Player Profile: Clay Buchholz

Red Sox vs. Rangers

Clay Buchholz has certainly had his share of ups and downs since entering the league in 2007. A stud pitcher with a great pedigree, he had been showing off his stuff for years in the minors. He was a major flop in 2008, however, and has since struggled at times in 2009.

Clay Buchholz was drafted 42nd overall in 2005, though he was very much a top-five talent. Due to a computer-theft scandal at his high school in Lumberton, Texas, Buchholz was given the loving moniker “Laptop” by Boston fans. This caused him to drop more than 30 picks, leaving him to be taken in the supplemental round by the Red Sox.

Buchholz impressed right out of the gate in ’05, throwing 41.1 innings for Lowell in Low-A ball, with 45 strikeouts against nine walks. Buchholz built upon this performance in 2006 as he put up 140 Ks in 119 innings against just 33 walks between Low-A and High-A. Not bad for a 21-year-old. As a result of this stellar performance, Clay was ranked the No. 2 Boston prospect, 51st in the majors.

While 2006 was certainly an incredible season, with a 4.24 K:BB ratio and 10.58 K/9 ratio, Buchholz topped even that in 2007. Before being promoted to the big club late in the year, he was able to post an incredible 171 Ks in 125.1 IP while ceding just 35 walks between Double-A and Triple-A. This included a ruthless 116 strikeouts in 86.2 innings in double-A. As a result, Boston decided it was time to promote the 22-year-old to Boston, where he posted 22 strikeouts in 22.2 IP with 10 walks. Clay also recorded the first no-hitter of his career that season. Needless to say, the pundits were impressed, as Buchholz went into 2008 ranked the No. 1 prospect in the Boston system and fourth-best in MLB.

2008 was not as kind to Clay as years past, however. He started the season as Boston’s No. 5 starter, only to be sent down after 76 innings, recording 72 whiffs but 41 walks. The bright prospect struggled with everything under the sun: His pinpoint command abandoned him, he yielded a 14.7 HR/FB rate and he had a .366 BABIP. His ERA was a very poor 6.75, though his FIP was at least an acceptable mark for a fifth starter at 4.82. While his struggles at the major league level were a bit disconcerting, he was able to recreate some of that old spark in the minors, as he went on to post a 61:18 K:BB ratio in 58.2 IP. Not quite the Clay of old, but not post-apocalypse Homer Bailey, either.

Then, in 2009, 24-year-old Clay Buchholz had to show to the viewing public, and fantasy gamers, whether he is a major league pitcher or ex-prospect. The results have been mixed and his performance indicators may be a little misleading, but there may yet be some magic in the young right-hander’s arm.

When analyzing the performance of a pitcher, the first place most people look is ERA and FIP. Comparing the two usually gives the fantasy manager a good sense of whether the player will trend up or down. Buchholz currently sports a 3.49 ERA against a 4.29 FIP, which usually hints to a player trending downward toward his lower FIP. This seems about right, as his home run rate is within normal ranges, at 10.6 percent HR/FB but his BABIP is very low at .282. This is especially surprising given Boston’s defensive struggles this season, as they have had one of the worst defensive efficiencies in the league this year, according to Baseball Prospectus.

As a result, Clay Buchholz seems to be dead in the water. With a poor K rate (5.82 K/9) and a less-than-ideal walk rate (3.84 BB/9), Buchholz is going nowhere: His ERA is an aberration and his career will probably take him to the annals of fifth starter-dom.

Yet, there is much to like about Clay Buchholz‘s performance—especially his plate discipline characteristics—that say there may be something to this pitcher.

First is his groundball percentage. Any pitcher who can create a 54.5 percent groundball rate can survive in the MLB, provided they have a positive strikeout to walk ratio. Even Lenny DiNardo has been able to carve out a career for himself based on nothing more than a love for groundballs. So, here’s the first pro for Buchholz: He can keep the ball on the ground, thus controlling home runs.

Second is his excellent contact percentage. Though groundballs are a pitcher’s best friend, whiffs are the true diamonds in the relationship. Any pitcher who can create swings and misses will have success in MLB. Surprisingly (especially after seeing that paltry K/9 ratio), Clay is actually pretty good at missing bats. His 78.3 percent contact rating is very good and places him in the range of Zack Greinke (77.7 percent), Johan Santana (78.3 percent), and Jered Weaver (78.5 percent). Buchholz’s command of the strike zone is also improving, as his Zone percentage is up 1.2 percent this year, at 51.5 percent and his first strike percentage is up 2.2 percent to 61.9.

In all, Buchholz looks much better than his current strikeout line, as a player with his rates of contact, O-Swing, Zone percentage, and F-Strike % are more indicative of around 7.5 strikeouts per nine, not 5.82. His walk rate looks to stay relatively steady, though it could drop slightly into the mid 3s per nine instead of 3.84.

Buchholz is a great player to bet on for the remainder of the season and the future. With good peripherals, upward trending strikeout rates, and increasing velocity, Clay Buchholz can help any team in need of some pitching down the stretch. What may be more exciting, however, is how he profiles for next season. Due to his low strikeout rates, Clay is almost assured to go in the late rounds of the draft—and may go undrafted in some formats as well. In this case, be sure to take a flier on Buchholz as he could reward you with excellent numbers for a very low price. Most managers will profile him as a fifth or sixth starter at best, when he should play more to a 3/4 with upside. For this season, expect him to post an ERA somewhere around 3.9 with a WHIP around 1.35.

If you’re planning on watching him for next year, follow his walks very closely. If he can bring that BB rate under 3 per nine, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Be ready when he does it.

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