The Annual Clay Buchholz Speculation: 2011 Edition

It’s March again. And, for the third consecutive year, I am compelled to produce a piece asking what us fans might expect from Clay Buchholz this upcoming season. This installment, however, should bestow a more optimistic undertone for you, its readers. Rather than asking if this is the season Buchholz finally puts it all together, I will instead delve into the possibility that he repeat his positive performance from the season prior, when he did put it all together for the first time. Plus, as an added bonus, I’ll go on record and make a very public prediction of my own for what I think his 2011 numbers will look like for the first time in this article’s three-year history.

As the majority know, Spring Training appearances are hardly indicative of where a player stands developmentally heading into the season, especially in the case of a starting pitcher. However, it’s hard not to get a bit giddy glancing at Buchholz’s current numbers this spring (13 IP, 0.69 ERA) given the type of expectations he set for himself following his breakout season a year ago.

In 28 starts last season, Buchholz tallied a career-high 17 wins while losing just seven. His 187 ERA+ led the league and he became the first Red Sox pitcher to do so since Pedro Martinez accomplished the feat in 2003 (211 ERA+). That, combined with a 2.33 ERA that held firm towards the top of the American League throughout the entire season (ultimately finishing second), led to Clay’s first All-Star game appearance and a sixth place finish in the league’s Cy Young Award voting.

That breakout campaign a year ago produced an audible sigh of relief not only from Fenway’s faithful but its front office as well. The tall, lanky Buchholz finally had the type of year that warranted having kept him in Boston amidst constant murmurs regarding his inclusion in a package of players that could potentially land any of the big names that have circled the rumor mill the past few years. From Roy Halladay to Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox have been involved in nearly every big name available on the market recently and Buchholz has always been considered a likely centerpiece for any potential trade. However, Theo Epstein decided to stick with his high-ceiling right-hander despite an undeniable amount of fans and non-fans alike who had all but written Buchholz off.

It’s not entirely uncommon for a young pitcher in his third or fourth MLB season to have an unprecedented level of personal success for a single season before ultimately reverting back to their old selves, never to be heard from again. Will this be the case for Boston’s possible future staff ace or could this be the final season in which I even feel it necessary to ponder his potential production?

Now, I believe it’s only fair for me to begin this particular piece by offering the following admission: I tend to be relatively biased when it comes to discussions surrounding Clay Buchholz.

Not because -- outside of Jon Lester -- Clay is the only member of the club’s current starting staff that has yet to experience the prime of their career; not even because he pitches for the Boston Red Sox. Instead, it has more to do with the type of pitcher that Buchholz is and not the team that he pitches for.

There’s something about his repertoire of pitches and how he utilizes them to get batters out that has always fascinated me. As what you may consider an atypical baseball fan, I find myself more apt to being entertained by low-scoring, pitching-dominated affairs, not by 400-foot home runs and offensive slugfests. Similarly, pertaining to pitchers in particular, it’s those devastating off-speed offerings and perfectly executed pitching sequences that inspire me, not necessarily triple-digits on a radar gun or surreal strikeout totals.

That being said, it’s simple to see why I’m such an advocate of Clay Buchholz.

When he was first making a name for himself in Boston’s farm system, it was his curveball that garnered the most notoriety. In fact, multiple scouting publications and prospect reports are on record going as far as claiming that it was the best of any pitcher in the Red Sox’s organization -- one that, at the time, featured Josh Beckett. It’s not difficult by any means deciphering where such sensational claims stemmed from --  after all, when Buchholz made his big league debut at the age of 22, he caused even the most seasoned of hitters’ knees to buckle at the sight of his 12-6 breaker (picture Nick Markakis helplessly watching the final pitch of Buchholz’s no-hit game drop in for strike three).

And yet, at this point in his career it’s his changeup that is widely considered his most dominating pitch. As SB Nation member ThePanda points out in this FanPost entitled, A Pitch f/x Look at Clay Buchholz, Clay’s changeup ranks 7th overall in terms of highest swinging strike percentage at 22.9%, just behind the likes of Cole Hamels (27.5%, 3rd) and Tim Lincecum (26.3%, 5th).

Still, despite such a strong finish to 2009 that saw Buchholz go 5-0 while lowering his ERA from 5.02 to 3.21 during a string of six consecutive quality starts extending from August 29th to September 24th -- in addition to the entirety of his 2010 season -- you’d be amazed to find how many doubters still linger heading into 2011.

At the same time, you’d be at an undeniably severe statistical disadvantage in attempting to dispel the validity of those naysayers’ claims. After all, even Buchholz himself will tell you that his success last season wasn’t without an element of good fortune.

For instance, on "clutch ground balls" -- used to measure the batting average opposing hitters accrued when hitting the ball on the ground with two outs and runners in scoring position -- Buchholz surrendered just one hit in 28 at-bats for a batting average of .036 in 2010.

Could that be attributed to the types and successes of his "go to" pitches, namely the changeup and curveball? Perhaps.

Does a number like that, regardless of the pitcher or what’s in his arsenal, suggest an undeniable element of luck? Certainly.

Looking at the bigger picture, Buchholz also featured an atypically low batting average on balls put in play during the course of his 2010 breakout campaign. While that number (.263) may not be shockingly low relative to other successful major league pitchers, it is notably below the MLB average of .297.

Continuing a Sabermetric, statistically oriented approach, one look at Buchholz’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) number reaffirms the negative side of the argument that suggests the young right-hander is bound for regression.

FIP effectively measures only the results that a pitcher is directly responsible for -- home runs, strikeouts and walks -- and concocts an ERA-like number based on the results. Obviously, Buchholz’s 2.33 ERA suggests his level of play to be on par with the likes of 2010’s American League Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, who finished with a 2.27 ERA. However, his FIP (3.61), which ranked 13th, implies that he is more comparable to, say, C.J. Wilson or Ricky Romero -- both of whom finished with earned run averages more than a full run higher than Buchholz’s 2.33 mark.

Lastly, but perhaps most poignant to this discussion, is the decrease seen in Clay’s home run allowance last season. After collectively allowing a total of 24 home runs in 168 innings during his 2008-09 campaigns, Buchholz surrendered just a total of nine over 173+ innings in 2010.

Explaining that decrease in home runs allowed is a difficult task, which brings me to one last Sabermetric measurement: I offer a look inside Clay’s Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, or xFIP numbers. This, more or less, replaces a pitcher’s total of home runs allowed per fly ball with the league average and, again, produces an ERA-like number for comparative purposes.

Buchholz’s xFIP in 2010 was 4.20; 1.87 points higher than his ERA -- the most substantial variance amongst his peers that season.

If statistical history is any indication, Buchholz may incur a notable increase in his ERA this upcoming year. In fact, the last time a starting pitcher had a larger discrepancy than Clay’s 1.87 mark from last season was back in 2004 when Al Leiter amassed a 1.99 point difference (3.21 ERA, 5.20 xFIP). It’s worth noting that Leiter finished with a 6.13 ERA the following season in 2005.

Find it difficult relating to an Al Leiter comparison? Perhaps this one will hit closer to home: Daisuke Matsuzaka, circa 2008.

We all remember that year. As fans, we watched Daisuke tip-toe his way around base runners all season (even leading the American League in walks) like a tedious two-step dance with baseball death en route to a [surprisingly] aesthetically appeasing 2.90 ERA and 18-3 record.

The 1.80 difference between Daisuke’s ERA and xFIP (4.70) that season is the third-largest in all of baseball since 2002, just behind Buchholz’s 1.87 mark from a year ago. Unfortunately, just as vivid as the memories of his 2.90 ERA in ‘08 are in the minds of Red Sox fans is the number he posted the following season -- 5.76.

So, is it safe to say that Buchholz’s control of the long ball last season was merely a result of luck and that it will inevitably catch up to him in 2011, leading to disappointing results?

In my admittedly biased opinion, it’s unlikely -- not on a Daisuke-like level, anyway.

It’s no secret that much of Buchholz’s appeal as he skyrocketed through the Red Sox’s minor league ranks was caused by an impressive ability to strike hitters out in masses. It’s also pretty common knowledge that last season, by far the most productive to this point in his career from a statistical standpoint, saw a rather severe dip in his strikeout totals per nine innings pitched. Despite a career low mark of 6.2 K/9, Clay flourished in 2010 -- something he maintains was by design.

"[Strikeouts] are fun," said Buchholz in an interview last September. "Any time you get two strikes on someone, you want to strike them out. You can only strike them out when you have two strikes. You can’t strike them out before then. That’s the way I started thinking about it. Throw to contact early and if you get two strikes, try to finish them."

Aside from an evident progression from a mechanical point of view, it’s quotes such as that last one that suggest an evenly important growth in his maturation as a pitcher; a self-induced alteration of his mentality on the mound, which, all numbers aside, could prove to be the most influential evolution in the development of Buchholz’s game.

Finding comparable careers to that of Buchholz’s is not an easy task. Rarely does a pitcher enter the league in his early 20’s and incur such an inordinate amount of immediate success, then proceed to struggle so mightily (2008-09, 9-13, 5.35 ERA) before returning to his previously dominant form as Clay did last season.

Recently, the name Roy Halladay was used synonymously with Clay Buchholz relative to early career success -- seemingly due to the fact that, like Buchholz, Halladay’s first full professional season as a starting pitcher at the MLB level came at the age of 25, and with similar results.

The flaw in that comparison is that Roy Halladay, outside of a dismal 2000 season, never truly met adversity at the big league level, reaffirming the near-unanimous opinion that the future Hall of Famer [Halladay] is simply on a level of his own -- a level Clay Buchholz could only prematurely be placed on.

With that in mind, I offer this comparison instead: Zack Greinke.

I have always considered the two -- Greinke and Buchholz -- to be eerily comparable in more ways than one.

Aside from an obvious shared stature -- both 6’2"-6’3" and weigh in around 190 lbs -- the two right-handers have considerably correlative pitch repertoires. Like Buchholz, Greinke uses a mid-90’s fastball that serves as a compliment to his well-above average array of off-speed options, namely a 12-6 curveball and overwhelmingly effective changeup.

Sound familiar?

The similarities don’t end there.

Both have been said to, at least early in their careers, have a tendency to surrender the long ball then proceed to nitpick the strike zone as a result, often leading to a negative snowball effect on the mound. We’ll dig deeper into that in just a second. First, let’s take a look at a brief summary of Greinke’s first few MLB seasons in relation to Buchholz’s.

Zack Greinke made his major league debut in 2004 at the age of 20. He enjoyed high levels of success relative to a pitcher his age, going 8-11 with a respectable 3.97 ERA en route to winning the American League’s Rookie of the Year honors. Like a 22-year-old Clay Buchholz would just three years later (2007) following a no-hitter in just his second career start, Zack Greinke would make a name for himself at the big league level at a very young age.

The celebration would prove brief for Greinke, just as it would for Buchholz after him.

The following season (2005), Greinke tallied an astounding 17 losses and watched as his ERA ballooned to 5.80.

From 2006-2007, Greinke struggled to find his role at the big league level as he fought through a bout with social anxiety disorder and depression off the field. He started just 14 games in those two seasons, going 8-7 while seeing a good majority of his work out of the bullpen as a reliever. Just as Buchholz would following his no-hit heroics, Zack Greinke had met his first large-scale obstacle at the major league level.

Now, allow me to transition back to my earlier sentiments regarding both pitchers’ susceptibility to surrendering the home run. Let’s compare the numbers from the aforementioned successive seasons in which each pitcher encountered their worst struggles on the mound and how their HR/9 numbers relate.

‘05-06 Zack Greinke: 6-17, 189.3 IP, 5.75 ERA, 1.3 HR/9

‘08-09 Clay Buchholz: 9-13, 168 IP, 5.35 ERA, 1.3 HR/9

 

In 2008, at the age of 24, Greinke righted the veritable ship that was his career as a starting pitcher, going 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA, much like Buchholz did during the second half of his own 24-year-old season in 2009.

Finally, a look at each of their 25-year-old seasons -- which resulted in both of their first All-Star game appearances as well as the best statistical years of their respective careers -- effectively puts the stamp on the comparison.

‘09 Zack Greinke (age 25): 16-8, 2.16 ERA, 0.4 HR/9

‘10 Clay Buchholz (age 25): 17-7, 2.33 ERA, 0.5 HR/9

 

For those of you still intently following my logic, assuming you agree with it in the first place, it seems only fitting to use Greinke’s 26-year-old numbers from a season ago in an attempt to do a bit of foreshadowing surrounding our expectations for Buchholz in 2011.

2010 Zack Greinke (age 26): 10-14, 4.17 ERA, 0.7 HR/9

*2011 Clay Buchholz (age 26): 14-8, 3.54 ERA, 0.8 HR/9

 

*Based on The Bill James Handbook: Projections 2011

 

It appears as though Bill James and I are like-minded relative to our expectations for Clay Buchholz in 2011. While I consider the parallels between Buchholz and Zack Greinke as pitchers to be rather conspicuous, I do believe that Clay is in a better position to succeed in his 26-year-old season than Greinke was during his -- which would be exemplified by the .219 difference in W-L% and 0.63 contrast in ERA if Bill James’ projections prove accurate.

All comparisons aside, Clay Buchholz appears ready to assume the role of a reliable major league starting pitcher in 2011. While he won’t be afforded the luxury of "sneaking up" on teams as a result of his 2010 showing, it would be logical to believe that the extra year of experience and increased level of maturity should supersede his newfound reputation around the league.

So, while I agree with his xFIP numbers and other Sabermetric measurements that forcefully suggest an inevitable regression, I don’t believe it will be of perturbing proportions.

 

Without further a due, and for the first time since I started my annual Buchholz-speculation article, I risk public ridicule by offering a prediction of my own for Clay Buchholz's 2011 stat-line:

*2011 Clay Buchholz: 28-2, 0.23 ERA, -0.2 HR/9

What can I say? You were warned of the bias.

 

 

 

*These predictions are in no way endorsed by the entire Over the Monster staff, collectively.

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