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Trying to figure out Clay Buchholz

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You can try, but you will fail.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Just who the hell is Clay Buchholz? In its most basic form, we know the answer to that question. That guy at the top of the page is Clay Buchholz. He’s a 30-year-old man who plays professional baseball for the Boston Red Sox. If you’re wondering what kind of pitcher he is, though, the question becomes infinitely more difficult.

The Red Sox are going to upgrade their rotation this winter, this much is clear. There are going to be at least two new faces on the depth chart, and those new faces will more than likely be the best pitchers on the staff. There are going to be some old faces there, too, though, and Buchholz is probably going to be one of them. It’s certainly possible he’ll be traded, but his value is at an all-time low, and his potential for a rebound is worth more than whatever he could bring back in a deal. So, for the sake of this post, let’s just assume he’s sticking around, and he’ll be in the middle or back of the rotation. What in the world are we supposed to expect from this guy?

Over the last two seasons, we’ve seen two completely different versions of Buchholz. In 2013, he was incredible, putting himself firmly in the early Cy Young discussion before heading to the disabled list in early June. Injuries aside, his performance in that year was ridiculous. He ended up tossing 108-1/3 innings over 16 starts, and finished with a 1.74 ERA (237 ERA+!) and a 2.78 FIP. He was aided by a career-best* 23 percent strikeout rate, and he also kept balls in the yard at a better rate than he ever had. He was even selected to represent the American League in the All-Star game despite not throwing a pitch between June 8 and the day the teams were announced.

*Ignoring the 22-2/3 innings he threw in 2007

Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham

Now, fast-forward to 2014, and we are looking at just about the opposite performance. While he did hit the disabled list once again, Buchholz still managed to throw 170-1/3 innings, which is just about the only positive you can find in his season. (Although, given how poorly he pitched everyone probably would have been better served if he threw less.) In 28 starts, he limped to a 5.34 ERA (72 ERA+) with a 4.01 FIP. His strikeout rate fell down  to a more typical (though still better than his 2009-2012 rate) 18 percent, and he started giving up home runs at his normal rate. Long story short, he was worse in just about every area.

What’s strange, though, is that while he regressed in just about every way possible from 2013, his 2014 peripherals weren’t all that much different from his career norms. In fact, that 4.01 FIP was the better than what he put up in both 2011 and 2012, when he had much better ending results. It should also be noted that the .317 batting average on balls in play he allowed was his highest since 2008. Of course, if you watched him pitch, it’s clear that it was more than just bad luck. He was consistently hit hard, and that leads to more hits.

What did stand out to me, though, was that Buchholz got absolutely crushed with runners on base in 2014. To wit, batters hit .322/.379/.460 in those situations. In fact, only three qualified pitchers in all of baseball allowed a worse wOBA with runners on base than Buchholz’s .368.* It’s abundantly clear that he had trouble out of the stretch this year, especially when you consider that he allowed a .306 wOBA with the bases empty, putting him right in the middle of the pack.

*For additional context on how bad that wOBA is, David Ortiz’s was .369 in 2014.

This is not a normal pattern for the eight-year veteran, though. Consider that in 2013 he was actually markedly better with runners on base than with the bases empty (.204 wOBA vs. .279). Over the course of his career, there’s been no discernible difference, allowing a .313 wOBA with the bases empty and a .310 wOBA with men on. Having these numbers revert back to their normal levels won’t solve every problem for Buchholz, but they’ll get him much closer back to being at least a league-average pitcher.

So, with this in mind, were there any differences in how he approached batters with runners on base last year? In terms of pitch usage, there wasn’t much of a difference between 2013 and 2014. In fact, according to Baseball Savant his usages were almost exactly the same. The only real difference were with his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, but that could easily just be a classification issue. With all of this information, it’s reasonable to be hopeful that he’ll buck this trend in 2015.

When I started writing this, my hope was to eventually reach a conclusion on what I expected from Clay Buchholz next season. The more I think about it, though, the more of an apparent fool’s errand that seems to be. He’s just been too inconsistent on a year-to-year basis to give a hard prediction, other than that he’ll probably hit the disabled list at some point. Gun to my head, and assuming he can figure out his issues with runners on base, I think would expect an ERA+ in the 90’s, but I could just as easily see that number going 20 points in either direction. Buchholz is a total X-Factor  in 2015, and could go a long way towards determining how this team finishes.