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Why Clay Buchholz's start to 2015 is encouraging

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Clay Buchholz may always be an enigma, but his early-season numbers for the Red Sox provide reasons for optimism.

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Trying to predict the future can be a maddening task, and that is especially the case when Clay Buchholz is involved. The right-hander has been anything but consistent throughout his career with the Red Sox, and it remains something of a mystery as to why he can flash elite stuff one start and hardly resemble a major-league pitcher the next.

We've already seen the full Buchholz experience just two weeks into this season. He looked nearly unhittable in Boston's Opening Day victory against the Phillies before falling flat on his face against the Yankees in his second start, one of the worst outings from any pitcher in MLB so far this year. Buchholz showed more mettle last time out against the Orioles, fighting through some misfortune to allow just one walk and two runs over six innings.

Even still, the end result is more questions than answers with Buchholz, and that remains the case nine seasons into his Red Sox career.

Yet even if we accept that Buchholz is a near-impossible nut to crack, there are some reasons for optimism from his early-season performances. Sure, his 6.06 ERA would make anyone cringe, but just a glance at his early season -- emphasis on early -- FIP (3.02) and xFIP (2.67) suggests the righty has pitched better than his results show.

Most encouraging has been Buchholz's ability to generate strikeouts in his first three outings. For a pitcher who has long depended on the play of his fielders behind him, garnering extra whiffs is of vital importance. Through 16-1/3 innings pitched in 2015, Buchholz has compiled a 25 percent strikeout rate and 11 percent swinging-strike rate, both of which would stand as career-best marks. Expecting Buchholz to post these numbers over a full season is likely wishful thinking, but they do speak to the quality of his stuff in the early going.

Buchholz
Photo credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

After struggling with the feel for his changeup in recent seasons, Buchholz has found great success with the offering again in 2015. According to Brooks Baseball, opposing hitters swung through Buchholz's changeup nearly 24 percent of the time in his first three starts, and he has yet to allow a hit on the pitch (though again, we're dealing with a small sample size here). Long his best offering, Buchholz needs an effective changeup to help him generate whiffs and weak contact.

Even more intriguing has been the subtle change in Buchholz's pitch usage. In years past, Buchholz has preferred throwing his four-seamer with regularity while mixing in a sinker and cutter to give hitters a different look on his fastball. That's changed this season, with Buchholz turning to his sinker almost 40 percent of the time through his first three outings, making it his most used offering. The pitch has helped Buchholz produce more groundballs, and his current 55 percent groundball rate is notably higher than it's been over the past three seasons.

Considering the Red Sox bulked up on groundball pitchers this offseason, Buchholz's altered approach is one worth monitoring. He's never been a groundball pitcher per se, but given his issues with home runs in the past, keeping the ball in the infield more frequently could pay big dividends.

That there are positive signs regarding Buchholz's early-season performances is a good reminder that Boston's rotation as a whole still needs more time to be judged fully. With the offseason narrative surrounding the club condemning Ben Cherington's supposed inability to add an ace, it's easy to let a poor outing or two stoke panic over the team's starting rotation.

In a way, Buchholz exemplifies all the question marks and worry surrounding the Red Sox's starters. He has all the talent and ability in the world, sure, but his inconsistency makes him tough to depend on at times, especially with Boston needing bounce-back campaigns from a few of their other pitchers.

Still, Red Sox fans should take some comfort in how Buchholz has fared this April. His underlying statistics (and that .404 batting average on balls in play) point to a pitcher who has performed better than his ERA indicates. He is compiling more strikeouts and fewer walks than his previous career-best numbers. He is churning out more ground balls than ever before and getting hitters to chase outside the strike zone with a higher frequency. Overall, he's allowing less contact, while his fastball velocity is holding steady when compared with years past.

In short, the Red Sox have plenty of reasons to be positive about Buchholz's outlook for the rest of 2015. If he can continue to garner ground balls and weak contact with regularity, the club's infield defense should help his performance improve. If he can keep his strikeout and walk totals near their current rate, positive results will follow.

Projecting Buchholz's performance with any kind of certainty remains a tough task, of course. He is an enigma, and probably always will be. But there is little doubt that he looks far better than he did at this time last season. The Red Sox have built an armada of quality hitters on offense to help balance the uncertainty within their rotation. Assuming Buchholz is doomed for mediocrity in 2015 would be an overreaction at this point. His numbers suggest patience on Boston's part will likely be rewarded.