Amidst all of the position battles in camp, the biggest question for the Red Sox right now could arguably be which pitcher will step up behind David Price. Eduardo Rodriguez was a favorite for many, but he’s going to miss the first month or so of the season, setting him back pretty significantly. Rick Porcello is another popular choice, but he’s yet to put everything together for a full season. Really, if Boston’s rotation is going to have any kind of one-two punch, the most likely player to step up — based purely on talent — is Clay Buchholz.
Obviously, the question with Buchholz is going to be the same every year of his career. How many starts will he make before he hits the disabled list? We’re long past the point of wondering whether or not he’ll get hurt. It’s a matter of when, not if. This season in particular, where there is so much uncertainty on the pitching staff, the amount of time Buchholz can stay healthy is an extremely important trend to watch for. What I want to know is how many starts he has to make in order to be a legitimate factor in 2016 instead of just a footnote.
There are a lot of variables to a question like this, not the least of which revolves around which version of Buchholz the Red Sox get when he is on the mound. As we know by now, he has all of the talent in the world, but even more inconsistency. We’ve seen him look like a Cy Young candidate as well as a quad-A pitcher. Heading into the season, I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll get the good version of Buchholz, and I’ll run with that assumption as I try to answer the question at hand.
First, however, I’ll explain why I’m making this assumption. It’s not something you can exactly gloss over when there’s seemingly just as much of a chance that he’ll pitch to a 6.00 ERA. The first and most simple reason I’m cautiously optimistic is that he was outstanding the last time I saw him pitch meaningful games. In 2015, albeit in just 113 innings, Buchholz ended the year with a 3.26 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 3.34 DRA and 82 cFIP. Among the 141 pitchers with at least 100 innings last season, those numbers ranked 24th, 3rd, 17th and 15th, respectively. No matter where you look, you’ll find that Buchholz was among the best pitchers in the game while he was healthy last year.
Of course, it’s not entirely fair to only look at last season when you look at Buchholz. We saw a similar season out of him back in 2013 only to see him fall flat on his face with an atrocious performance in 2014. In fact, he’s seemingly swapped good and bad seasons evenly over the last few years. He’s essentially the player version of the Giants, except his good seasons come in odd years. With that being said, there’s an even better reason to expect a repeat performance in 2016. Looking a little deeper at his good seasons, there’s one thing they have in common. Buchholz had a healthy offseason heading into each of them. When he’s able to get his full work load in during the winter, the following season typically turns out really well. By all accounts, that was the case last year.
So, with the assumption that Good Buchholz will show up in 2016, we now get back to the original question. What is the minimum number of starts he needs to make this year? There’s two ways to look at this. The first is from a pure value standpoint, adding up the WARs, if you will. Between his last two good seasons, he’s been worth roughly six wins over 34 starts eyeballing an average between bWAR, fWAR and WARP. On that pace, he’ll only need to make about 13 starts in 2016 to be an average pitcher worth about two wins. That probably seems like a low bar, but the way I look at it, if Buchholz is an average contributor it can’t count as a lost season.
That’s an overly simplistic way of looking at this question, though. What we really need to look at is who is replacing him and how long the Red Sox can ideally wait before throwing the replacements into the rotation. In an ideal world, one of Henry Owens or Brian Johnson gets that role. They have the best upside among all of the possible spot starters. Of course, neither of them are ready right now, an obvious fact based on neither of them being involved for the battle for Rodriguez’s rotation spot. The former needs time in the minor to work out his kinks, specifically his control. The latter is battling some minor injury issues. In an ideal world, Buchholz would give them roughly a half a season to get back into a groove before joining the majors and (hopefully) a pennant race. That puts him at about 16 starts.
There’s another significant part of the 16-game mark, too. If Buchholz makes it halfway through the season, that will get the Red Sox a couple weeks into July. At that point, they’ll have a firm grasp of their team, but will also still have time to make a move in the market. It’s possible that, at the time of Buchholz’s probable injury, no one else is ready to step up for a long-term role. If he can at least make it halfway through the season, there will be enough teams involved in the trade market at that point to make a solid move to help the rotation.
In an ideal world, the 2015 Buchholz will show up and make 32 starts, giving the Red Sox a legitimate number two starter in their rotation. We all know there’s a slim chance for that, though. Boston will need him for some time, though. Preferably, he’ll be around for at least half of the season to give the Red Sox the maximum amount of time to evaluate their options before the trade deadline.