Red Sox MVP debate: Clay Buchholz

Despite injury, Clay Buchholz had a lot to do with that gap in the standings in 2013. - Jim Rogash

Whether it was setting the tone in April, showing up strong after an injury, or just pitching better than any starter on a per-inning basis, here, ladies and gentlemen, is your 2013 Boston Red Sox MVP: Clay Buchholz!

You might think arguing that a player who missed almost half the season should be team MVP is silly. You might think I got the short end of the straw, that the other writers claimed better choices before I could answer the email because I was at the dentist paying lots of money to have my teeth ground into tiny bits.

Maybe.

Even so, Clay Buchholz really is a legitimate Red Sox MVP candidate and I'm not so sure he wasn't the most valuable Red Sox player this season.

The thing about this year's Red Sox team is that there are so many deserving players, guys who you could make a strong argument were the most valuable players on the team. Buchholz doesn't stand high above them all, though had he remained healthy and pitched the way he did all season he would have been an easy choice, but he does stand with them, and perhaps an inch or two above. That's because when he was healthy, Buchholz was the Red Sox -- and the league's -- best starting pitcher this season, and it wasn't close.

By Baseball Prospectus's Pitcher WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) the Red Sox starting pitcher who accumulated the most value this season was Jon Lester. Lester had 3.0 WARP to Buchholz's 2.0, but Lester threw almost twice the innings that Buchholz did, so on a per-inning basis, Buchholz was far more valuable. By FanGraphs WAR, Buchholz is a smidgen ahead of John Lackey and almost a win short of Jon Lester, 4.3 to 3.2, though, it should be noted, FanGraphs incorporates FIP into WAR, and FIP and Buchholz have been nemeses for years now. According to FanGraphs, it took Lester about an inning and two thirds to be as valuable to the Red Sox as Buchholz was in one inning. That's a complicated way of saying that pitch for pitch, Clay Buchholz was almost twice as good a pitcher as Jon Lester was this season.

Here's a kicker though: by Baseball Reference, Clay Buchholz was more valuable than Lester! Baseball Reference has Buchholz as the most valuable Red Sox pitcher even though he threw far fewer innings than his teammates. They have Buchholz at 4.3 WAR, Lester at 3.0, and Lackey at 2.8, so according to Baseball Reference, even though both Lackey and Lester threw far more innings, neither pitcher was as valuable. That's saying something.

170194343Photo credit: Jim Rogash

While you're chewing on that, here's something else. Buchholz started 16 games for the Red Sox this season. In those games, Boston went 14-2. In the two games they lost, Buchholz threw a total of 14 innings and gave up four earned runs. That's a 2.57 ERA. In the losses. It's worth noting that that ERA is lower than any other pitcher on the Red Sox save Koji Uehara and Craig Breslow, two relievers.

Coming out of the thankfully short-lived Bobby Valentine Era, the Red Sox needed to get off to a good start maybe as much as any team in recent memory. That they went 18-8 in April to jump out to a two game lead in the AL East happened in no small part thanks to Clay Buchholz. Buchholz started five games in April and won all five. He went at least seven innings in every start, totaling 37-2/3 innings that month during which he gave up five runs. That's a 1.12 ERA.

Buchholz went at least seven innings in 10 of his 16 starts, saving the bullpen each time. Know how many innings he went in the other six? On average a bit over 5 2/3. He never went below five, and completed the sixth inning in every start but two. In those two starts he went five innings. Know how many runs he gave up in those two starts combined? Zero. In his worst starts at least by longevity, Buchholz shut out his opponents! He wasn't perfect, as he did give up four runs in one of his starts. It was the most he gave up in any of his starts all season and he only did it once (and to the Twins, weirdly enough).

Simply put, Clay Buchholz made 16 starts for the Red Sox this season and thanks to his pitching the Red Sox probably should've won every single one of them. That is incredible. No other starting pitcher on the Red Sox can come close to that kind of statement. Amazing as Koji Uehara was, and he was mind-blowing, he was still a reliever. He could come in and hold the other team down, but only for a brief period. His impact on the game was severely limited by his role. Clay Buchholz held the other team down for almost seven innings a night on average and many times more than that over 16 starts.

Even despite his missing time with injuries, there isn't another starting pitcher who was as valuable and as consistently so as Buchholz. On the pitching staff Uehara is probably his only competition and there we run into the limitations of Uehara's role. I understand if people pick Uehara over Buchholz. #HighFive was incredible. The thing is, there just isn't any way a reliever can be as valuable as a starter if the starter is any good. Buchholz's job was harder and he did it better than Uehara and the metrics bear that out. If this was the Most Fun Player award my vote might go to Uehara, but since we're talking value Buchholz is the man.

Was Buchholz more valuable than any of the hitters? That's maybe a tougher sell. By BP's WARP there were eight hitters who totaled more than Buchholz. By FanGraphs WAR, there were seven (no love for Daniel Nava? What the fudge, FanGraphs?). And maybe those guys were all better. Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz all had outstanding seasons. But consider this. Clay Buchholz started 16 games. The Red Sox won 14 of them. What if Buchholz hadn't been almost perfect but had been mediocre or even bad? What if he was 2012 Buchholz? What if the Red Sox went .500 in those 16 games instead of 14-2? Boston won 97 games this season, but if Buchholz is 2012 Buchholz you can knock that down by six games and suddenly Boston is at 91-72, tied with Tampa and Texas for the last Wild Card spot. Toss another loss in there and it's not hard to see the Red Sox missing the playoffs all together.

The Red Sox won 97 games for many reasons, but Clay Buchholz's consistent excellence was a major driver of that success. With Buchholz on the mound the Red Sox won games at the pace of a 142-win team. That's right, when Buchholz was on the mound the Red Sox had an .875 winning percentage. His success in April helped pull the team out of 2012 and helped force the media into dealing with the winning 2013 Red Sox instead of treating them as an extension of the sorry unit that populated Fenway's historic turf last season. Buchholz helped save his teammates countless irritating questions, he helped set the tone for a successful 2013 season, and maybe most importantly, any time he was in the game, he contributed more to the Red Sox winning than any other player wearing a Boston shirt.

Clay Buchholz was the 2013 Red Sox MVP. Just imagine what he'd have won if he'd stayed healthy.

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