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Clay Buchholz: Playoff Starter

Clay Buchholz is improbably going to be part of the playoff rotation. Should we be worried?

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

So, the Red Sox have received some troubling news in the midst of the final week before they embark on a hopefully long postseason journey. Drew Pomeranz, who has been a big part of Boston’s much-improved rotation in the second half, is being shut down for his scheduled start on Thursday. As of this writing, it remains unclear whether or not Pomeranz will be able to pitch again this season. Predictably (and understandably) many are tying this back to the controversy with the Padres front office, and are angry about it. The Red Sox are declining comment on that front.

Whether or not this has anything to do with anything that may have been hidden in San Diego doesn’t really matter at this point, though. For now, the Red Sox need to plug on and continue trying to play good baseball and eventually make it deep into October. In that area, Pomeranz’s absence will certainly be felt. While he’s been shaky, the lefty has shown some serious upside that would be enticing in a must-win scenario. Instead, the Red Sox are left with Clay Buchholz manning a spot in the playoff rotation.

It’s hard to overstate how shocking it is we’ve even gotten to this point with the right-hander. If you were to travel back in time to a few months ago and tell your past self that he’s worked himself into the playoff rotation, you’d slap your own face. Also, you’d be wasting time travel by going back like 90 days. C’mon.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Buchholz has earned at least some consideration for an October start, though. Even before the Pomeranz news came out, there was a chance that he’d be the fourth starter. Buchholz, of course, was lifted from the rotation early in July and was eventually placed into a bullpen role. Since that time, he’s thrown 52-2/3 innings with a 3.59 ERA while limiting opponents to a .649 OPS.

It’s worth noting that there are some concerns about this performance, though. Most notably, he’s doing it without generating any strikeouts. Now, Buchholz has never really been a huge strikeout pitcher — he’s had two seasons with more than eight K’s per nine innings -- but it’s to a new extreme during this run. The righty is striking out just 5.8 batters per nine innings over these 52 innings. Additionally, he’s countering it with only a good-not-great 2.7 walks per nine innings rate. In fact, among the 122 pitchers with at least 50 second-half innings, only seven have struck out opponents at a lower rate than Buchholz.

What’s really saved him has been the fact that he is limiting big hits. During this run, Buchholz has allowed just four home runs, which is the big reason why he carries a respectable 3.92 FIP despite the lackluster K and BB rates. He’s also held opponents to a .264 batting average on balls in play, which he does deserve some credit for, even if it’s likely to be largely unsustainable. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, there hasn’t been major changes in his opponents’ profiles. In fact, Buchholz is actually allowing more fly balls and fewer ground balls in the second half compares to the first. That tradeoff would be expected to have a positive effect on his BABIP, but one could reasonably fear some home run regression. To make matters worse, Fangraphs has him allowing more hard contact in this recent run than he was during his early-season struggles.

Now, there are a couple of counters here. The first is that the batted ball data is always questionable, particularly over small samples. I was surprised by the hard contact data, for instance, as my (also flawed) “eye test” would have had a different conclusion. On top of that, this is Clay Buchholz we’re talking about. While the numbers may suggest one outcome or another, we all know that he’s an enigma. Anything could happen any time he takes the mound. In other words, there’s every chance he spins a gem if/when he starts a playoff game.

Still, though, there is reason to be worried about a potential Buchholz start. The good news is that John Farrell is in a good position to give Buchholz a short leash. If it’s clear his starter doesn’t have it early in a game, the Red Sox have the potential weapons to get through a bullpen game. The biggest weapon could be Heath Hembree, if he makes the roster. His value to this team as a long reliever has been both shocking and under-appreciated. Even if he doesn’t make the roster, though, the Red Sox have multi-inning arms. Joe Kelly, for instance, is still somewhat stretched out from the beginning of the season and showed in his last outing he can throw multiple innings. Robbie Ross and Matt Barnes haven’t gone multiple frames lately, but they’ve shown an ability and could likely be pushed to in a postseason scenario. Hell, Pomeranz himself or even Steven Wright could in the bullpen, both of whom could obviously go multiple innings.

The debate between Buchholz and Pomeranz figured to be one of the most intriguing questions as the team looked to set their postseason roster. Even before this injury news, Buchholz had a chance to claim the spot. Now, it’s all but guaranteed. Unfortunately, the underlying numbers are a cause for some concern as we look to his future performance. While the results have been largely good in the second half, he doesn’t have the look of a pitcher who should be pitching this well. On the other hand, it’s Clay Buchholz, so who the hell knows? Plus, if he does struggle and needs to be yanked early, the bullpen has the pieces to compensate. This Pomeranz news is a bummer, but something Boston can overcome.