Boston, MA, USA; Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy (left) rounds the bases after hitting a home run off Boston Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) during the first inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE
It has not been a pretty start to the season for Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz. In six games, he's averaged just over 5-1/3 innings per start, and had to be taken out before reaching 100 pitches in his last two. He has yet to give up fewer than five runs in an appearance, and his 10 homers allowed represents as many as he gave up in 14 starts and 82 innings in 2011, and one more than in all of his 173 innings of 2010.
His fastball has been flatter and fatter, his best pitch -- his change-up -- a non-factor in both performance and usage, replaced by a curve ball that has been closer to mediocre than great for a few years now. This isn't a hindsight thing, either, says this Spring Profile on Buchholz from March 23 of this year. There was a very real chance that relying on the curve was going to be problematic:
Buchholz used the curve more back when he wasn't great at attacking hitters, when he was less aggressive with them. If he can figure out a way to utilize it more often without sacrificing the efficient plan of attack he's already succeeded with, then by all means, throw more benders. But if more curves means longer plate appearances, more balls, and more hitter's counts that Buchholz has to fight back from, then it should continue to be the pitch he features the least often.
Coincidentally, the talk today is about how the 2012 version of Buchholz is a similar disaster to the 2008 one, who saw success and then had it all vanish as the opposition adjusted. He's supposedly healthy, despite the mention of blisters, and the awful performances. His fastball velocity is down, but that's nothing new for this time of year with Buchholz, and his location is far more of an issue, anyway. What, then, is the problem? Not the results -- the hittable pitches, the missed targets -- but the source. That's something that no one seems to be able to pinpoint right now, especially since Buchholz mixes quality innings in with the terrible.
It's hard to tell simply by looking back, as letdowns like this haven't happened very often, a fact Brian MacPherson reminds us of. The one case which comes to mind is that of Brian Matsusz, although he never had Buchholz's success in the majors, either. He was a highly-regarded prospect, though, one with loads of potential, and after a strong second half made him a prospective breakout candidate in 2011, he instead set a record for the worst homer rate with at least 10 games started in the history of this old game.
Matusz didn't fix his issues in 2011, and even though he's been better in 2012, it's too early to say he's put that season behind him. No one is quite sure what to do with Buchholz just yet, whether letting him continue to pitch in the majors is better than finding a way to send him to the minors, but something will have to be figured out soon. Hopefully, that something involves change-ups with location, and not losing the useful Buchholz we knew.
There's no definite timetable on when Kevin Youkilis will return from his injury, so as of now it's hard to say if Will Middlebrooks will only be up for two weeks, or if Youkilis' back will require more out of the rookie third baseman. Youkilis is making progress, though, according to Ian Browne:
"Youk's going to start a walking program today," said manager Bobby Valentine. "I mean, he's walking. But as they explained it to me, [he'll be moving] probably backward and forward and getting into the pelvic movement that's needed. He's progressing. He'll stay back and not come with us [to Kansas City], because he doesn't need the plane ride for his back and he has rehab being done here."
Middlebrooks has been hitting, and as long as he continues to do that, there's no need to rush Youkilis back. A healthy Youkilis is generally a productive one, and the Red Sox could use him healthy.
Blake Swihart discussed his most significant challenge in his first full year of professional baseball. Given he's a catcher, the answer isn't that surprising: it's the grind of the season. Tim Britton explains:
Swihart needs to put in about as much daily work as any baseball player can, juggling the duties of catching and switch-hitting. His hands already bear the scars of that work: Less than a month in the season, they look like they lost a battle with a belt sander, with calluses popping up here and there. Part of that's the catching, and part of that is Swihart's lifelong refusal to wear batting gloves, which he's never found comfortable.
Swihart was widely-considered one of Boston's better prospects, but as a catcher who is also a switch-hitter, there are going to be growing pains. Right now, he's hitting .180/.240/.270 as a 20-year-old in the Single-A Sally, but he's also shown solid strike zone recognition, with just 14 punch outs in 100 plate appearances. Add to that his eight walks, and you see the start of a strong infrastructure underneath his lowly early-season batting line.
He'll have time to improve, given his youth and inexperience. The Red Sox tend to be patient with their players who need time, too, and between Jarrod Saltalamacchia and next-in-line Ryan Lavarnway, there's no real rush to get Swihart moving through the system unless he starts to kill the ball.