Two years ago today, Clay Buchholz was only a few weeks into his first minor league stint of 2008. After throwing his no-hitter in 2007, there were high expectations for the young hurler going into the new seasons—expectations he would fail to meet, starting the year 2-3 with a 5.53 ERA through May 12th. This was bad enough to earn him a ticket back to AAA. He would again come back to the majors, experiencing even worse results, as he lost six straight decisions with his ERA ballooning to an even higher 6.75.
Things did not look good for the former top prospect after 2008. He hadn't lived up to the promise shown in his no-hitter, and many in Boston were hoping to capitalize on whatever value he had left in a trade, whether for a catcher of the future from the Rangers, or for a veteran like Jake Peavy. Ultimately, Theo Epstein did not share the same view of the prospect's worth, rejecting all deals involving him. Trade talks continued on through the trade deadline, though, and when Clay Buchholz made a start on July 17th, it looked for all the world like an advertisement. Would Clay be dealt for Victor Martinez? Roy Halladay? Ultimately, the answer was no.
Instead, July 17th turned out to be the start of a new chapter for Clay Buchholz as a legitimate major league starter. He would finish 2009 with a 4.21 ERA, starting game 3 of the ALDS for the Red Sox in the postseason. So far, he's seen nothing but improvement this year, with a 3.07 ERA and 3.55 FIP through 9 starts. So what's made the difference for Clay? Let's take a closer look.
In 2008, Clay Buchholz' slider was clearly in a "developing" stage. Throwing it only 7.6% of the time, and at 81.4 MPH, the slider was never-the-less an effective pitch likely as much for the surprise of it as its ability to actually fool hitters. He threw it a bit more with similar results in 2009, but it's really in 2010 that the pitch is coming into its own—and not because of how effective it is as a pitch.
Now at an impressive 88.6 MPH, and with Clay throwing it 17.7% of the time, the slider has opened up Clay's game by allowing him to keep hitters off-balance against the real core of his game—the change. Before the slider, Clay was too susceptible to having either his curveball or changeup be "off" on any given night, making him all too predictable. Particularly, if he couldn't throw his big-break curveball for strikes, hitters could easily lay off the pitch as it dived into the ground. This, combined with an occasionally wild fastball lead to a high walk rate.
Now, while Clay is still walking batters (though I expect that number will come down as Clay distances himself from the recent rough patch, and finally starts facing some weaker competition), he's also fooling a lot more batters. Clay is only throwing 45% of his pitches in the zone, but opposing hitters are swinging at 31.4% of those pitches, resulting in both a fair number of swinging strikes, and a lot of weak contact resulting in ground balls and pop-ups.
In 2008, and even 2009, there was always a feeling of pitching on the edge of disaster for Clay. His runs came in bunches, and he seemed incapable of recovering from mistakes. Particularly those behind him. I was in the 3rd base loge seats for the Angels game on July 29, 2009 (when John Lackey almost no-hit the Sox—what happened to THAT Lackey?), and when Mike Lowell commited an error in the top of the 3rd inning with nobody on and one out, I knew there was no way Clay was getting out of the inning without giving up a run. Sure enough, 4 straight batters reached, and the Angels were on top 2-0 by the 4th. While last year he might recover from the small mistake, he was still prone to collapsing under the big one, leading to meltdowns against Chicago, Batlimore, Toronto, and Cleveland. When things went well, Clay Rolled. When they went badly, he had no chance.
In 2010, this has not been a problem for Clay. So far, his worst performance was a poor five-inning start against New York, where he gave up six runs, five of them earned. But even that shows improvement. When Adrian Beltre allowed Nick Swisher to reach third on a throwing error, Clay couldn't stop him from scoring, but only allowed one more baserunner in the inning. Instead of allowing that error to take him out of the game, Clay recovered and got out of the inning. The other runs came in a two run third inning, and three run fifth—much better than seeing the five and six run innings of 2009.
Defense and Luck:
Of course, there's also just the fact that Clay hasn't always been as bad as he's appeared. While clearly he wasn't at his best in 2008, he was incredibly unlucky, too. His 6.75 ERA belied a much more acceptable 4.82 FIP, largely impacted by a .366 BABIP and 60% strand rate. Some of that can be attributed to hittable balls and immaturity, but there's no denying that some bad luck was at work here. His home run rate was also fairly "wonky", with 15% of his fly balls leaving the park at any time. The fact that we've seen some regression for the better is not really a surprise.
So what's left for Clay? Well, actually, things might just get better. While his FIP and xFIP suggest he's getting lucky on the year, those numbers have been hurt by a few off-starts, the likes of which we might not see again for a while now that he's got the feel for his pitches back again. His BABIP is also fairly high at .309 on a pretty good defensive team (even with all the substitutions). Perhaps more importantly, he's faced a murderer's row of teams: the Yankees, the Twins, a couple against the Rays...It's not been easy pickings for Clay, who has faced teams with an average wOBA of about .335—which would be good for the 9th best team offense in the majors. If Clay can take advantage of an easier schedule remaining, this could be a special season for Buchholz.