Things went a bit differently for Clay Buchholz's last start. This was a pitcher who had given up at least five runs in every outing to that point, was leading the league in runs allowed, had already surpassed his 2010 total for homers allowed, and had just one more strikeout than walk. He had been an absolute disaster, but against the Indians, he was able to hold his own long enough to escape with a win he actually deserved.
Well, sort of. Buchholz pitched effectively, in the sense he kept runs off of the board. But the why behind that success is something that is a bit elusive. He struck out zero hitters, and walked three. He had more ground outs than air outs (10 to five) but overall saw an even distribution of batted balls, with 13 grounders and 13 fly balls. None of those fly balls landed in the seats, though, and he was able to scatter the eight hits he allowed in a way that held the Indians to three earned runs.
It was an improvement over what came before, but that's not the Buchholz we've seen him as before. Still, there were some encouraging signs to take from the outing, ones we hope to see again Wednesday night against the Rays, albeit with additional improvement.
Buchholz traditionally starts the year out much slower than he ends it in terms of velocity. In late April of 2011, Red Sox Beacon ran a story discussing this very problem, and it included a chart from former Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x guru (and current Houston Astros employee) Mike Fast detailing the rise in his velocity throughout the years:
This data was adjusted to compensate for the differences in various PITCHf/x systems in different parks, so this is a normalized and accurate look at how hard Buchholz actually threw throughout the year. At the end of 2010, he was regularly around 95 mph, but at the start of 2011, well, it looked a lot like the start of 2012.
It would be nice to know what it was that Bobby Valentine said to Clay Buchholz during his irritated-looking visit in the first inning of that tilt against the Indians, as from about that time forward, Buchholz not only started to pitch more effectively, but also saw his velocity rise. From Brooks Baseball's game logs:
In the last third of his outing, his velocity tailed off a bit again (as velocity tends to do the more pitches one throws), but there is a clear spike (as well as the use of other offerings besides his fastballs) that begins after 16 pitches or so. By the middle of the game, his fastball had topped out over 94 miles per hour, when the first set of them in the first inning all sat closer to 92. It's not a massive shift, but you can see above that it's there.
Buchholz needs that kind of extra life on his fastball in order to get the movement and subsequent grounders that it's meant to induce. While he's still been able to induce grounders even with his struggles, he's left too many pitches up -- more than usual -- and hasn't broken the 50 percent grounder barrier yet, as he has in every season besides 2008. He would be able to put up with the homers, as he did in 2011, were he still able to miss bats with his stuff.
The lack of change-up command he's displayed to this point makes things difficult. In 2010 and 2011, the change was by far his most-effective swing-and-miss offering, as it was roughly two standard deviations above the average for inducing whiffs. None of his other pitches were even remotely useful in that regard, as their primary function was to force the hitter into weak contact thanks to the late -- and very significant -- movement on them.
This year, the change-up is inducing more swings-and-misses than any other offering besides his curve, except he's thrown the bender nearly 100 times more. In addition to that, he's only throwing the change-up for a strike 54 percent of the time -- the pitch still has its movement, but he can't locate it to make it do what it's capable of. Instead of forcing the issue, Buchholz has used his curve, an inferior pitch, far more often.
He's also struggled with his cutter, as it has gone from a pitch that was well above-average at forcing grounders into one that is just an average cutter. It's also being fouled off at an alarming rate, suggesting Buchholz isn't getting the kind of fooling movement on it that he has in other years. As the cutter is the pitch he's thrown the second-most, that's problematic, and one of the reasons he's had trouble putting hitters away. While much of the Red Sox staff has settled down in two-strike counts, Buchholz is still nearly 200 percent worse than average in those counts.
That's a long list of things that need tending to. His velocity looks like it began to climb, but whether it was a one-start thing, a hot gun at Fenway, or the beginning of his being able to throw like he's able, we'll know a little more about after tonight. He has no command of his change-up, but when he's able to put it where he wants it, it remains effective. His cutter has been his downfall rather than the key pitch it's been in the past, and his reliance on his curve has helped keep him afloat in 2012, but is possibly a long-term issue given he has better pitches in his arsenal -- when they work, anyway.
Essentially, we've only seen half of Buchholz this year. His lack of command has driven his walk rates up, and also kept him from punching out the opposition. He needs to reverse that trend while keeping the ball on the ground to stay as productive as the 2009-2011 seasons suggest he should be, when he had a 142 ERA+ and grounder tendencies that made his 1.9 K/BB acceptable rather than problematic. While he's talented, his particular style of pitching is something of a tight-rope act at times, and right now, he's slipped and looks like he's about to fall. Whether he can pull himself back up is something we'll just have to watch for.