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5th Starter Woes

Last night's game confirmed something I've said repeatedly. The Rangers have the best offense in the league, and the only team that hits better than they do is whoever they're pitching against.

Charlie Zink's debut was a disappointment. In 4.1 innings, he allowed 11 hits, 8 runs (all earned), and got only 1 strikeout against the team ranked second in K's. The only positive was Zink's 1 walk allowed. The pen sucked last night, but Zink set them up for it.

With Zink sent down after last night's stinker, the Sox moved Paul Byrd onto the roster, and gave him Friday's start against Toronto. This bumps Clay Buchholz from his scheduled start; he could take Wakefield's next turn in the rotation, on Sunday. Or he could be demoted to Pawtucket, and replaced by another AAA starter (and ultimately Wakefield). Despite his struggles, I'm hoping he remains in Boston.

Clay Buchholz could go down to triple-A and work on his pitching, but the value of that work seems doubtful. In 43.2 innings at Pawtucket this year, he has a 2.47 ERA, 43 Ks, only 3 HR and 17 BBs. He was sent down to work on his fastball, and through June he basically dominated the International League. Then he came back to the majors and pitched as badly as he had before.

My theory is that Buchholz succeeded in AAA without substantial improvement in his fastball and mechanics, because of poor overall hitting at that level. Many top hitting prospects are either on their major league teams, or working their way up through A or AA ball; AAA has plenty of career minor leaguers who can cover a position in the event of a major-league injury, but don't hit that well (e.g. Jonathan Van Every). That said, I didn't watch Buchholz pitch, so if anyone noticed his mechanics / control were substantially better during his month in AAA, let me know.

Buchholz's major league statistics tell an interesting tale. In some ways, Buchholz is pitching well. His line drive percentage is down from last year (29% in 07, 22% now), and his groundball rate is up (38.5% in 07, 47.3% now). His groundball to flyball ratio is also up (1.18 in 07, 1.55 now). Fewer line drives and more groundballs should reflect positively in overall stats. However, Buchholz has suffered because of substantially worse defense behind him. His Defense Efficiency Ratio is very bad at .642; last year it was .745. He also has a ridiculously high BABIP, at .358, which means many more of his balls are dropping in or being misplayed for hits. Buchholz has been terribly unlucky, both in general and defensively.

Buchholz is pitching poorly, however. No obscure stats can blot out the .376 OBP or 11 HR he's allowed in a mere 72.2 innings. His fielding independent percentage, a metric that focuses on what the pitcher controls, is 4.70, comparable to a 4.70 ERA. That's not good, but it is acceptable for a fifth starter.

If Buchholz's BABIP and defense improve even slightly, he'd be a league average pitcher. And if Farrell can help him cut down on the walks and homers, he'll be better than average. As Zink's appearance suggests, Pawtucket's rotation doesn't offer much hope for better production. The best of the bunch is probably David Pauley, who had a good start against the Yanks in 06 (6 IP, 2 runs). None of them are really promising, aside from Michael Bowden, who was just promoted and still needs to work on his secondary pitches.

I think the best choice for Clay's future development is to remain in the majors, working closely with John Farrell. He is a potential ace, and he's struggling, much like Jon Lester did. Lester didn't learn how to dominate major league batters at Pawtucket, and neither will Buchholz.

What do you think? Should Clay stay or go? Do you think he'll ever live up to his #1 pitching prospect rankings? And if so, will it be as a member of the Red Sox? Comment below and in the poll.