After the 2013 season, Clay Buchholz was kind of interesting. He put up some crazy good numbers with an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 1.74/2.78/3.41. It was clear that Buchholz was good in 2013, putting up a 3.2 WAR while being limited to just 108 innings of work. This may have caused some to be weary of Buchholz following the 2013 season. Sure he was good during the Red Sox championship run, but he also had trouble staying on the field. Combine that with several outliers, a lot of luck (.254 BABIP, 83.3% LOB%), and it was easy to see that there were a lot of red flags in Buchholz’s performance. While we shouldn’t discredit 108 innings of awesome work, we also shouldn’t put all of our weight on it either. Buchholz’s 2014 season taught us that as well.
Buchholz’s 2014 season looked pretty bad.
In 2014, Buchholz put up an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 5.34/4.01/4.04. The first thing that pops out is that awful ERA. However, ERA isn’t everything, and there’s a compelling argument that it’s not the most trustworthy statistic. However, we do know that run prevention is some kind of a skill. Buchholz’s RA9-WAR between 2013 and 2014 fell from 5.0 t0 -0.5. There was some bad luck as well. In order for Buchholz’s skillset to work he needs to have a low BABIP, and the seasons in which he has been successful his BABIPs were somewhere in the .250-.260 range. In 2014 his BABIP was .315, which was the highest it’s ever been aside from a 75- inning stint early in his career. This is not entirely Buchholz’s fault, however it’s clear that he took a step back as a pitcher in 2014.
However, peripherally Buchholz actually seems in line with his career norms.
Buchholz has proven that he’s the type of pitcher who succeeds by outperforming his FIP, and for the most part he has done a decent job of doing just that. In his career year of 2011, he had nearly a 1.30 ERA-FIP differential, and in 2013 the trend was the same, with his ERA being a whole run lower than his FIP. It’s clear that this is how Buchholz has made himself an above-average starting pitcher. That’s not to say that this is not a skill set that can’t work. Matt Cain has always outperformed his FIPs, and done so at an elite level. Shelby Miller looks like the type of pitcher who may do the same thing. There are exceptions to everything, and it’s clear that there are some pitchers who can do a good job of beating out their FIPs. Buchholz may or may not be one of those pitchers.
It is clear that Buchholz, for a good chunk of his career, has masked his average to below-average peripherals by doing a good job of preventing runs from scoring. That eventually caught up with him in 2014 when his luck ran out. Regression from the 2013 season was inevitable. Buchholz increased his K% in from 16% in 2012 to 23%. This is what made his peripherals look really good in 2013. However, an increase in strikeouts isn’t always sustainable as the increase in strikeout rate usually doesn’t carry over into the next season.
Buchholz never struck out batters at such a high clip in his career and given that this was a small sample — 108 innings — regression in 2014 was predictable. However, it’s not like Buchholz regressed to something that was godawful in 2014. In fact, he actually regressed to something that was pretty similar to what he has always been. There were a couple of concerns throughout the season in terms of his ability to repeat his delivery, which is quite concerning, but at the end of the day the stuff hadn’t changed that much from 2013 to 2014.
Whiffs Per Swing:
There was a decrease in his ability to get whiffs on two of his pitch categories. However, the decreases weren’t that extreme. One could label an 8% change on Whiffs per Swing on his off speed stuff as drastic, but at the same time this only regressed Buchholz back to getting strikeouts at a typical 16-17% rate rather than the 23%. At the end of the day, Buchholz’s skill set isn’t about striking guys out. His approach is about not walking too many guys, making weak contact and keeping the ball in the park. He has never excelled at being a command artist, in fact in some parts of his career he has been quite lousy at keeping his walk rate down as well as keeping the ball in the park. If a pitcher is not going to strike guys out at a high rate, in order to be elite he has to be able to excel at either keeping the ball in the park or not walking guys. Buchholz has been very okay at both keeping the ball in the park and not giving up walks.
Buchholz has built up a conventional reputation of being something special by posting low ERAs, a no hitter, and maybe some post-season dramatics. However, Buchholz may just be a mediocre pitcher masked by some stellar defense. He doesn’t have that stellar walk rate and he doesn’t seem immune to home runs like Matt Cain in his prime. However, Buchholz in 2014 wasn’t as bad as many thought he was. Sure a 4.06 FIP in 2014 — where pitching rules — isn’t the prettiest figure, but at the same time there are still plenty of teams that would consider the figure very serviceable. Positive regression is likely for Buchholz, however asking him to come back to those pretty looking ERAs is asking a lot. By FIP Buchholz has never been anything elite, and he has proven that he is nothing elite. Buchholz is what he is, a very serviceable pitcher with some highlights in his career such as postseason heroics and a no-hitter. Buchholz is not terrible nor is anything spectacular; he is somewhere in between.