should use it a lot more.


This is a pitch selection graph with the counts ordered by run expectancy.  I really wish I had the chops to try to parse out his 2-seamers are this point, as I think it would do a lot of enlightening.  But even here, there are some interesting trends.  First, Buchholz doesn't use his changeup much in 2-strike counts considering how good it is at drawing swinging strikes.  It seems that his change may act as an out-pitch but he really throws it in any count.  His slider is used is every count as well, but much more in the pitcher-friendly ones.  And his curveball is only really used in pitcher-friendly counts.  

I considered doing one of these for vs. L and vs. R, but they're pains to do and SSS starts to dominate in certain counts, so I didn't.  I did check a couple splits that I thought might be significant.  In 2-strike counts vs. RHH, he used changeups 19.6%, while vs. LHH he used it 13.3%.  In 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2 counts, he used it 20.6% of the time against RHH, 13.4% against LHH.  So he does use his change more like an out pitch against RHH.  Against LHH, he breaks out the slider to put people away, using it 34.4% in 2-strike counts and 37.6% in 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2 counts.  So basically, if you find yourself in a hole against Buch as a RHH, you'll see about 20% changes, 10% curves, and 20% sliders; if you're a LHH, you'll see about 13% changes, 9% curves, and 35% sliders.



And here are some nice pretty graphs of Buch's pitch locations vs. each hand.  We can see that he likes the outside corner vs. both hands, but especially lives on the outside for vs. LHH, almost to a fault, getting a lot of pitches outside of the zone.  He will come up and in on a RHH, which is a much more rare occurrence vs. LHH.  In fact, he's more willing to challenge RHH in the zone in general, while he almost seems scared to face LHH, nibbling off the edge as much as possible.  This works with what we've established earlier, by SwStr%, all of his pitches are better against same-handed hitters, which allows him to work in the zone and really challenge hitters to hit him.  But against opposite-handed hitters, he has to work much harder to draw swings on pitches out of the zone, as he can't rely on hitters missing in the zone as much.  

Also note that the strike zones draw are meant for reference, they are more-or-less rulebook strike zones, but we all know that the umpires don't call rulebook.  Actually, the research shows that umpires tend to give a much large outside corner to LHH, so perhaps Buch's strategy vs. LHH is the way to do it.

Zone% vs. All vs. R vs. L
Overall 42.8% 43.6% 42.0%
Fastball 43.7% 41.7% 45.3%
Slider 42.9% 44.8% 41.6%
Changeup 42.4% 48.2% 36.9%
Curveball 37.9% 43.4% 31.9%

A couple things that jump out at me.  That changeup zone% is huge vs. R, very little vs. L.  I think he knows how good his changeup is vs. right-handers, and therefore knows that he can go right at them.  Similar effect with the curveball.  My theory is that since his off-speed stuff plays up so well against RHH, he goes straight at the zone against them, freeing him up to use his fastball more out of the zone.  But against LHH, all his off-speed pitches are worse, so he attempts to catch hitters fishing much more often.  Since he isn't in the zone as much, he is therefore put into more bad counts and has to compensate by grooving fastballs more often.

Note that I don't know what exactly dimensions fangraphs uses for their zone%, so mine are a bit off.  I used -0.83 to 0.83 for the x side, and the exact marked dimensions of the y side (normalized to 1.66 and 3.42), all in feet.  I'm guessing that fangraphs gives a bit on the y-scale to account for the width of the ball, which is something I did on the x-side but not the y.  Everything should be pretty similar though.


Buchholz's Changeup

So now that I've pretty much done everything I can think of dealing with his pitches overall, I want to throw some stuff out regarding his changeup, probably one of my favorite pitches in baseball.  It's not really a changeup with a ton of tailing action, more of a straight change, and has a large velocity separation (11-13 mph) between it and his fastball.  I won't be doing this for any of his other pitches, but I wanted to go into at least one pretty in-depth.  We've already established its dominance vs. right-handers: he throws it pretty often, he throws it in the zone, and it's almost impossible to hit.  I can't really examine a lot of what makes it so effective, as so much comes from deception and other hard-to-see things, but that doesn't mean that I can't explore a little.  So let's dive in.



So, as we've established, against RHH he pounds the zone a lot, generally attempting to stay near the bottom-half.  Against LHH, he uses the outside corner, presumably setting the pitch up more on the plate then relying on the tailing, sinking movement to take it out into more unhittable areas.  We can already see how this meshes with our previous analysis, how his changeup is just so good against right-handers that he doesn't need to worry about hitting the corners, while against left-handers he has to work to try and draw swings out of the zone.  He gets better whiff rates against RHH even though he puts it in much more hittable places just because of how deceptive it is.



Pretty much what we expected.  It's pretty good at drawing swings down and away for both hitters.  Lots of swings away for LHH as well.



First, it's easy to see why Buch's change is so good at drawing whiffs against RHH.  Down and in, down, and away are all spots where hitters find it impossible to hit his changeup.  And these locations aren't even out of the strike zone.  Basically, as long as Buch keeps it down and away from the absolute center of the plate, no one's going to hit it.  

We also see why it isn't nearly as effective against LHH.  There aren't really any spots where it's dominant like it is against RHH.  Left-handers cover the outside part of the plate and most of the outside corner fairly well.  If he throws it down and out of the strike zone they're going to whiff, but they can make contact on most of the lower part of the strike zone as well.  It's just much harder to get swings and misses, even when he gets them fishing out of the strike zone.



Well these are some interesting plots.  First, some big disclaimers.  The data doesn't allow me to (easily) distinguish the results of each pitch if they're in play.  So these "In play, out(s)" don't tell us anything about the out.  It could be anything from a hard liner right at a guy, a weak groundout, a bunt, a fielder's choice, or even a baserunning error, outfield assist, or the ball hitting a baserunner.  There's a similar problem with "In play, run(s)", as I can't distinguish between sacrifice flys/grounders and hits.  Also, there's the BABIP problem that we get when we distinguish between outs and non-outs for balls in play.  Hopefully we can still look at these to get some information, but take everything with big grains of salt.

First, against RHH, almost every changeup that hitters even made contact with was either a foul or resulted in an out.  I'm sure that some of those outs were BABIP-luck related, but that's still pretty amazing.  Right-handers can't hit this pitch, and then even when they do they only manage to foul it away or make an out.  Even if you account for BABIP regression on some of those outs, that's still an extraordinary weapon against right-handers.

Against LHH it's not as pretty, but there is some good news.  Earlier we talked about how hitters were pretty good at covering down in the zone, but it turns out that all they're just good at fouling pitches off.  Sure it makes his change not much of an out-pitch, but fouls are still generally good things and he has his curve/slider to use in 2-strike situations.  It seems like there's some funny randomness going on for balls in play, with all the outs being in zone and all the non-outs being outside.  But this still shows that hitters are very good at putting even outside changeups into play.  On the other hand, changeups inside, though scarce, are looking better.  Most of them are swung at and hitters are good at making contact with them, but all they can seem to do is foul them off.  Big SSS issues, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if Buch started using more inside changeups vs. LHH.  It makes sense that for inside changeups, hitters would be ahead of them and end up pulling them too much, right?


And if any of you are still with me, it's time for the anti-climactic ending.  Basically, I've run out of ideas for graphs to draw, so I'm finished.  I do have a newfound appreciation for how much Buch's changeup just dominates right-handers, and I think that this is actually the driving force of his approach vs. lefties.  Without the dominant out-pitch he's used to, he ends up having to nibble against lefties, hoping for weak contact out of the zone.  He has a lot of room to improve vs. left-handed hitters; developing a cutter or some other pitch that's good against opposite-handed hitters could push him up to the next level.  It also leaves me wishing that Buchholz would throw his changeup against right-handed hitters even more.  It's just so unhittable that he really should be trying to take advantage of it more, especially in 2-strike counts.

I hope that you guys enjoyed this.  I think I'm going to have to avoid graphs in any form for a while, but it was a lot of fun to do.  And got me incredibly excited to watch Buchholz whiff some righties this season.  Only 2 more weeks until the season!

I would also like people to note that I am NOT any kind of pitch f/x or stats guy, I just happen to have a database and am interested in playing around.  Almost everything up there is me leeching off or copying other people's work.  In particular, Brian Mills heat-map technique was invaluable, giving me an easy and simple way of doing something very difficult and complicated.  

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