You know things are bad when the bright spot in your rotation has a 4.56 ERA.
That, in a nutshell, is Clay Buchholz' season. Taken as a whole, he was the best of the worst. Hardly a glowing review, but certainly the one he deserves. Taken in pieces, Buchholz' year is a lot more complex. Bizarre, interesting, perhaps confusing, and while still not terribly encouraging, at least more encouraging than that 4.56 ERA is on the surface.
The key is whether or not you make allowances for injury. Not injuries suffered during the season--there was that one bout of intestinal bleeding, but that was more a matter of just missing a few starts rather than a loss of effectiveness. No, the injury in question comes from 2011, in the form of the bad back which sidelined him for the second half of the season, and possibly cost him the opening month of 2012.
Really, there's no other way to explain just how bad Buchholz was to start the year. It took him until May 11--his seventh start of the season--to allow fewer than five earned runs in a game. And even in that start he gave up three walks without a single strikeout, leaving him with a pathetic 20 strikeouts to 22 walks in 39 innings of work.
After that, though, it was like those first seven starts had never happened. Sure, he allowed nine runs in his next 17 innings, but two of those games were legitimately high-quality starts. From there, he never had another month with an ERA even as high as 4.00. June saw a 2.40 mark and a perfect 4-0 record in his four starts, and July wasn't far off that pace with eight runs coming across in 29 innings as the Sox went 3-1. His run of excellence wouldn't end until August 22nd, when the Angels put up seven in five innings against him.
Even though he went through a rough period surrounding that loss, Buchholz would manage to bring himself within striking distance of a sub-4.00 ERA in the late stages of the season. Even entering his last game a shutout would have given him just enough. Unfortunately, the Yankees were having none of that. Playing a defeated Sox team, they took him for eight before the second inning was done, providing a decidedly sour end note to what could have been a decent season.
Still, as much as we can't completely ignore that first month of work, if we were to remove April Buchholz would be left with a much nice 3.82 ERA with 6.2 innings pitched per game. It's a lot closer to the sort of thing we've come to expect from Buchholz, and if you're willing to chalk up April to injury, then the sort of thing we can expect going forward.
There are a lot of questions surrounding the Red Sox, and no part of the team is nearly so concerning as the starting rotation is. Out of the four players who the Sox have going forward right now, however--Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, and Doubront--Buchholz is probably the one we should be least worried about. If he's healthy headed into 2013, the Sox likely have at least one good pitcher locked down.