Clay Buchholz certainly has not performed like the pitcher that he once was. Exactly 365 days ago, Buchholz was one of the top candidates for the Cy Young award while sporting a 1.73 ERA and holding opponents to a .194/.271/.274 line over 10 games. Right now, statistically, Buchholz is one of the worst pitchers in the league. The 29-year-old has a 7.02 ERA with a 1.98 WHIP. In the month of May, Buchholz has somehow been worse.
While the Red Sox' bats went silent during their 10-game losing streak, the struggles of the pitching staff (for the most part) have not even given the team a chance to win a game. The Red Sox need to get Clay Buchholz back on track, in some way, shape or form. Buchholz's complete 180-degree turn in performance within the last year is surprising and in some ways, is unlike anything Buchholz has faced before in his career. Buchholz struggled to a similar extent in 2012 before turning things around in mid-May, but the why of the struggle seems different this time.
Unlike 2012, Buchholz is struggling to throw strikes. Buchholz's strike percentage has dropped over his last three starts, going from 65 percent (62 of 96 pitches for strikes) to 64 (68 of 107 pitches for strikes) to 59 percent (53 of 90 pitches for strikes) to 48 percent (42 of 88 pitches for strikes) on Monday. At the peak of his struggles in 2012, Buchholz was consistently throwing in the low-to-mid 60 percent through his struggles: the main problem then was that he lacked his best pitch, his change-up.
The drop in strike percentage in Buchholz's starts is alarming. At the same time, the Red Sox have seemingly lowered their expectations for Buchholz. "We're not expecting him to be Cy Young," pitching coach Juan Nieves told the media in Atlanta. Buchholz affirmed that he is not suffering from any ailments right now. He did, however, mentioned that his injuries last year may have played a part in his recent struggles.
"I think it has a lot to do with that," Buchholz said. "Whenever you are hurt, you try to find a way to throw it so it doesn’t hurt, and that might not be the exact same way you pitched prior to that. there’s a little rust in-between last year’s and this year’s mechanics. Even in spring training, I wasn’t 100 percent in tune. It’s hard to do it in-season though."
So with Buchholz completely out of sync right now, there are not many directions the Red Sox can head in right now. Skipping Buchholz's next start appears to be a given at this point. Considering the team's recent struggles and Buchholz's inability to turn in a quality start, the Red Sox cannot afford to allow the righty to take the mound.
There are a couple of options the Red Sox can take at this fork in the road: place Buchholz on the disabled list, option him to the minor leagues, or keep him on the major league roster, put him in the bullpen and skip his next couple of starts. Buchholz does have an option remaining, although he would have to agree to an assignment to the minors, and the Sox would have to hope the league honors the supposed gentleman's agreement to avoid claiming players on optional assignment waivers.
Considering the Red Sox's roster crunch and need for another starter, it appears unrealistic to move Buchholz to the bullpen while calling up Allen Webster or Rubby De La Rosa to fill the spot in the rotation. The only relievers with options are Junichi Tazawa and Burke Badenhop, and both pitchers have been critical parts of the relief corps this season.
It appears that Buchholz will make an appearance in the minor leagues, regardless of how he gets there. Placing Buchholz on the disabled list brings a built-in excuse for the pitcher to fall back on, regardless of what he says publicly about his health condition, but rehab assignments have a limit, so if Buchholz hasn't returned to form by the end of one, then the problem would rear its head again for the Sox.
Optioning Buchholz to the minors gives Buchholz unlimited time to work on his mechanics and command until the organization feels he is ready. Buchholz needs to be in an environment where he can go back to his roots, completely break down his mechanics, and tear apart whatever he is doing at the moment. The Red Sox are currently not in a position to allow him to do that at the major league level. If the Stephen Drew signing is a true indication of the team's motivation, Ben Cherington and company are looking to contend for a playoff spot this year.
A team looking to make the playoffs cannot afford to have a pitcher work through problems of this magnitude in the majors.
Buchholz has not looked like the top prospect he once was at the tail end of last decade, nor has he shown much resemblance to the starter who entered 2014 with a 131 ERA+ since 2009. It's a stretch to say that Buchholz could never become a mid-rotation pitcher or better who can contribute once more, as Buchholz has shown the ability to come back from major struggles. It's worth remembering, though, that his current troubles are more than anything he has experienced before.
It would be best for both Clay Buchholz and the Red Sox for the righty to spend some time in Pawtucket to figure out what in the world is going wrong for him right now. The Sox can't be expected to score eight runs and win every time Buchholz spots the opposition half-a-dozen runs in the first few innings, and they'll need him to resemble the Buchholz of old if they're to fight back to the top of the AL East.