Clone Wars: Clay Buchholz and Felix Hernandez

Clay Buchholz has struggled to establish himself in the Red Sox rotation ever since starting with a bang. Since his no-hitter he has held a major league ERA of 5.73 in the following two seasons. I was running a review of him a few weeks ago and found an interesting comparison though when looking at his skills. That pitcher is none other than Felix Hernandez, although he was much quicker to establish himself in Seattle.

Looking at his number so far you might wonder where the comparison comes from. So far their strikeouts and walks have been far from identical.

                   K/9      BB/9
Buchholz          7.65     4.11
Hernandez         8.06     2.85

Clay Buchholz’s early major league career has been defined by high peaks and low valleys. (Icon/SMI)

Buchholz has closed with strikeouts, but is quite a ways away from him in walks. Like most pitchers he has struggled with his walk numbers early on and even Hernandez has been over 3.50 in his career. Buchholz has a minor league BB/9 of 2.50, so it’s fairly reasonable to expect that rate to come down to a solid number.

We saw that this past season he made some adjustments late in the year and saw some changes in his rates. In the last seven games of 2009 his K/9 was 7.53, but his BB/9 dropped to 2.38. What changed is tough to say, although his changeup rate dropped game by game and as Evan Brunell discussed here perhaps that has been why he struggles with left handers. I have my doubts about this theory on the whole as it’s a small sample size in the majors and for his overall lefty/righty splits. If you compare his tOPS splits (92/109) to the 2009 American league average (92/108) there isn’t much to say that he was any more interesting than anyone else.

So what changed in those last seven games that allowed him to gain control and can he repeat it? His number of sliders per game rose and his number of changeups dropped as well. He’s also still dealing with a change in arm slot the Red Sox requested of him in 2008. That change coincided with a huge spike in walks in 2008 and it seems he is still figuring out how to pitch from the new slot. This should help keep him healthy, but hopefully he has figured this out.

Getting outs and limiting walks is not the only challenge for Buchholz to be like King Felix, though. He needs to maintain his elite groundball numbers. Not only does Hernandez pitch half his games in a great stadium for pitchers, he also keeps the ball on the ground to great levels. His numbers have dropped recently, but his career rate of 56.8 percent grounders is sixth among pitchers with 900-plus IP since 2002.

Buchholz has grown in his ability to keep the ball on the ground going from 38.5 percent in 2007 to 47.7 percent in 2008. He then made a bug step forward last year reaching 53.8 percent. There is reason to believe he can maintain these levels as his 2009 Triple-A rate was 52.5 percent. This isn’t the elite levels of Hernandez first few seasons, but near his 52 percent and 53 percent of 2008 and 2009.

Other things going for Buchholz this year is the defense surrounding him should be improved. He had a BABIP of .289 last year, so he didn’t suffer from that, but that shouldn’t suddenly swing the other way either.

Buchholz is looking at finally getting that shot he has earned to start a full season with the big team. The fan base and fantasy owners will be looking for big things and a comparison with King Felix will surely make those expectations even higher. Perhaps this might be the farthest apart two players have been that I compared in ADP. Buchholz currently has an ADP of 190 and Hernandez is at 28 according to MockDraftCentral. While they aren’t going to finish neck and neck, this comparison can show us how much more valuable Buchholz can be than his draft position.

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Totally off topic here, but has anyone seen this “By the Numbers” on MLB Network? They are using the WPA stat to measure reliever effectiveness, wasn’t that a stat that went out of favor like 5 years ago?


Good article too, Bucholz is a great guy for players like me who don’t draft a pitcher until the 7th or 8th round.