Curt Schilling decided to get his monthly controversial statements out of the way early this April. Speaking in a media conference call, Schilling decided to diagnose Clay Buchholz with a serious case of "doesn't want it enough."
Well, I don't think he wants to be one. I think there's a level of commitment mentally and physically you have to have, and there's a ‑‑ you have to have a little bit of a dark side, I think, in the sense that losing has to hurt so bad that you do whatever you can do to make sure it never happens again. I've never felt like that was ‑‑ Clay is just kind of, hey, I'm going to pitch today. He's unbelievably talented, obviously, physically, but there's another level to the game, and I think that the reason he's been inconsistent, Cy Young potential in numbers one year to what the hell happened next year is upstairs. I think it's all above his shoulders.
The term "headcase" is thrown around with Clay Buchholz all the time. Full disclosure: I've probably been guilty of it at least once during some frustrating start or another. But in the heat of the moment or on some random day before the season even starts, it's all bullshit.
I don't know Clay Buchholz. You don't know Clay Buchholz. Curt Schilling has at least spent some time with Clay Buchholz, but not even he knows him well enough to be diagnosing him as mentally fragile or anything of the sort unless he's hiding a degree in sports psychology.
What we know about Clay Buchholz is this: he's inconsistent from year-to-year. Remarkably so. In 2010 and 2011, he was great. In 2012, he was awful. In 2013, he was superlative. In 2014, he swung completely in the other direction. To Curt Schilling and so many others, this is proof of a lack of mental toughness. It's "all above the shoulders."
Is Clay Buchholz a headcase? He could well be. But there's no particularly good evidence for that aside from the diagnosis of a hundred thousand armchair psychologists falling back on a reliable devil's proof to explain a frustrating player.
In fact, there's evidence against it. Buchholz introduced himself to Red Sox fans by throwing a no-hitter in one of his first Major League appearances, striking out two of the last three batters he faced, when the pressure was at its greatest. According to baseball reference, Buchholz' numbers are actually slightly better with runners on base than with the bases empty. Better still with runners in scoring position. "Late and close" situations see Buchholz pitch to a .647 OPS. Two outs with RISP? .658. Those figures compared to a .702 OPS allowed in all plate appearances. If I were to show you those splits with no name attached, you'd probably call him "clutch".
So what's the deal? Hey, let's go ahead and lay out those years and throw in some extra information...
--LENGTHY INJURY GOES HERE--
--LENGTHY INJURY GOES HERE--
The same caveats apply here as with the psychology bit: I'm not a doctor. Most of you aren't either, and even if you are, I'm guessing your last physical examination of Clay Buchholz was conducted never. But you can call him physically fragile if you wan't. He's had a pair of effectively season-ending injuries in just a few years time, if he managed to get himself back on the mound in time for a fairly rough postseason run in 2013. And there's enough evidence to at least suspect that maybe, just maybe, it's less a matter of mental fortitude than physical fortitude involved in those bad years.
Clay Buchholz gets hurt with some regularity, and he's not great at coming back from injury. It's a theory, not a fact (not even the first bit to be honest given that we're just talking about two injuries), but it's got a lot more substance to it than the alternative.
Is Clay Buchholz an ace? When healthy, he can probably perform like one. 2010 was a great year, and in 2013 he looked like a Cy Young candidate. But there are a million different qualities that make up a baseball players, and if Clay Buchholz scores well in many categories, he so far scores poorly in his ability to stay healthy, and to pitch when not at (or near) 100%. That's not inherently better or worse than a pitcher who scores well in those categories, but is not much more than above average in terms of locating his pitches and missing bats.
At the end of the day, he's a pitcher with a 109 ERA+ in 915 career innings earning less than a player of that caliber can expect and receiving about 100 times the negative attention a player of that caliber deserves. Let's stop hanging him by our expectations and start appreciating him for what he is: the best arm the Red Sox system has produced in 8 years.