Will the Real Clay Buchholz Please Stand Up

April 8, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) pitches during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Tonight a Mr. Clay Buchholz will take the mound for the Boston Red Sox. Not the Clay Buchholz mind you, but a Clay Buchholz. The Clay Buchholz, the rising star of the Red Sox pitching staff who posted the highest ERA+ (187) in all of baseball in 2010 is sadly MIA. The man who takes the mound tonight is not the man whose devastating change up was named the best off-speed pitch in our Best Tools series this off-season. No, the Clay Buchholz who takes the mound tonight shares the same name, the same visage and so far as I know, the same fingerprints, but he is not the same pitcher. Sorry for any confusion this may cause.

Prior to landing on the DL with a stress fracture in his back, Clay Buchholz featured a powerful mix of ground ball stuff and the ability to miss bats. He got swinging strikes 9.3% of the time from 2009-2011, a rate comparable to Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright. His best weapon was a killer change up that produced whiffs 22% of the time. His cutter and his fastball were also high effective at getting batter’s to miss; his cutter (sometimes classified as a slider) had a 10.2% whiff rate and his four seam fastball had a 4.6% whiff rate. Since returning, that Clay Buchholz has yet to make an appearance.

The stress fracture does not seem to be an issue for Buchholz and his fastball velocity (91.9) is pretty close to his career norm (93.4) and that small dip is typical of his early season velocity. However, right now Clay Buchholz is a very different pitcher. His swinging strike rate is down to just 5.6% which is in the Brad Penny/ Joel Pineiro range. His change is getting just 6.8% whiffs, his cutter 5.3% and his four seamer just 1.8%.

The results are not the only signs of this dramatic change. As this chart illustrates (data care of Texas Leaguers)-

FF Spin Rate

FF- X*

FF-Z

FF Whiff Rate

CH Spin Rate

CH-X

CH-Z

CH Whiff Rate

FC Spin rate

FC-X

FC-Z

FC Whiff Rate

CU Spin Rate

CU-X

CU-Z

CU Whiff Rate

Clay Buchholz 2009-11

2,281

-6.48

9.06

4.60%

1,336

-2.92

6.76

22.00%

1,405

0.53

6.93

10.2

1,781

6.52

-8.53

7.10%

Clay Buchholz 2012

1,965

-4.99

8.43

1.80%

982

-0.5

5.35

6.80%

1,374

1.73

6.58

5.30%

2,044

9.01

-8.85

14.10%

Difference

316

-1

1

2.80%

354

-2

1

0

31

-1

0

10

-263

-2

0

0

*X denotes Horizontal movement, Z vertical movement

As the good people at Sons of Sam Horn noted recently, his spin rates are down for every pitch except his curveball. Both his change up and his fastball have lost movement to the arm side. His curve has slightly more drop and significantly more horizontal movement. Though he is throwing all of the same pitches, Clay Buchholz has been a very different pitcher in 2012.

His release point might provide some clues (also via Texas Leagers)-

Buchholz_release_points_2012_medium Buchholz_release_points_2011_medium

His release point is lower than in the past on all of his pitches. This may be a result of the small sample in 2012, but it does appear to a real trend. If it is, it could be an issue. Comparing this highlight video from his 2010 start with his start against the Yankees this year, it does appear that Buchholz has a decreased shoulder angle at the point of release. 2010 Buchholz has a high right shoulder and leans toward the first base side noticeably. This season the right shoulder is lower and he is more balanced over his plant foot. This could easily explain the reduced movement. If Buchholz is unable to get on top of the ball and produce the same torque, his pitches are naturally going to be less effective. (The SoSH thread on Buchholz also has a good set of photos on this care of Czar)

This explanation is problematic, however. If the adjustment has been made to reduce the chance of a repetitive motion injury, then simply increasing the tilt in his shoulders may not be an option. That may be the reason that he is changing his pitch usage pattern this season. Previously, Buchholz relied heavily on his four seamer and his change. This season he has dramatically increased the use of his cutter and his curveball. He previously threw his curve around 13% of the time, but this season he has used it almost 20%. He is throwing his cutter 24% of the time, after using it around 17% of the time previously. If his change up is no longer going to be elite out pitch, this new pitching style makes sense.

While the early results are not great, it is possible that Buchholz can reshape his pitching style and be as effective as he as been in the past. His curve has actually become a more effective out pitch with this change and his cutter is breaking away from his arm side even more. With the whiff rates the cutter has gotten in the past, it could be an extremely effective pitch if used correctly. Buchholz may be learning how to pitch differently right now and emerge from these early season difficulties as different, but equally effective pitcher.

Alternately, he could revert back to his original arm slot and regain the killer change up that we all know and love. There is no obvious reason to believe that his arm slot was the cause of his injury. If it was not, Buchholz will almost certainly return to it, since he was so successful with it. As he progresses through the season, it will be interesting to see which Clay Buchholz we are going to get going forward and what we can expect from him.


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