The 2014 season was a disaster for Clay Buchholz, one that has many fans and analysts concerned about his and the Red Sox' future. Even the Red Sox are being cautious, as, while they didn't bring Jon Lester back or replace him with another ace, they did load the rotation with pitchers who have the upside of inning-eating number two starters in order to ensure that their would be sufficient depth.
The degree to which many are worrying about Buchholz is unwarranted and a little unfair, though, especially as the question about whether he'll return to form is possibly an unnecessary one. While no one was paying attention to the abysmal second half of the 2014 Red Sox, the Buchholz the Red Sox need reappeared.
This will require a little bit of background. In 2013, Clay Buchholz was one of the major reasons why the Red Sox won the World Series. He missed time with a shoulder injury that limited him to just 108 innings, but they were phenomenal ones: Buchholz posted a 1.74 ERA in his 16 starts, and made another five in the postseason en route to a World Series championship. That injury -- shoulder bursitis -- very well might have carried over into 2014.
Not necessarily he injury itself, but the effects suffered from it. Buchholz didn't look sharp for the season's first two months, failing to replicate the mechanics, grounders, or devastating change-up that made him so good just the summer before. The result: opponents hit .291/.346/.455 with a .328 batting average on balls in play against Buchholz in the first half, leading to a 5.42 ERA. Buchholz would go on the disabled list with a hyperextended knee in late-May, and wouldn't return to the mound for a month.
Buchholz needed a break after this start, as did Red Sox fans. (Photo credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
His first start was shaky, with Buchholz giving up three homers, but he lasted over seven innings and only allowed four runs over 76 pitches before he was pulled. Considering his performance from that point forward, it's easy to attribute the dingers to a little DL rust: Buchholz would average just under 6-2/3 innings per start from July onward, and limited opponents to a .239/.303/.359 line in that stretch, exponentially better than his pre-DL performance and much closer to what he's shown himself capable of for most of his career.
His BABIP regained some normalcy, although not quite to Buchholz's usual better than average levels. He induced grounders over 51 percent of the time in the second half, a little better than his career rate, and 10 percentage points ahead of his horrible first half. His ERA didn't similarly recover even though everything else seemed to be in place, with Buchholz still posting a 4.62 mark from July onward, but his second-half FIP -- which uses strikeouts, walks, and grounders to eliminate defense from the equation -- was 3.50. FIP isn't gospel, but this is a situation where it lines up far better with what Buchholz's performance looked like than his ERA does. Boston's defense looks good on paper for 2015, but by the middle of last year, it was a mess for the Sox.
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It also helps that Buchholz still wasn't completely right, as his DL stint for his knee was more of a temporary respite than anything: Buchholz underwent knee surgery on September 30 to repair his meniscus. He was already showing the positive effects of being further removed from his shoulder bursitis as 2014 went on, and now he's had an entire normal offseason to recover from a very minor knee procedure. Chances are good that the 2015 Clay Buchholz will be as good, if not better, than what his second half of 2014 and his prior success shows him to be.
There are still major questions, of course. Will Buchholz actually be healthy? He's never thrown 200 innings before, but he has thrown 191, 189, 173, and 170 in the past, so expecting him to get most of a full season in isn't crazy. You never quite know with him until the season is over however, but at least it seems as if the innings he does throw will be productive ones.
For both Buchholz's and Boston's sake, they have to be. The Red Sox need him now to help lead a rotation without an ace, but they could also use him in 2016 and 2017, during his two $13 million option years. If the Red Sox aren't going to spend on the high end of the free agent pool for a pitcher, and if they are going to hold on to their best prospects rather than trade for an ace, then having Buchholz in working, effective order is key for this season and the two beyond it. He might never turn into the ace his stuff projected him to be, not with a body that continually betrays him, but he can be worth a whole lot more than the paycheck the Sox are writing him even if it's just for 150 innings at a time.
If 2014's second half did give us a glimpse of what to expect from Buchholz this season, if Rick Porcello actually is a well above-average starter, if 2014 was just a hiccup caused by a poor defense for Wade Miley, if Justin Masterson is over his own injury issues, then this Red Sox rotation is going to disappoint a lot of lineups. A whole lot could go wrong for each of those arms for sure, but the truth of it is that Buchholz is no more of a risk than anyone else in Boston's rotation. That risk is there, and it's very real and very frightening, but he doesn't deserve the additional scorn and disbelief that has been pointed his way, and that's worth remembering while dreaming about what the Red Sox could be. The Red Sox might not have a true ace, but if Buchholz is already back, they might not need one.