The good news for the Red Sox is that Clay Buchholz submitted his best start of 2012 on Monday. The bad news is that it was the final chapter of a month in which, statistically, Buchholz was among the worst starters in baseball.
Monday’s 11-6 Red Sox victory over the Athletics offered another strange episode in the pitcher’s strange year. The Sox spent the offseason voicing their confidence that Buchholz would be ready to reclaim his position as a top-of-the-rotation starter in 2012. The lower back fracture that wiped out his final three-plus months of 2011 was a thing of the past, and the Sox viewed Buchholz as a building block -- along with Jon Lester and Josh Beckett -- who would permit the team to look for value at the back of the rotation.
One month into the season, it appears the Sox have found value in their Nos. 4 and 5 starters with the emergence of Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard, but Buchholz remains something of a riddle after five starts.
For the first six innings, Buchholz was dominant. He allowed just one run on four hits (all singles) and was keeping the ball on the ground, getting nine groundouts and five strikeouts to that point in the game.
More importantly, he featured his best pitch mix of the season. For the first time, he was able to employ his full repertoire, featuring a groundball-inducing fastball, a curve that he could throw for strikes at will (14 of 18), a cutter that he could use to both sides of the plate and, perhaps most importantly, his best changeup of 2012. Buchholz threw 13 changeups, eight for strikes, including three swings and misses.
“Today was the best changeup I've thrown all year. I wasn't second-guessing anything. I was just throwing it like a fastball, different grip,” said Buchholz. “There were a couple of things we tweaked, looked at a lot of video from 2010, because that's when the changeup was at its best. Saw a couple of things in those videos and tried to mix them in.”
Everyone on the Sox was more than happy to look at the body of work over those six innings and to celebrate the best stretch Buchholz has had on the mound this season.
Catcher Kelly Shoppach: “That's as good as he's thrown the ball all year. … He had command of all of [his pitches]. He was throwing the ball well. I was really happy to see how well he threw all of them.”
Manager Bobby Valentine: “It’s another one to build on. He’s 3-1 now. He can look at that record and say, ‘Hey, I’m 3-1, coming off a good outing’ for next time he goes out there.”
Buchholz: “I thought it was my most positive outing, aside from the line.”
“Aside from the line.” Therein lies the rub.
The Red Sox can afford to take a patient and optimistic view on the right-hander, both out of necessity (the legitimacy of their aspirations takes a serious hit if he is not able to reclaim some approximation of his 2009-11 form) and because he has received incredible offensive backing, resulting in a 3-1 record for the pitcher and a 3-2 record for the team in his starts.
That said, even the best outing of the year for Buchholz could not dispel completely the questions around him. He could have finished the game having allowed just the one run in seven innings. Instead, his night unraveled when he took the mound in the seventh with a pitch count in the 70s.
An eight-inning outing or even a complete game seemed like a possibility. However, after a leadoff single, walk and a line out, he elicited what could have been an inning-ending double play, but shortstop Mike Aviles’ feet got tangled on the play, and so his relay throw to first was late.
With two outs, Buchholz’s night took a puzzling turn. He walked Jemile Weeks (his fifth walk of the night), allowed a Coco Crisp single that was smashed off the glove of a diving Adrian Gonzalez and, on a 1-2 curveball almost in the dirt, Josh Reddick lifted the pitch over the fence in right for a three-run homer.
Buchholz did not throw badly, but the increasingly familiar feeling of a night going awry left the pitcher in a state of visible frustration. He shouted to himself on the mound as he was being removed from the game, then sprinted straight into the clubhouse.
His final yield was familiar. He gave up six runs and now has allowed at least five runs in each of his five starts this year, the longest such streak by a Sox pitcher since 1940. He walked five batters, matching a career high – a somewhat shocking development given that Oakland entered the night with the worst on-base percentage (.272) and OPS (.597) in the majors.
While he was very good for far more of the game than he was bad, it was still a somewhat baffling turn of events.
“I’m sure that [pitching coach] Bob McClure and I will put our heads together and try to get a good answer as to what’s causing it,” Valentine said of the struggles. “They’re not big hits, but the walks are concerning. Five walks is a lot in seven innings.”
It’s early and so the “small sample size” disclaimer hovers over some of the cover-your-eyes numbers. But, in this small sample size, there are all kinds of red flags about what Buchholz is doing on the mound, even with another disclaimer that his stuff was far better than his line on Monday. Among them:
- His 8.69 ERA ranks dead last among the 109 pitchers in the majors who have pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
- He has walked nearly as many (15) as he has struck out (16), and on Tuesday, he walked five and struck out five.
- His 15 walks are tied for fifth most in the majors.
- Opponents are hitting .331 against him, the fourth worst mark in the majors. He has allowed an OBP of .410 to hitters, second worst in the majors, while the .554 slugging mark at his expense is also second worst in the majors.
- His WHIP is 1.90, second worst in the majors.
- He’s yielded seven homers, tied for third most in the majors.
Setting aside the question of his actual stuff, it is worth raising the question: What happens to pitchers who endure such deep season-opening struggles? Do pitchers bounce back from getting beaten like a piñata?
Buchholz became the 24th pitcher since 2006 to pitch at least 20 innings and record an ERA of 8.00 or higher in April. Of the previous 23, almost all showed improvement over the duration of the season (only one saw his ERA go up), with some recovering to levels that could be characterized as average to above-average.
Last year, Ryan Dempster of the Cubs got shelled to the tune of a 9.58 ERA, then had a 3.94 ERA in 171 1/3 innings the rest of the way. In 2009, Joe Blanton recovered from a 9.00 ERA in April to record a 3.55 ERA in 175 innings the rest of the way. In 2006, Brad Radke had an 8.89 ERA in April but a 3.44 mark in 136 innings the rest of the season.
As a group, the 23 starters who featured an ERA over 8.00 in April went from a 9.09 ERA in the season’s first month to a 4.66 mark the rest of the way, with the aforementioned three examples of pitchers who had a sub-4.00 ERA in at least 100 innings down the stretch.
However, it is worth noting that the group averaged 76 1/3 innings over the rest of the season, as the poor starts of many of those starters served as a prelude to injury, retirement, a reassignment to the bullpen or a trip to the minors. Just nine of the 23 pitchers logged as many as 100 innings after their horrendous Aprils.
The stuff that Buchholz showed on Monday suggests that he can join the group that achieves those results. But at a certain point, it will become incumbent upon the pitcher to prove that stuff translates into results.
And in 2012, that has yet to happen. To the contrary, the fact that silver linings were being observed in an outing in which Buchholz gave up six runs -- more than he gave up in any start in 2010-11 -- suggests how uncharacteristic his start has been.