Clay Buchholz Commands, Changes Way To Success

Although Clay Buchholz had enjoyed his share of success heading into 2013, from a no-hitter to a 17-win season, one assumes the Red Sox were hoping for more. Buchholz was Baseball America‘s fourth-best prospect entering 2008 and appeared to be a top-of-the-rotation power arm capable of ace-level dominance. Instead, Buchholz has had one very good season — a 2010 with a 2.33 ERA and a still-solid 3.61 FIP. He has otherwise pitched like a back-end rotation-filler, with a 4.26 ERA and a 4.38 FIP over 500.1 innings.

Wednesday night, Buchholz’s fifth start of his age-28 season, is the latest signal of the step forward the Red Sox have been waiting for. Buchholz held the Blue Jays to just two hits and three walks over seven shutout innings as he struck out eight to lower his ERA to 1.01. And fret not, the peripherals are fantastic as well: he owns a 2.28 FIP and 3.00 xFIP.

The strikeout total he put up Wednesday night has been there all season, and it’s the main difference between the new Buchholz and the old Buchholz. Despite his blazing fastball and breaking pitches lauded as grade 70 pitches in Baseball America reports, Buchholz was posted remarkably consistent and mediocre strikeout rates from 2009-2012, always between 6.1 and 6.7 K/9. He now has 47 strikeouts in 44.2 innings in 2013.

Additionally, Buchholz kept a Blue Jays lineup loaded with power hitters without a home run, and he has allowed just one this season. His HR/FB was a horrible 13 percent last year and he had four seasons above 10 percent in his last five.

So what’s new? Via last night’s Blue Jays broadcast, Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Buchholz’s biggest difference is improved fastball command. And indeed, the numbers (via BrooksBaseball.net) bear this out: Buchholz has thrown his four-seam fastball for a called strike 27.5 percent of the time this year after just 22.8 percent in 2012. Conversely, the pitch has seen a similar drop in in-play rate. Considering Buchholz has allowed a .537 slugging on contact on the pitch for his career — the worst by over 100 points for any pitch he still throws — the fewer four-seam fastballs put in play the better.

By keeping the fastballs on the corners, something he did proficiently Wednesday night, he’ll turn what used to be balls in play into called strikes or foul balls. He has thrown the fastball for a strike but not in play 51.8 percent of the time this year, six points higher than last season. And, with 160 four-seam fastballs thrown already this season, this difference is already statistically significant (in a 90 percent confidence interval, to be specific).

His HR/FB won’t stay grounded at 3.7 percent, but keeping fastballs out of play will keep it from escalating too quickly. It’s especially key because he needs to be able to throw the fastball to get into favorable counts — it’s his best-controlled pitch at about 68 percent strikes the last two seasons, slightly better than the two-seamer and much better than his off-speed options.

And thanks to those fastball strikes, Buchholz has been in plenty of two-strike counts. The next question, then, is which pitch will be the out pitch. His curveball has been shockingly bad at drawing whiffs — under 10 percent since 2007, close to the major league fastball average — and that hasn’t changed this year. But his changeup, at least in 2013, has been an elite swing-and-miss pitch. Of the 74 Buchholz has tossed, hitters have waved at 20, a massive 27 percent.

As mentioned above, Buchholz’s changeup has been heralded in the past; a 70 grade is frontline material. But he was struggling mightily with the pitch last season, so much so that he scrapped it for a splitter Josh Beckett taught him after he threw the pitch for a ball nearly 50 percent of the time in April last season.

That arsenal change didn’t take as the calendar flipped to 2013. Buchholz had little trouble drawing swings and misses when he used the changeup in 2012 — 18.9 percent is still an excellent mark for a changeup — and his control issues have disappeared. Buchholz threw 13 changeups Wednesday night with nine (69 percent) going for strikes, and his 63 percent overall strike rate works fine for a pitch designed to fool hitters. The pitch has been devastating to left-handers and right-handers alike, with whiff rates over 20 percent to both sides. It’s been so good, he’s put the splitter back in the toolbox, leaving it as a side project for bullpen sessions.

Things will come back to earth. Buchholz’s changeup probably won’t finish with a higher whiff rate than Aroldis Chapman‘s slider (currently at 24.4 percent). Teams will tag his fastball for a few home runs. But Buchholz has already thrown enough fastballs to suggest his control and command of the pitch have improved this year, and his changeup has been a highly regarded pitch dating back to his time in Double-A. If he can maintain even a fraction of the improvements he’s shown over his first five starts with these two pitches, the Red Sox can expect Buchholz to finally step into his frontline potential.




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28 Responses to “Clay Buchholz Commands, Changes Way To Success”

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  1. tz says:

    Thanks Jack. I love these concise but revealing analyses; it’s what makes Fangraphs so great.

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  2. RPMcSweeney says:

    Great work, one note: last night was Buchholz’s sixth start.

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  3. Jim says:

    This article was informative EXCEPT a big part of Buchholz’s success this year is the movement and velocity and command of his 2-SEAMER to both RHB/LHB. Look at the clips from his starts, especially last night and you will see as good a 2 seamer as there is.

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    • Caveman Jones says:

      He’s been riding it back over the inside corner for called strike 3 to leftys all year. Tough pitch to hit.

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      • Jim says:

        He backdoored righties last night too on more than one occasion. But, agreed the start at the hip over the inside corner one is pretty.

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  4. Carl says:

    Great analysis and very well written. Thank you for all the hard work.

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  5. odditie says:

    Nice write up. One issue though is you are using information that confirms control to show he has improved command. Obviously the two overlap some, but I think it is important that people writing articles on the subject should be clear which is which.

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  6. Pr says:

    no mention that his swinging strike rate is actually down from last year?

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    • Chummy Z says:

      This is what I was going to ask. This is kind of why I don’t believe that this is anymore than your average fluky good start. Does it have to do with his decreased swing% or his increased o-contact%? That doesn’t make as much sense. Once the home runs return and the K’s go down, you have the same pitcher as before.

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      • Synovia says:

        I would expect better control to lead to more strikes along the edge of the strikezone, which would lead to more strikes looking…

        which would lead to a lower swinging strike %.

        Which is pretty much exactly whats happening.

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        • thomas says:

          I agree with Synovia. His swinging strike percent is down slightly, (only .2%), but his zone swing percentage is down a significant amount: 58.3 % from 65.1% last year. he is just close to the same amount of swing strikes despite batters swinging at less pitches in the zone.

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      • Synovia says:

        Also, we’ve seen a big tick up in his IFFB numbers, which would lead one to think that his HR/FB numbers being down is real, and not luck.

        So yeah, if his HR go up and his Ks go down, he’ll be back to what he was, but there’s no reason to think that’ll happen.

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      • ed says:

        So once he starts pitching worse, he’ll be a worse pitcher. Makes sense to me!

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  7. Eric says:

    6-0 after 52 starts. He is the man!

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  8. Synovia says:

    No mention that he actually had a severe back problem last year either. Basically had a broken vertebrae.

    He was great, hurt his back, looked terrible for a while, and now he looks good again. Its about him getting healthier.

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  9. ed says:

    It seems like fastball command (improved or worsened) is basically the answer to about 90% of questions about how well a pitcher is doing, no?

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  10. Steve says:

    he won’t sustain it, he plays at Fenway and his velocity didn’t increase. He’ll improve from 2012, but he’s not breaking through.

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    • ed says:

      There’s more to pitching than velocity.

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      • ed says:

        …and anyway, his velocity has increased…on his 2-seamer. From 91.4 last year to 92.5 this year.

        Of course, that’s faster than his 4-seamer, which doesn’t make sense, and suggests there’s something wrong with how Pitch f/x is classifying pitches. This is the case for several pitchers, and I think fangraphs should really be explaining what they think is going on there.

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    • Synovia says:

      He doesn’t need to break through. He was elite 2 years ago, then got hurt. He needs to get back to where he was.

      FIP isn’t a big fan of Buccholz because he is a babip supressor. (aside from 2008 when he basically forgot how to pitch, was terrible, and they sent him down to AA to change his pitch repetoir)

      BABIP in majors:
      2007 – .255
      2008 – .355
      2009 – .279
      2010 – .261
      2011 – .264
      2012 – .283
      2013 – .248

      His BABIP may come up a bit, but hes also getting more infield flies this year than hes ever got before, so it may not come up as much as people would think.

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      • John DiFool says:

        And he has a prior history of much higher strikeout rates too-not surprising in the least to see that go back up.

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      • Eric M. Van says:

        Furthermore, in 2012 his BABIP was .337 in his first 9 starts (7.84 ERA, 6.89 FIP) coming off the back problem, and .265 thereafter (3.41 ERA, 3.96 FIP). And after 2010, I found not only a significant start-by-start inverse correlation between BABIP and K / BB ratio, with the lower BABIP more than compensating, but a pattern of optimizing the result as the season progressed — all of the starts with better FIP but worse results were in the first half.

        Oh, and last year he didn’t completely scrap the change, and was the only pitcher in MLB who threw both a splitter and change with different velocities in addition to different movement. In theory, it could be a great extra weapon.

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  11. Mike Green says:

    Last night, he was getting quite a few charitable calls outside. It drove a swing-happy club that was trying to exercise a little plate discipline nuts. That will help one’s called strike rate. I took a quick gander through the Brooks Baseball graphs, and it looks like Buchholz has done pretty well on the calls so far this season.

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    • thomas says:

      Anyone who bothered to read this article should know better than to give Jack Morris’s baseless accusations any kind of credence. Or anyone who bothers to look at the numbers.

      How would a spitball enable Buchholz to get called strikes on the edge of the zone? It would not, since that is not what a spitball does. A spitball moreover is not used on a change up.

      Jack Morris just wants attention.

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      • MidwestIsTheBest says:

        Agreed. I just threw it up there because it seemed like an interesting wrinkle to the story.

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  12. Jack Morris says:

    That cheating sack of @#$@ throws a spitter! Our spotter in the centerfield bleachers confirms it!

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