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Boston's Best: Buchholz Exceeding Elevated Expecations

With the Red Sox entering the season with six viable options to fill a starting rotation with just five spots, the question surrounding starter Clay Buchholz wasn’t where, but rather if, he fit amongst Boston‘s overstocked staff.

Despite the presence of one of baseball’s best pairings at the front end of the rotation -- Josh Beckett and Jon Lester -- the most notable acquisition of the off-season for the Red Sox was the top available free agent starting pitcher on the market, John Lackey. With Daisuke Matsuzaka slotted in the fourth spot by default, just one starting spot remained vacant heading into spring training.

There was plenty of backing for Buchholz after a strong finish to the season prior; he even received a public endorsement via manager Terry Francona during the spring. "I think we all want him to take this and go with it. And he looks so strong," said Francona.

Others, however, favored veteran Tim Wakefield as the fifth and final starting pitcher. At the time, it wasn’t difficult to comprehend the ideology behind those opposing Buchholz. After all, you knew what you were going to get with Wakefield, whereas Clay’s name had almost been synonymous with the word inconsistent throughout the early portion of his career.

And yet, as the Red Sox and the rest of Major League Baseball approach the midway point of the season, it’s the previously mentioned Buchholz-backers that are saying, "I told you so." Not only has the 25-year-old matured into an All Star considerable in 2010, he also presents a strong case as the Red Sox’s most valuable player for the season’s first half.

The starting rotation, thought to be as good, if not better, than any other in baseball, struggled in the early goings of 2010. Jon Lester again lived up to his reputation as a slow starter, sporting an inflated ERA and losing both his first two decisions. Josh Beckett struggled as well, before ultimately leaving on an extended disabled list stint. Daisuke Matsuzaka, similarly to Beckett, has spent half the time struggling on the field and the other half plagued by injuries off of it.

While the offense -- originally thought to be the team’s off-season-induced area of concern -- has been better than expected, the result of the problematic pitching was a month-long inability to maintain, or even reach, a .500 record.

However, since starting the year 4-9, the Red Sox have won more games than any other team in baseball and currently find themselves within reaching distance of the top spot in the American League East standings. Lester has regained his dominant form as one of the most imposing left-handers in the game as of late, John Lackey has continued to produce positively out of the middle of the order and, aside from the still-rehabbing Josh Beckett, the rotation as a whole has rounded into one of baseball’s best, statistically speaking.

Clay Buchholz has been an integral aspect in the emergence of what is now considered one of baseball’s most feared teams, the Boston Red Sox.

From 2007-2009, Buchholz started thirty-four games for Boston -- of those, Clay won just twelve and lost fourteen. In that time, he accrued an ERA just under 5.00 and surrendered an average of nearly 1.3 home runs per nine innings. After repeating baseball’s all-too-common phrase "wait till next year" in regards to Buchholz’s developmental completion, it seems as though Red Sox Nation was finally on to something when they reverted back to the old saying following an encouraging finish for Clay in 2009.

Buchholz’s ten wins this season leads the rotation that he once had to fight just to be a part of, and it nearly matches his career win total [12] entering the season. His ERA of 2.47 also leads all starting pitchers, besting the man second on that list, Jon Lester [3.03], by over half a run. Clay is second only to Lester in strikeouts, and surprisingly, is the only member of the rotation to throw a complete game shutout.

Deciding a team’s most valuable player more often than not extends beyond the statistical realm -- Buchholz’s case is no different.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the Red Sox’s resurgence is the absence of Josh Beckett in the starting rotation. Beckett has made just eight starts this season and none since mid-May when he surrendered five runs in less than five innings at Yankee Stadium. In his four starts prior to his disabled list departure, the normally reliable Beckett went 0-1 with a 9.90 ERA, giving up nine walks, twenty-nine hits, and twenty-two earned runs in just twenty innings pitched.

Buchholz has had an enormous impact on the way Josh Beckett’s season has played out thus far and subsequently how successful it ends up being following his eventual return to the rotation.

For instance, early in the season while Beckett and the rest of the staff struggled in one way or another, Buchholz helped hold the rotation in tact. In the month of April, when Boston went 11-12 overall, it was Clay that provided dependable outings while the front end of the rotation struggled.

April Starts       GS      Record     ERA      IP        H      ER    HR    BB     SO     WHIP    SO/BB

Josh Beckett:      5         (1-0)        7.22     28.6      37     23      4      13       20      1.74       1.54

Jon Lester:          5         (1-2)        4.71     28.6      26     15      2      15       32      1.43       2.13

John Lackey:       5         (2-1)        4.50      30       35      15      2      12       17      1.57       1.42

Tim Wakefield:     4         (0-1)        5.40      25       30      15      2       8       16      1.52       2.00

Clay Buchholz:    4         (2-2)        2.19     24.6      23       6       1       9       22      1.29       2.44

*Daisuke Matsuzaka did not pitch in April.


Even as Lester and the rest of the starters began to turn it around in the months of May and June, Buchholz continued to pitch exceptionally. Fueling Boston’s elevation towards the top of the divisional standings, the team’s tenatively titled 5th starter [Buchholz] has gone 8-2 with a 2.57 ERA in his last ten starts.

The rotation’s turnaround, coupled with Buchholz’s consistent success, has dramatically altered the way that Boston has handled Beckett’s lower back problems. With the team winning at such a feverish pace despite Beckett’s absence, management has been afforded the luxury of applying a high level of patience regarding his return.

Last season, Beckett threw 121 innings before the All Star break -- his highest first half total as a Red Sox. The second half of last year saw a dramatic increase in Beckett’s ERA, HR per nine innings pitched, and opponent’s BA, SLG, OPS. Instead of rushing the right-hander back to the mound, Beckett will enter the second half of the season, and hopefully the postseason, fresh and healthy -- having thrown less than fifty innings in his eight starts so far in 2010.

There’s no doubt that the stability of the rotation, namely anchored by Buchholz, is the reason that Beckett has been allotted such a generous time table for his rehabbing. A strong second half in 2010 for Josh can be indirectly attributed to Buchholz’s influence on the mound.

Clay’s emergence as arguably the Red Sox’s best pitcher in 2010 has directly coincided with a visible mental maturation on the field. The curveball that he so heavily depended on early and often in past games is no longer his crutch when in a jam.

"I don’t think anything has changed with my stuff. It just feels better, getting out of jams than not," Buchholz said following his last start -- echoing the sentiment that it’s not necessarily his stuff that has improved, it’s the way he is utilizing it.

A newfound confidence in the ability to locate his fastball -- something that had always been noticeably absent -- has had a profound impact on Buchholz’s plan of attack. Instead of leaning on the curveball the first time through the opposing lineup, giving the hitters a look at his out-pitch early and often, Buchholz now takes a Beckett-like approach by establishing the fastball in the early innings -- effectively managing his pinch count and saving his put-away pitches for later on in games.

In a season where finding consistent production and health from the starting rotation has been a toilsome task, Clay Buchholz is having the type of season that Boston had always envisioned him having. This is the type of evolution in Buchholz’s game that has kept him in a Red Sox uniform throughout an inordinate amount of trade rumors early in his career.

In fact, at least year’s trade deadline, the Red Sox supposedly turned down a ‘Cliff Lee for Clay Buchholz, straight up' trade proposal.

Thanks to Buchholz’s performance to this point, Theo Epstein and company, like the Buchholz-backers of 2010 spring training, can now look back and collectively say, "I told you so."