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Molding Clay: Is He Finally The Pitcher The Red Sox Have Been Waiting For?

There was a conversation here that made me want to write a little something about Clay Buchholz.  It was a comment about how his strikeout rate was down, but it seemed to be because he was pitching to contact and that he could still get a strikeout in situations where he needed to.  Someone countered (sorry for the vagueness, I couldn't find it in looking today) with splits stating the opposite- his walk and K numbers were fine with bases empty, and it wasn't until there were men on that he started pitching more to contact and walking more.

My first thought, of course, was, he's picked up groundball tendencies and is trying for a double play.  What I wanted to write was a piece about pitching as compared to throwing, and how a great pitcher is going to take dramatically different approaches to different situations, using Buchholz as an example; it was my impression from what I've seen that he has been able to do that.

What I found was a lot more worrying.  Buchholz has, by all accounts, had a fantastic year.  The problem is, every number I look through, none of them support him having a year anything like he is having.  So is this just plain dumb luck that is bound to erode, or is his success sustainable?

Earlier in the year, he attributed his dramatic improvement this year to the fact that he was being more efficient.  Before, trying too hard to get swings-and-misses, he would throw balls outside of the zone- this, in turn, would lead to walks and long at-bats against the opposing teams, limiting him from going really deep in games.  He was saying that by pitching more to contact and trusting his defense, he could go deeper and not allow the free passes he did before.  Of course with this, his strikeout rate would decline, but with the added success, who would care?

That's all well and good in theory, makes perfect sense.  The only problem was that it's just not true.  In 2010, Buchholz has actually thrown less balls in the strike zone than ever before, gotten less first pitch strikes than ever before, and has a similar amount of swinging strikes compared to himself in 2008-2009.  

The real difference?  he's throwing way more balls outside of the strike zone that get swung at than ever before AND batters are making contact with them at incredibly higher rates (54.3% last year has turned into 69.2% this year).  The thing he has going for him this year is that his stuff is apparently inducing much worse contact because he has batters swinging at (and hitting) balls that aren't strikes.

The fact is that he has simply performed better with the bases empty than full- walking less, striking out more.  He has developed strong groundball tendencies, but the fact that his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) with men on base is a mere .224 (compared to .285 with bases empty, which is more like what his peripherals indicate) is worrisome and seems indicative to me that it may be more luck than anything.

Frankly, I don't think the strikeout and walk rates are the most worrisome- although I do hate the fact his strikeout rates appear to have declined more dramatically than his walk rates.  What I find worrisome is that he has allowed approximately a third as many home runs per fly ball as in the rest of his career to date- his current rate of 5.7% seems completely unsustainable.  Chances are that this is again attributable to batters swinging at bad pitches and not making as good of contact as they should.  

Basically, my reading of his stats has led to two huge questions to consider for the future:

1. How long will it be before American League hitters figure out that they don't need to swing at all of his pitches they've been swinging at- and how well will he be able to compensate?

2.  Is his ability to not allow runs when there are runners on base an actual skill, or are we looking at more unsustainable luck like in the case of 2007 Daisuke Matsuzaka?

Certainly I think in any case, this year has been a huge stepping stone for Clay- he's finally found (GREAT) success at the major league level, has appeared to mentally mature into a much more ace-like pitcher than we've seen before, and has gained confidence which he seemed to need for so long.  It's clear that this is a breakout year for him, it will be interesting to see if we will actually see this same Clay Buchholz in years to come.