A Buchholz Breakout?

Glance at Clay Buchholz‘s ERAs over the 2008-2010 seasons, and you’ll be inclined to believe that the former phenom’s major league performance has progressed from ghastly (6.75) to good (4.21) to great (2.52). That’s a compelling narrative — the hot-shot prospect tosses a no-no during a September ’07 call-up, gets his head handed to him the following year and then makes the necessary adjustments to blossom into a full-fledged ace.

It’s a nice story. But it’s also misleading. In truth, Buchholz neither fell to the depths of despair that his ’08 ERA suggests, nor has he risen from the ashes like a phoenix this season for a Boston rotation suffering greatly from injury and underachievement. Throughout his big league tenure, Buchholz has been pretty good, but hardly elite.

In 2010, Buchholz has 5.72 K/9, 3.78 BB/9, a 51.5 percent ground ball rate and a 4.33 xFIP in 78.2 frames. For comparison, his xFIP was 4.28 in ’08 and 4.09 last season. The big change in Clay’s ERA is due to factors largely out of his control — his BABIP is .268 (.302 career average) and his home run per fly ball rate is just 4.2%. His career rate is 11%, right at the big league average.

The 25-year-old’s K rate is down from the previous two seasons (8.53 K/9 in ’08, 6.65 in ’09). His swinging strike rate is basically the same all the years, ranging from 9.7% to 9.9% (8-9% MLB average), but the culprit for the lack of punch outs appears to be the rate of contact made against Buccholz’s pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. He’s throwing more off-the-plate pitches in 2010, and batters are swinging at plenty of them. But they’re also connecting more often against those offerings:

Buchholz has thrown just 43.8 percent of his pitches within the zone this year (47.3% MLB average). Batters have gone after his out-of zone pitches 31.5% (28.1% MLB average). However, they have put the bat on the ball 67.6% (66.4% MLB average).

That’s a sizeable increase from the previous two seasons — in 2008 and 2009, hitters made contact with Buchholz’s out-of-zone pitches at a rate that was about seven percent below the major league average. This season, they’re making contact on those pitches at a clip that’s two percent above the MLB norm.

Pitch selection has played a role in the K decline. Buchholz has a four-pitch mix: a 93-94 MPH fastball, a hard-upper 80′s slider, a mid-to-high-seventies curveball and a 79-80 MPH changeup. According to Pitch F/X data from Trip Somers’ site, Buchholz has increasingly gone to his slider this season, at the expense of some changeups and curves:

His fastball has never garnered many whiffs, and neither has his curve. Buchholz’s changeup has always gotten a healthy number of swing-throughs. His slider produced plenty of whiffs in ’08, but it’s not missing many bats this year:

So more sliders, and fewer whiffs on the slider. In our splits section on the player pages, we have pitch usage by count. Buchholz is going to his fastball and slider (two pitches with below-average whiff rates) more often in two-strike situations, in place of his curveball and whiff-generating changeup:

(note: the numbers are rounded, so not all columns add up to exactly 100).

These changes in Buchholz’s approach help explain why he hasn’t missed as many bats as expected. His minor league K rates suffered over this period as well. Buchholz spent much of 2007 pitching between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, and he logged a good number of innings with the PawSox in ’08 and ’09. Buchholz’s major league equivalent K rates declined over the years — According to Minor League Splits, Buchholz’s work in the minors in 2007 translated to 9.8 K/9 in the big leagues, but that mark fell to 7.7 K/9 in 2008 and 6.7 K/9 in 2009.

Clay Buchholz has a fantastic minor league track record. He exhibits strong ground ball tendencies, and he was an elite strikeout pitcher during most of his days as a prospect. It wouldn’t be surprising if he took significant steps forward in the coming years. But the current version of Buchholz is more of a solid, low-four’s ERA-type than any sort of rotation messiah.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


38 Responses to “A Buchholz Breakout?”

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  1. Rich says:

    “a 51.5 percent ground ball rate and a 4.33 xFIP in 78.2 frames. For comparison, his xFIP was 4.28 in ‘08 and 4.09 last season. The big change in Clay’s ERA is due to factors largely out of his control — his BABIP is .268″

    Are you really trying to make the argument that a .268 BABIP is unsustainable for a guy with a 51.5% ground ball rate? Really? With an infield as defensively good as the Red Sox?

    xFip is a terribly misleading stat for high ground ball guys.

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  2. David Golebiewski says:

    A .268 BABIP is unsustainable for just about any pitcher, particularly a groundball-centric pitcher (grounders actually have a higher BABIP than fly balls).

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    • Rich says:

      Thats funny. Its only .009 lower than the guy who pitches 3 days in front of him, and has about the same ground ball rate, Jon Lester.

      The guy who pitches after him has a .288 Babip (Wake).

      A handful of redsox relievers also have Babips in the .200s.

      Maybe, just maybe, the 10s of millions the redsox spent on defense are making a difference. They’ve got a gold glover at ever position in the infield (except short, who is still a + guy).

      if UZR is to be trusted, their infield alone should save them 45+ runs this year.

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      • Eno says:

        Lester has a career .307 BABIP. Odds are he will get closer to that at the end of the year just as Buchholz BABIP will creep towards .300. Another thing, do you think Buchholz can substain that 51.5% GB rate?

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      • Matt B. says:

        Michael Young won a gold glove, at short stop, I think we can stop using the GG as a benchmark of quality defense.

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      • Rich says:

        Lester has a career Babip of .307, yes, but the other year in which he played with a good defense, he had a babip of…..280.

        As to Buchholz sustaining 51.5% GB rate, yeah, I do. He was at 48.x in 2008, and 53.x last year. He had a high GB rate in the minors. This is what he is.

        Do you really believe that good defense won’t lower Babip? Really?

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      • Matt B. says:

        You’re right, this (4.33 xFIP) is what he is.

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      • Rich says:

        Lester has a career Babip of .307, yes, but the other year in which he played with a good defense, he had a babip of…..280.

        As to Buchholz sustaining 51.5% GB rate, yeah, I do. He was at 48.x in 2008, and 53.x last year. He had a high GB rate in the minors. This is what he is.

        Do you really believe that good defense won’t lower Babip? Really?

        As to Michael Young, Red Sox current infield, UZR/150 from last year.

        Beltre: +21.2/150
        Youkilis: +19.2/150
        Pedroia: +4.5/150
        Scuatro: -.9/150 (hes +9.5/150 this year so far, SSS).

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      • Dirty Water says:

        Of course he is, he wants his ribs intact.

        Honestly though, between Beltre and Pedroia, Scutaro is asked to only cover a 5′ stretch of dirt. I think he can continue to handle that as well as he has.

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    • Matt B. says:

      Roy Halladay has played in front of one of the better infields (give or take) over the past 5-6 years and has never had a BABIP sub .270 in his career.

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      • Jake R says:

        Looking through historical UZR numbers, Toronto’s infield defense in 2009 was -7.9 in UZR. Halladay’s BABIP was .313.

        In 2008, they were +14.6. Halladay’s BABIP was .293.

        In 2007, they were about +15.1. Halladay’s BABIP was .304.

        In 2006, they were -8. Halladay’s BABIP was .279.

        In 2005, they were +20.5. Halladay’s BABIP was .269.

        I would say that this data shows a trend toward good infield defense having an impact on BABIP for a slightly above 50% ground ball pitcher, but is too small a set and too noisy to draw many other conclusions from. What the data very clearly shows is that Toronto, in none of these years, gave Halladay an infield defense half as good as Boston’s should be this year. Boston already is +12.4 via UZR. This is despite an average performance to date from the generally well above average Youkilis. The defense to date extrapolates to +30.9 over 162 games as it has played so far.

        I don’t expect Buchholz to fully maintain his stellar BABIP. But, the regression is going to be a lot less painful than many think. A .280 BABIP for the rest of the season is not too far out of line with what one might expect given his peripherals and defense. The HR-rate should regress to average though.

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  3. Sean says:

    This may be some seriously myopic fanboyism, but is this just John Farrell at work? Similar criticism could have been made of Jon Lester’s 2008 season: low-ish K-rate (6.50/9) but also fewer walks (2.82/9), and a helpful drop in HR/9. Heck, he had a rise in O-Swing% and O-Contact%, too.

    Now, Lester’s ’08 was better than Buccholz’s 2010 has been so far. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out this is Buchholz going through a similar period of pitching to contact, focusing on keeping the ball down, and going for pitch efficiency over missed bats while he learns how to use his stuff (a strategy that fits with what I’ve heard of Farrell’s philosophy).

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  4. JBerardi says:

    I think Buchholz is overcompensating for previous bad habits. When he first came up, his only method of getting guys out was to get them to chase the curve or the change. He absolutely could not get strikes/pitch to contact with his fastball. He especially didn’t trust his fastball with men on base which caused him to nibble and try and get guys to chase changes/curves, instead of attacking hitters. This resulted in disastrous innings and an eventual demotion to the bus leagues. Since then, he’s focused on the fastball and his slider/cutter (he calls it a cutter), and using them to pound the strike zone. Again, this seems more pronounced with men on base.

    Now that he’s learned to pitch to contact, he needs to work on using that ability to set up his curve and change to get a few more whiffs. I think he’ll eventually figure it out.

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    • Matt B. says:

      Except he is throwing MORE pitches per PA (3.97) than ever in his career and is getting less strikeouts.

      So we are saying he is attacking the hitters more by wasting pitches to setup WEAK contact instead of strikeouts? The point is he is not putting hitters away when he has the chance.

      He hasn’t become some super efficient ground ball machine, he is just not getting them out with strikeouts and his unsustainable BABIP will likely cause his ERA to rise (awesome defense be damned) closer to his xFIP level of 4.33.

      Makes sense to me.

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      • P. says:

        His current BABIP is unsustainable, but it should not implode over the rest of the season. If hitters are making weak contact outside of the strikezone, you could theorize an increase in whiffs on those pitches will happen over the season. This will then lead to a higher BABIP over the rest of the season (as those pitches were not put into play). I think his ERA will end up closer to his current FIP, barring injury or fatigue.

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  5. Eno says:

    Concerns on Buchholz; 5.72 K/9, 3.78 BB/9.

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  6. Paul says:

    But isn’t it possible that his groundball contact from the increased use of FB/SL with runners on base is weak contact, hence the low BABIP? Halladay for example has much higher contact rates than I would expect based on most of his other FIP-related rates. Same goes for another GB pitcher, Ubaldo. Seems to me his projection should be along those lines and not somebody like Gavin Floyd, who is a low 4.00 E.RA guy. And if it is, the only thing standing in the way is the walks.

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    • Rich says:

      “But isn’t it possible that his groundball contact from the increased use of FB/SL with runners on base is weak contact, hence the low BABIP?”

      This is exactly whats going on.

      Guys are swinging at more pitches out of the zone, making poor contact, and grounding out. This is the entire problem with using only stats based analysis; there’s no way to tell if you’re reading your stats correctly.

      In addition, the Red Sox infield defense is fantastic.

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      • Matt B. says:

        You’re right, Livan Hernandez IS that good.

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      • Rich says:

        Could you please show where I made that comment? Quote it for me?

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      • opisgod says:

        It doesn’t matter if you said it or not, Livan Hernandez is either actually that good or you’re a hypocrite.

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      • Grant says:

        opisgod, you’re saying there’s no middle ground?

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      • spindoctor says:

        Comparing Livan and Clay is apples and oranges….

        Livan is pitching far above his head and with a lot of luck. He’s had a long career, so we have lots of data to look at. He currently has unsustainable career bests in…

        BABIP (.243) – career .309
        LOB% (86.5%) – career 72.3%
        HR/FB (7%) – career 9.9%
        LD% (17%) – career 22%

        His GB% (44.4%) is withing ~2% of his career average, so that hasn’t really changed. The lower LD% and higher FB% this season is definitely helping him, esp. with the luck in HR/FB rate. I think it would be hard to find a handful of people who don’t expect a rude awakening in the 2nd half of the season for Livan.

        Now, is Clay going to be a <3.00 ERA pitcher moving forward? I have my doubts. The HR/FB rate is not sustainable at its current pace, however, with inducing more weak contact he could be taking a step forward in this area. His GB% and strand rates are both in line with what we've seen previously in his career. His BABIP should rise some but given his profile I think we may see .285-.295 as a normal range for him — better than league average.

        His FIP is currently 3.59, and I personally think he likely ends up in between 3.35-3.75 in the ERA department this season. Basically, the implosion we should see from Livan should be far, far greater than anything we see from Buccholz — any regressions will be on far different scales.

        xFIP and other advanced stats aren't the be-all-and-end-all, but they can and do offer good predictors of future value and expectations. You do, however, also need to look beyond the numbers.

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  7. Rambling Rambler says:

    Braun/[Santana or Posey] :: Mauer/Kershaw

    Which side wins

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  8. Detroit Michael says:

    It seems odd for this article to give Buchholz zero credit for lower than average BABIP during 2010 while also saying a cause of fewer strikeouts is that batters are making more contact when they swing at pitchers outside of the strike zone. Wouldn’t connecting with those pitches cause expected BABIP to drop a little bit?

    I understand that Buchholz doesn’t get all the credit for his low 2010 BABIP given luck and defense. It seems like he ought to get a tiny bit of the credit though.

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    • jfcincotta says:

      Detroit Michael makes the right point. O-Contact is not necessarily a bad thing. Further, neither his Z-Contact% nor his SwStrike% have moved at all. He’s getting hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone more often: isn’t this a good thing? It strikes me that it’s just as likely that hitters stop making as good contact on these out-of-zone pitches (small sample size warning) and they start striking out more as it is that these balls will start finding gaps. I mean, the guy’s stuff is better than anyone else’s on the staff. If this happens, then his BABIP will increase and his K-rate will too. It cuts both ways here.

      Further, from a fantasy perspective–since this is on RotoGraphs–he may be striking out fewer hitters per nine innings, but he’s actually striking out the exact same number of hitters per start as he did last season because he’s pitching further into games without the crazy rallies against him. His value to fantasy owners in the K category is the exact same as last year.

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      • jfcincotta says:

        I looked at the numbers a little bit, and I’m more convinced that this explanation could justify a forecasted ERA in the mid-3s based on how he’s pitching right now. Consider that if you turned:

        5 GB outs into Ks: BABIP .274; FIP 3.47; K/9 6.29
        10 GB outs into Ks: BABIP .280; FIP 3.34; K/9 6.86
        15 GB outs into Ks: BABIP .286; FIP 3.21; K/9 7.43
        20 GB outs into Ks: BABIP .293; FIP 3.09; K/9 8.00

        So are any of these numbers realistic? Buchholz has thrown 716 pitches outside the strike zone this year. If his O-Contact% dropped to 61.7% (MLB average in ’08 and ’09) he has an extra 42 swings-and-misses this year. If he drops to 59.1% (his average including this year), he has another 61 swinging strikes. It doesn’t seem outlandish to expect that hitter luck has given 10-15 GB outs that should have been Ks. If that’s the case, he’s somewhere in those middle lines above. Add in great INF defense, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a guy with an xBABIP of about .300 will pitch to a BABIP of around .285 with this defense.

        Buchholz is a different pitcher this year. This is somewhat obscured by luck, but it isn’t BABIP luck on his part, it’s O-Contact% luck on the hitters part coupled with pitching to weak contact.

        I fully expect Clay to pitch to a 3.50 ERA with low 7s K/9 for the rest of the season. He has been lucky with HR/FB, but the rest of the rates are sustainable. He’s been that good this year.

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  9. Tommy says:

    I don’t mean to sidetrack the discussion, but do you guys (jfcinotta, spindoctor, Detroit Michael and others) think that a similar thing is going on with David Price this year? Like Buchholz he has a very low BABIP, reflected in a huge gap between his xFIP and ERA, is widely believed to be having a true breakout season, and has a substantially higher O-Swing% than he did last year.

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    • spindoctor says:

      The big difference for me with Price this season is that, like Buchholz, batters are swinging at more outside stuff this year. They’re also swinging at less in the zone. It is a bit harder with Price as we don’t have as much MLB time to compare to (not that Buchholz has a ton, but he has a bit more). The O-Contact% and Z-Contact% are in line with last season.

      The IF/FB% is impressive at 12.6% and I’m going to guess that will trend down a bit over the course of the season. The HR/FB% is low, mimicking his brief 2008 stint and far exceeding last season — I’m going to guess that this will trend back towards 10% over the course of the season as well.

      His BABIP is in range with what he’s done in his brief MLB time, and with higher O-Swing%, one can presume more weak contact is being made, which along with good defense leads to more outs. Will he sustain a .265 BABIP? Maybe, or maybe it heads up towards .280. Regardless, while one can expect some regression, like Buchholz, the roof isn’t going to completely cave in.

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  10. Kyle says:

    Who cares how many k’s he’s getting? Halladay learned early in his career that it didn’t matter how hard he through if it was a straight fastball… and until the past few seasons, his K/9 weren’t mind blowing.

    Buchholz in around as many innings he pitched last season has given up 10 less homeruns. The league is hitting .235 against him(yes, their upgraded infield defense makes a huge difference), but he’s the reason he’s striking out less guys, and giving up less homeruns

    A 25 year old pitcher who has a 9-4 record, and a 2.67 ERA through 13 games would normally be considered a breakout season. Just last year, he had an ERA of 3.21 until his last two starts where he gave up 13 runs in 8 innings while striking out 10(damn fine K/9 ratio I might add), but ended up with an ERA of 4.21. So two starts caused him to be considered a fallen prospect according to fangraphs. Classic.

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  11. Randy says:

    Have you actually watched him pitch this year? (As opposed to crunching numbers?) He looks like a different guy. He used to fall apart when things went wrong and now he regularly pitches himself out of jams.

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  12. Czar says:

    The real question is whether or not you think his HR/FB is sustainable as low as it is. His FIP is still 3.42, which is good for being inside the top 10 in the American League. It’s when the HR/FB (3.9 %) is normalized that we see the 4+ xFIP number.

    While xFIP has been shown to be a slightly better predictor of performance than FIP (http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/how-well-can-we-predict-era/), it also needs to be noted that of the top 10 GB pitchers (2010, to date) in the majors this season (Hudson, Masterson, Lowe, Garcia, Cook, Romero, Pinerio, Carmona, U. Jimenez, and King Felix) only two (Masterson and Pineiro) have lower FIPs than xFIPs, implying there might be a sliver of truth to the idea GB pitchers are able to suppress their HR/FB rates (whether it’s by inducing weak contact or keeping FB on a lower trajectory or what) below a more average (by batted ball profile) counterpart.

    Dave’s right, Buchholz hasn’t been mid-2.00 ERA good peripherally and will likely see some regression if his rates stay the same; however, I think it’s doing him a disservice to imply that he’s on pace to pitch like a mid-rotation starter for the remainder of 2010. His BABIP is only about .020 pts below his career avg and his strand rate is right where it should be. He can very easily be a mid-3′s for the remainder of the season, especially if he continues to refine his pitch selection like he has over the last 12 months.

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  13. Kyle says:

    Well, this is the same writer who had Buchholz as a fallen prospect in a crap article which also included Ian Kennedy. Somehow he managed to forget Joba Chamberlain who’s a joke.

    I’d say an ERA in the mid 3′s in that division is pretty awesome. He lowered his ERA to 2.47 tonight, and his ERA is a run lower than Sabathias. I don’t think Clay will have an ERA of 2.47 at the end of the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has one in the low 3′s or even sub 3.

    He’s learning how to pitch still(the Sox kept holding him back), and he’s far better than a mid-rotation starter. He praises Anibal Sanchez(for not giving up homeruns), while they’ve both allowed 3 this season. He even mentions his no-hitter, well, Buchholz has thrown one too. His BABIP is lower by far, as well. Looks like Buchholz is about to win his 10th game tonight… I hate articles like this.

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  14. jfcincotta says:

    Wanted to check back in on this article. In the two games since this post went up, he’s had 12 Ks in 12.1 IP with fewer GBs than he’d been giving up recently.

    http://bit.ly/cLn8LD

    As many of us predicted, his BABIP is rising while at the same time his FIP, xFIP, and ERA are all falling and his K/9 is increasing. This is what we’d expect if a few of the GBs turned into strikeouts.

    It will be interesting to see whether this continues. ZiPS has him finishing with a 3.42 ERA on the season, but that would mean an ERA of 4.35 for the rest of the year. I see no reason why he can’t post an ERA below his ZiPS xFIP of 3.91 considering the defense he has behind him. He’ll end the year with an ERA in the low to mid threes. In the AL East, that makes him a stud.

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  15. Rich says:

    It has now been 2 months since this article.

    Clay Buchholz’s BABIP has regressed to… .268, and his GB rate has regressed to 53%. Oh, wait, thats exactly where they were when this article was posted.

    Sometimes outliers are outliers, and not luck.

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    • JoelQ says:

      I don’t think his GB rate is an outlier. It’s always been good hasn’t it? Babip will probably get worse at some point.

      It will probable be mostly in the form of ground ball singles though so they won’t be overly damaging. I think Buchholz is 4 real.

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  16. Dick says:

    It’s both. But particularly the luck.

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