13 months ago, Clay Buchholz looked like the best pitcher in baseball. He had cut through the American League with ease in the first half of 2013, and after throwing 6.2 innings of two-run baseball against the Angels on June 8th--a performance not up to his usual standards--held a 1.71 ERA. He was damn near untouchable.
We all know the story from there. Buchholz landed on the disabled list with a seemingly innocuous neck strain that just would not go away. He would not make his return until September, and while he managed to survive four September outings without giving up too much damage, he really wasn't the same, his velocity having dropped significantly from where it was in the first half. Buchholz would ultimately provide four mediocre postseason outings, though the Red Sox managed to turn three of them into wins.
Then, of course, there's 2014. Perhaps it's because he forced himself back early in 2013, or maybe something else cropped up, but for whatever reason Buchholz was a train wreck. His velocity was still down, and he no longer trusted his changeup. With two of his best offerings out the window, Buchholz had gone from baseball's best pitcher to its worst in less than a year's time, finally hitting the disabeld list after allowing six runs and eight walks in a three-inning disaster against the Braves.
This is an all-too-familiar situation looking back at Buchholz' past. In 2011, Buchholz maintained a 3.48 ERA in 14 first-half starts before being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back, ultimately missing the rest of the regular season. When he returned to a very different Red Sox team in 2012 Buchholz was, as he is now, one of the worst pitchers in baseball, allowing 45 runs in his first 56 innings.
The good news is that his terrible 2012 performance did not last. After two months as a complete disaster, Buchholz next 18 starts yielded 131 innings of 2.95 ERA baseball. The season ended with an 8-run mess against the Yankees, but everyone's head was well out of it by that point, and the way his 2013 started gives the impression that this was very much a blip on an otherwise entirely positive radar.
If you're trying to line up these two Buchholz injuries and their aftermaths, then you'd have to say that the second half of 2014 is analogous to the second half of 2012. This, of course, is depressingly fitting. But the bright side is we should be getting good Clay back, right? And there have been signs of that in his three games since returning from the disabled list. The 3.92 ERA is much improved, sure, but more important we've got 11 strikeouts to one walk, a fastball that's living up around 93 again, and he's even used his changeup again on occasion.
Still, we haven't really seen him put it all together for the kind of emphatic performance we could hope for. He has two four-run starts against the Mariners and White Sox and one one-run outing against the Cubs. While the outing against the White Sox looked better than the results, he still had four runs to his name at the end of the day, with two homers in the mix. And while his game against the Cubs produced positive results, it didn't look all that impressive at the time.
The Astros are not a good baseball team, but their offense is actually not that far from average, and represents the toughest challenge Buchholz will have faced so far. And while no one start is enough to really establish Buchholz as either fixed or broken, today's will likely influence how we view these past three starts. While the return of a strong Buchholz will not save the Red Sox by any stretch of the imagination, it would be nice to head into the All-Star break thinking that at least one problem is off the table.
Editor's Note: SB Nation's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $18,000 Fantasy Baseball league for tonight's MLB games. It's $2 to join and first prize is $2,000. You can join in now using this link, and show your faith in Clay Buchholz. Or pick some Astros if you want to be that guy.