Seen on the face of things, this has not been a great season for Clay Buchholz. Neither his 3.99 ERA nor his 1.70 WHIP is attractive. He’s striking out a minuscule 5.63 batters per nine, which is especially disconcerting given his double-digit minor league strikeout rates. He’s walking 4.7 batters per nine, too. So why the renewed enthusiasm for the young pitcher in some circles?
First, his luck has never been even average in the past two years. Consider that his BABIP allowed for the past two seasons has been .366 and .328 respectively, this despite giving up 20.9% and 17.6% line drive rates in those two seasons. That last line drive rate could even be considered a good one.
To continue the “he’s better than he looks” theme, Clay’s velocity is still on it’s way up, and has increased in all three of his major league seasons. All of his offspeed stuff has rated positively in our linear weight system, and his fastball is improving. Buchholz has also had a good groundball rate that has gotten better progressively.
In fact, Keith Law addressed many of these positives in Buchholz’s game with one question and answer on his August 14 chat on ESPN.com:
Is Buchholz’s high gb% this year real? Seems to me his fastball has more sink to it this year, but was wondering your thoughts after seeing him in person.
I only saw one outing but I could believe it. His arm slot was a little lower and his fastball had more life than I’d seen in the past (and it was harder – 92-96).
Reading something like this, and taking into account his last 19 innings, in which he’s given up four earned runs, and had 33 groundballs to 18 flyballs, it seems obvious that we have to consult Pitch F/x to see if something has indeed changed recently.
His arm slot is certainly lower. Compare the release points from this game chart for the August 13 matchup with the Tigers to the same release points from the game chart for his July 22 matchup with the Rangers and you’ll see clearly that his release point is lower.
His usage rate on the fastball has also gone up this year. There might be two schools of thought here. If his offspeed stuff is so good, why use the fastball more? The other is more developmental: if he is to be a good pitcher someday, he’ll have to establish that fastball. At 94 MPH with more horizontal movement this year (up over an inch), Buchholz’ fastball seems to be gaining steam. Perhaps the second school has it correctly.
One thing comes clear if you look at the movement and velocity charts for this pitcher. This is not a complete product. Just look at all the movement changes (every pitch gained or lost around an inch of movement either horizontally or vertically from 2008 to 2009) and the velocity changes (again, every pitch gained almost a mile per hour from 2008 to 2009) and you’ll see that he is still in flux.
Consider his slider. Last year, he showed a 79.8 MPH slider with 0.9 inches of horizontal movement and 5.1 inches of vertical movement. This year that same slider is 84 MPH and has 2.4 inches of horizontal movement and 0.9 inches of vertical movement. Perhaps we are still waiting to see the real Clay Buchholz.
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