I’d like to share something with you from last Saturday’s ALCS Game 6. We all know now how that game turned out, but in the top of the sixth the eventual result was still a mystery, and the Red Sox were clinging to a tenuous lead. Given that the score was so close, every pitch was important, and when Clay Buchholz got to two strikes against Miguel Cabrera, a fan in the stands tried to get everybody amped. What he wanted was a standing ovation. What he wanted was mounting two-strike applause. Sometimes it works. You know it when you hear it, and it’s a sure sign of a stadium that’s engaged and invested.
Instead of everyone else standing up, within seconds the highlighted fan sat himself down. The crowd couldn’t sustain proper electricity given the game’s deliberate tempo. After the fan, the camera cut next to Buchholz:
Buchholz took his sweet time. Sure, absolutely, you don’t want to make a mistake there to Cabrera, but you’d think it would be possible to realize how not to make a mistake in a shorter period of time. The crowd had a little life, but there wasn’t a lot of noise when Buchholz delivered his next pitch. Cabrera hit it for a single, knocking Buchholz out of the game. Shortly thereafter, the Tigers took the lead in what could’ve and should’ve been a more pivotal frame. Is there a connection between the lack of noise for Buchholz and the Cabrera at-bat result? Would Cabrera have done something else had the crowd been more lively, had Buchholz worked faster? Probably not, no, but by introducing the questions I can lend a little artificial significance to the rest of this article. We’re talking about pace!
We have, on FanGraphs, average pitcher pace for every pitcher, available for the entirety of the PITCHf/x era, available for seasons, available for months, and available for games. Pace is what you’d think it would be: it’s the average number of seconds between pitches, because the PITCHf/x cameras track that information so we might as well make use of it. Starters tend to work a little faster than relievers. Pitchers tend to work a little faster with the bases empty than with runners on. In calculating pace, FanGraphs throws out pitches after pick-off attempts so that numbers don’t get inflated. They’re fun numbers to look at, even if they don’t make an actual difference with regard to wins and losses.
One thing we don’t have is postseason pace. We don’t have any postseason PITCHf/x data, which is very mildly frustrating. Clay Buchholz, right now, is said to be pitching at something below 100%. Observers understand that he’s been working extremely slowly so far in the playoffs. Confirming that, though, is something that has to be done by hand. Or at least, I had to do it by hand. I decided to calculate Buchholz’s playoff paces by myself.
The process kind of took me back to when I would manually calculate a player’s wOBA or WAR, before FanGraphs made everything easier. There’s an odd sense of discovery in doing these calculations on your own, even if you aren’t pursuing a novel concept. What I calculated for Buchholz is data that should be easy to automate, but it’s also data that can’t presently be found anywhere. Buchholz, this October, has made three starts, with a fourth start coming up this weekend. What I found is what you could’ve guessed: Buchholz has been slow. Probably too slow.
For the sake of reference: Buchholz’s overall career pace is 25.1 seconds. This season, it was 24.3 seconds, lower probably because he pitched less frequently with men on. According to FanGraphs, in his last start of the regular season, his pace was 24.2 seconds. According to my own calculations, it was 24.5 seconds — I wanted to make sure I’d arrive at a similar or identical number. I figure those numbers are close enough, so I moved forward with playoff stuff.
Start No. 1: 32.6-second pace
Start No. 2: 30.1
Start No. 3: 30.4
For the hell of it, the same numbers without excluding pitches thrown after pick-off attempts, since pick-off attempts do slow the game down further:
Start No. 1: 35.2-second pace
Start No. 2: 30.1
Start No. 3: 32.9
Pace considers pitches that don’t follow pick-off attempts, and that aren’t the first pitches of plate appearances. In Buchholz’s last regular-season start, he threw 49 of 85 such pitches in under 25 seconds, or about 58%. In the playoffs, he’s thrown 54 of 187 such pitches in under 25 seconds, or about 29%. On more than one occasion, he’s gone more than a full minute without throwing a pitch. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for slow-downs, but this is why we look at averages, and on average, Buchholz is working several seconds slower.
This season, the average pace for a starter was 21.9 seconds. The very slowest paces for starters tend to be around 26-28 seconds, featuring names like Erik Bedard and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Of even greater significance, according to Buchholz’s career game log, he’s had just one regular-season start ever with a pace over 30 seconds. That one was 30.3, and his next-slowest pace was 29.3. His next-slowest pace after that was 28.1. Buchholz has pitched three times this month, and in those three games he’s had three of his four slowest paces ever. He’s had his single slowest, by a margin of a couple of seconds. Buchholz isn’t ordinarily the slowest worker in baseball, but he has been lately, so observers have definitely caught on to something.
So what? Well, that’s a legitimate question. So what? It’s not like people are going to turn off the game, if it’s a game they care about. Buchholz’s tempo isn’t making the Red Sox worse. It would if umpires actually enforced the pitcher timing rule, probably, but they don’t and they won’t, not any time soon. And that rule doesn’t even apply if there are runners on base, or if the batter isn’t yet standing in the box.
All I really wanted to do was confirm that Buchholz has been a lot slower than usual. An interesting hypothesis is that he’s slower specifically because he’s fatigued — admittedly fatigued — and he takes advantage of those extra seconds. Buchholz’s velocities aren’t really lagging, according to Brooks Baseball. But fatigue can manifest in other ways, and one wonders if there’s a link between pace and injury or pace and fatigue, if you consider fatigue and injury different things. It’s easy to imagine that a starter feeling worn down wouldn’t be quite so hasty to begin his next delivery. You have to concentrate a little harder.
And no one’s going to be mad at Buchholz for trying to concentrate. At least, no one pulling for the Red Sox. The rest of us? We’re allowed to be a little annoyed. Our consolation is that Buchholz’s season is almost over. But he’s got one start left to go, presuming he doesn’t get scratched, and it could be a slow one. It probably will be a slow one. That’s going to mean as much or as little as you allow it to.
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