BOSTON, MA: Clay Buchholz #11 of the Boston Red Sox smiles as he comes off the mound at the end of the fourth inning of the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
It's hard to believe anything has gone right for Clay Buchholz this season if you look at his overall stats. The right-hander owns a 5.77 ERA, second-worst of his career, is striking out a career-low 5.6 batters per nine, features his loftiest walk rate since 2008, and the worst K/BB of his six seasons. While he has a 6-2 record, much of that has had to do with the offense behind him, with the Red Sox averaging over 10 runs per start for Buchholz.
Things have been different as of late, though. It started with a rather unassuming start against the Indians on May 11, in which Buchholz allowed just three earned runs while striking out none and walking three over 6-1/3 innings. It doesn't sound like much, but with how terrible he had been, it -- sadly -- was something to build on, especially since he gave up zero homers. The long ball had been his downfall to that point, even more so than his awful command.
He has built on it since, though, helping to justify a little of the optimism that seemed out of place following a start as uninspiring as the Cleveland one. In his last five starts, Buchholz owns a 2.88 ERA, on the strength of 6.8 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine, more grounders than fly balls, and just three homers allowed in his last 34-1/3 innings, compared to 10 in his first 39.
In his last start, Buchholz threw a complete-game shutout on 125 pitches. He struck out six, walked one, kept the ball in the park, and scattered four hits. It was a dominating and consistent effort, one in which both his change-up and curveball were used effectively, and thrown for strikes of both the swing-and-miss and looking variety. That's been the major change for him in the last month, overall: his change-up is back, and his curve has finally come around as a useful pitch.
Buchholz threw just 82 change-ups in his first 39 innings, and only eight of those brought on a swing-and-miss. His curve was his top whiff pitch, but it was right around the average -- it wasn't doing anything special, and he was relying on it too much in that sense. He has thrown 92 change-ups in the 34-1/3 innings since, and with markedly better results: the off-speed offering has more than twice as many swings-and-misses on it, with 20 of the 92 striking nothing but air. It's forcing hitters to swing more often overall, too, as he's been locating it and sequencing it better as of late, and the extra velocity on it (it's about 1.5 mph faster as of late) hasn't hurt, either.
Whereas just 10 percent of his plate appearances ended in strikeouts to begin the year, that's been the top outcome in his last five starts, with 19 percent of batters faced set down via the K. It's not just the change-up seeing better results, though, as his cutter has been fouled off less and missed more, as well. As Buchholz shelved his useful low-80s slider to convert it into a low-90s cutter, being without it at its best had significant repercussions on his repertoire and productivity.
This is a superior situation to the one found early in the year, as his curve -- a pitch just a little better than average -- seemed to be the only one he could control. He's not overly-reliant on that bender to get his outs anymore, and it can go back to being just another useful pitch out of five. Buchholz with all of his weapons in working order is a dangerous pitcher for the opposition, and while it would have been preferable for him to come out of the gate this way, at least the Buchholz we all remembered has re-emerged.