If you’re a Red Sox fan, there’s a decent chance you celebrated the departure of Clay Buchholz. There’s a decent chance you think he sucks, or sucked, or always sucked, or often sucked, or perhaps is responsible for all the world’s famine and strife. And you are not entirely incorrect. Clay Buchholz is the man who opened Pandora’s Box after all—can’t really forgive that—but as a pitcher, for all his awful times, he was also often quite good.
How often? Let’s find out.
Buchholz makes this fairly easy on us, actually, because he’s only inconsistent over long periods of time. On a start-to-start basis, on the other hand, he’s pretty damn reliable. If you have good Buchholz one week, you’re very likely to have him the next, and vice versa. That carves up his career into big chunks of games, and while there’s outliers in the middle of both the positive and negative spans, we can assume those more-or-less even out.
It’s not entirely fair to Buchholz, but let’s open up with the first time he saw the majors for any extended period of time: 2008. I say it’s not fair because, at 23, it’s easy to see this as the Sox calling up Buchholz too soon. Yes, he no-hit the Orioles, but one excellent game does not signal that a prospect is finished developing and ready for the majors. Still, the Sox called him up, and he was bad for 15 starts, pitching to an .844 OPS against and 6.75 ERA. Ew!
Buchholz made his return in the second half of 2009, and looked a lot more viable. There were a few implosion games mixed in, but ultimately he finished the year with a 4.21 ERA in 16 starts. If we’re going to count Buchholz’ 2008 against him, I think we can count this in his favor, especially since a 4.21 ERA was still pretty decent at that point (good for a 111 ERA+).
2010 was certainly the breakout year. Given that he finished with a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts, I think we can just count all of those as good.
2011, too, was quite good. A 3.48 ERA in 14 starts. Unfortunately, that was also the beginning of Buchholz’ now lengthy injury history, as he missed the last half of the season. Still, 14 more starts in the plus column.
As 2011 was the first time Buchholz was seriously injured, 2012 was the first time he tried to come back from injury. And as has always been the case with Buchholz, that was quite the ordeal. As has also always been the case, though, Buchholz was also not always awful during that season. Those first 14 starts were miserable, with Buchholz pitching to a 5.53 ERA. he was actually showing big signs of progress with four excellent starts towards the end of May before a mediocre outing against Miami and Esophagitis left him out for about a month. This, however, was not the sort of long-term mechanic-ruining injury, but a short-term break, and Buchholz returned strong with a 3.76 ERA in 15 starts the rest of the way. It’s easy to argue he deserves credit for only 9 bad starts to 20 good ones here, but given his overall season was mediocre, let’s be super conservative and call it just the last 15. Yes that includes a Yankees disaster at the end, but again, outliers. There’s a shutout in the bad part.
2013 was Clay Buchholz at his absolute best. 16 fantastic starts. Then injury. Alas. He might have won the Cy Young Award otherwise.
Right back to the post-injury part of the cycle, Buchholz has never had as much trouble coming back as he did in 2014. You can try and cherry pick the last 10 or 14 or whatever games as being decent, but let’s just call this year a loss. 28 bad starts.
The pattern continued into 2015, though this is one people tend to forget because he got completely destroyed by the Yankees in April. By July 10th, though, when he pitched his last game of the year, Buchholz’ ERA was down to 3.26. If 2014 was 28 bad starts, 2015 gets credit for 18 good ones. Before, yeah, injury.
Finally, we’re at 2016. We know it was, according to schedule, an awful start for Buchholz. 13 bad starts with some bullpen pitching mixed in. Then he was passable against Arizona, put together a couple more good outings, and forced his way back into the rotation by season’s end. Give him 8 good ones to finish his Red Sox career.
So here’s what we have:
2008: Bad (15 starts)
2009-2011: Good (58 starts)
2012 April - June: Bad (14 starts)
2012 April - 2013: Good (31 starts)
2014: Bad (28 starts)
2015: Good (18 starts)
2016 April - July: Bad (13 starts)
2016 August - September: Good (8 starts)
All told, that’s 115 good starts to 70 bad. Even just in the time since his first injury, Buchholz has been good slightly more often than bad (57 starts to 55). This isn’t terribly surprising given that his numbers as a whole support the idea that Buchholz was an above-average pitcher, even if he presented as good - bad - injured.
Ultimately, I can’t help but wonder how different Buchholz’ career might have been if the Red Sox had seen him for what he was early on, and decided to work within the constraints that presented. If they’d seen any sort of injury that messed with his mechanics as essentially an alarm that Buchholz wouldn’t be available for about a year, and done more to make sure he was actually ready before returning. Yes, he might have pitched a lot less often, and it’s not easy to gameplan for effectively needing six starting pitchers,. But the Red Sox are the sort of team with the resources to afford such a luxury, and it might have allowed the Sox to reap the benefits of all those premium outings from Buchholz without sitting through the awfulness. Perhaps then he would’ve finished his Red Sox career with both some more garish numbers, and a bit more appreciation from the fanbase. It’s easier to forgive a guy for fragility they can’t help when they’re just absent, rather than completely ruining your night every fifth day.