There is no way around it: Clay Buchholz doesn't look like himself on the mound.
No one in the Red Sox organization can hide from that fact -- not the manager, not the pitching coach, not the pitcher himself. After the Red Sox suffered a 7-6 loss in which Buchholz put the team in too deep a hole -- a six-run yield in just 2 1/3 innings, when his fastball velocity often sat around 89-90 mph -- he acknowledged the frustrations of a pitcher whose season has begun without the velocity and stuff to which he's accustomed.
"Whenever you just feel loose and throw a baseball, last year it was coming out 92-93 every time I threw a fastball. This year it's 89, 92, 91, whatever it is," Buchholz said after his defeat. "It's different and it's hard to wrap your mind around it, but I think it's in the process of coming. It stinks waiting on it."
Buchholz could not look further from the effortlessly dominant hurler who cruised through the league when he was on the mound last year. After he made 16 starts without permitting more than four runs in the regular season last year, he's had two starts (among his four outings) in which he's permitted six runs. Opponents are hitting .375 with a .402 OBP and .568 slugging mark against him. He has a 7.71 ERA. He fell to 0-2, with one more loss than he took last year in the regular season.
Manager John Farrell suggested that his right-hander's stuff was "a little bit flat" with "a lack of finish" that resulted in a parade of hits -- seven of them, to be exact -- in Baltimore's six-run eruption in the third inning. There were almost no swings and misses (the Orioles whiffed on three of his 55 offerings -- twice on cutters, once on a curve). The nasty two-seamer to get a double play and shut down a threat was likewise absent.
"Where he needed a strikeout in that third inning to record an out and possibly shut down that threat, that was elusive today," said Farrell.
The fastball velocity was once again down, as Buchholz spent much of his morning pitching at 89-90 mph. That came as a disappointment to a Sox team that believed he was amidst a steady, gradual progression in terms of the power of his stuff over the course of his first three outings. Monday -- when he ended up averaging about 91 mph on fastballs and did touch 94 mph once -- represented a move in the opposite direction in terms of both movement and velocity.
After all, in the past, Buchholz could conjure velocity without compromising the Wiffle ball movement of his pitches. That wasn't the case on Monday.
"I was just trying to overthrow a little bit," said Buchholz. "That makes pitches be in the middle of the zone, and that’s what hitters get paid to hit."
Buchholz has had to work harder to generate velocity; the extra effort has resulted in pitches flattening out, staying up in the strike zone and getting hit. So what gives?
The first reaction is -- quite rightly -- to wonder whether the pitcher is injured. But the Sox and Buchholz himself insist that's not the case.
Certainly, given his injury history, the team scrutinizes Buchholz carefully any time his stuff appears diminished. And so, they pursue those natural areas of inquiry now.
"My biggest concern with him is always how healthy are you? Is your shoulder OK? Is your back OK?" Nieves acknowledged. "That's my biggest concern."
Yet every test reveals that he's fine. Nieves said that his pitcher is "absolutely" healthy, and that Buchholz is able to follow the full, normal between-starts routine that suggests he is healthy.
"He's been able to ring the bell every time between starts. That's my biggest concern. If a guy doesn't throw between starts, that worries me," said Nieves. "But he's been able to toe it up in practice, do his long toss with the proper in-between starts work -- all the lifting, all the running, all of it. I'm very happy about that. But it's going to take some time to see him back where he was."
"He doesn’t speak of any [physical issues]," added Farrell. "In all the physical testing that we do with all of our pitchers, it doesn’t indicate any deficit. Nothing present physically."
All the same, Buchholz is coming off a year in which he had to miss months while recovering from shoulder tendinitis, and by the time a playoff run had concluded, his fastball was in the mid-80s in the World Series against the Cardinals. That being the case, one wonders whether he might be tentative on the mound as he tries to protect himself from a recurrence of injury -- much as he was in 2012, when in his return from broken bones in his back, he struggled with confidence and results in the early part of the season.
But this time, Buchholz suggested, his struggles are different. He is not trying to protect himself from injury. He simply doesn't have his arm strength built up to the point where his pitches have the velocity or action to which he is accustomed.
"My body feels fine. ... The body feels good. Nothing's hurting," said Buchholz. "There's nothing going on like [in 2012]. My body feels actually a lot better now than it did the last week of spring training. I feel like I was going through a little bit of a dead period. I've hashed all that out and I feel fine playing catch. Tomorrow I'll feel fine playing catch. It's just a matter of getting that arm strength back up to what it used to be.
"[The arm strength is] not quite there. It feels like it's getting better. I feel like later, well there wasn’t really late in the game today, but later in the past two games, if I wanted to reach back, there were 92s and 93s there. That usually comes pretty easy. I'm struggling with that a little bit right now. But that'll come together. It's still pretty early. We still have a lot of time left in this first half to pull it all together and go from there.
"It all starts with arm strength. Arm strength creates movement on the pitches that I throw. A couple of them are flat right now. Sinker's getting some sink, but not on every pitch. It's a little different from the start I had last year, because everything was working pretty well last year for me at the beginning of the season. It just comes from arm strength and then confidence. It's hard to go out there and be confident whenever you're getting hit around. That’s sort of where I'm at right now."
The idea of a pitcher lacking arm strength for the start of the regular season seems puzzling in some ways. It shouldn't. It's far more commonplace than is typically recognized.
Jon Lester struggled at the start of last year to gain full, consistent arm strength in the early months of the season; it wasn't until the second half that his customary mid-90s velocity readings started appearing with regularity. Craig Breslow required time to build his arm strength both at the start of last year and again this season. (Indeed, Buchholz said that he and Breslow have been comparing notes on the arm strength issue.)
Buchholz is coming off an offseason when, in deference to the injuries that he suffered last year, he required rest for his arm as never before. That got him in position to be healthy for the start of this year in the sense that he doesn't feel any lingering effects of the injuries he struggled with last year. But it slowed his buildup for the start of the season in a fashion that is becoming evident now.
"I don't think I really had a choice with starting differently given that I was out for the second half last year, then a couple playoff games and the World Series game," said Buchholz. "My body needed some time to not throw. That was the only way I could go about it."
Nieves sees Buchholz as being in a position comparable to that of left-hander Felix Doubront a year ago. Doubront struggled with his velocity, stuff and results in the early going. He had a 6.40 ERA through six appearances through early May. But then he built his arm strength to the point where he could pitch with a powerful repertoire with the life on his pitches having come back, and over the next 3 1/2 months he was as effective as any Red Sox starter.
Given Buchholz's injuries last year and his atypical buildup for this year, Nieves said that it's not a shock to see Buchholz still working his way back to his stuff -- and searching for the right pitch mix in the interim.
For now, Buchholz can't access the same blueprint that permitted him to dominate when healthy last year. In 2013, when his fastball averaged about 92.5 mph, he threw a four-seam or two-seam fastball with nearly half his pitches (49.4 percent of the time, according to BrooksBaseball.net). This year, he's averaging about 91.3 mph on those same two pitches, and with diminished power and life on them he's been more reluctant to rely on them, employing those two primary pitches on about 36.0 percent of his offerings.
Nieves said that the changed mix "absolutely" is a function of the fact that his fastball doesn't have the same power and life as a year ago. But the pitching coach also believes that, over time, his right-hander will return to a position where he can get on a roll.
"I compare it to Doobie last year. Doobie wasn't clicking on all cylinders until probably June," said Nieves. "[Buchholz is] going to take some time, but we have to remember also where we ended last year. He was probably pitching in the World Series at about, what, 70 percent, 65 percent? It's going to take some time. He's almost our Doubront of last year at the beginning of the season. Doubront was navigating through the games. Unfortunately [Buchholz] cannot get away with anything slightly up in the zone. The sharpness of his pitches, we're still searching for that. But we know what he can do."
What Buchholz can do when he has his arm strength is a known. But right now, it remains to be seen when he will arrive at that point. And for Buchholz and the Red Sox, the waiting game is a frustrating one.