Boston needs Buchholz to have his change-up under control, but there's little reason to believe he won't
Last spring, the concern with Clay Buchholz -- other than how he would respond to pitching after months missed due to a stress fracture in his back -- involved his decision to feature his curveball more often. Buchholz's curve wasn't bad in the past, but he already possessed a deep and impressive repertoire: using the curve at the expense of say, his change-up, would be a problem, as stated this time last year:
More curveballs are a good thing, but they might not be a great thing. 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.
In theory, though, reintroducing a breaking ball was a positive, as Buchholz had slowly morphed his slider into a much faster and much less bendy cutter over the course of his Sox' career, so like the quoted text says: if he could use it correctly, it had a purpose. Early on in 2012, though, while the curve was working for him, nothing else was.
The primary issue was the lack of his change-up, which turned out to be due to a loss of feel for the pitch. After missing more than half of 2012 with a stress fracture in his spine, muscle memory simply didn't pick back up on the way he threw his most devastating pitch, and he struggled throughout April, and to start May, without it. In his first 39 innings, Buchholz threw just 82 change-ups, with all of eight swings-and-misses. In his next 34 frames, though, he threw 92 changes, with 20 of those inducing a swing-and-miss. His strikeouts doubled, his walks went down, and the re-emergence of his primary out pitch meant that his cutter and curve could do their thing more effectively, as they became additional tools instead of his only ones.
He pitched with that level of success for the rest of the season, too, as Buchholz's final 150 innings -- i.e., the ones after those initial 39 -- produced a 3.59 ERA, 65 percent strikes, a more Buchholzian .271 batting average on balls in play, and what would have been Buchholz's greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio in his major-league career, had the season started on May 16 for him rather than April 8.
Now, in 2013, the expectation is that the Buchholz who existed and succeeded over his last 22 starts and 150 frames is the one who will be on the mound. He hasn't missed months and months tending to an injured back, and after last year's debacle, making sure he never forgets the change-up grip that earns him his paycheck is likely a permanent fixture in his spring to-do list. Let's not forget, either, that even with the struggles of early 2012, this is a pitcher with a 122 ERA+ in 537 innings and 87 starts since he came to the majors full-time -- 2012, post-May, wasn't the first run of success he's had. If all that is the case, and the Buchholz who showcased the best command of his career is the pitcher the Red Sox have in their possession, then they have the number two starter they'll need to compete with the rest of the American League. That, just like a resurgence from Jon Lester, will be necessary for Boston to have a chance in a crowded division and league.