There's a tendency to view Clay Buchholz's struggles this year as unfathomable, unimaginable given what he's done in his career. The reality is that what the Red Sox have seen thus far in 2014 is very familiar.
That seems odd to suggest given how dominant Buchholz was during the regular season last year. Then, he was masterful with his seemingly limitless arsenal of pitches, in a fashion that renders it difficult to make sense of the depths of his struggles this year.
He was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 2013. The Sox were 14-2 in his 16 starts. When healthy enough to make it to the mound, he was as close to a guaranteed win as a team could ask for, throwing whiffle balls whose destination only he knew.
The contrast this year is startling. On Wednesday, Buchholz lasted just 4 2/3 innings while getting whacked for nine hits and five runs (four earned). He gave up a pair of homers, and now has permitted seven this year in his nine starts -- three more than he allowed in 2013 over 16 starts. He has failed to make it through five complete innings in four of his nine starts -- matching the total number of times he'd failed to record that many innings in his previous 48 starts. One year after he held opponents to a .199 average with a .270 OBP and .277 slugging mark, he's getting tattooed at a rate of .341/.388/.505. For the first time in his career, Buchholz has given up as many as nine hits in three straight outings.
The natural tendency is to assume there must be an injury. After all, the right-hander has seen a regular onslaught of health issues throughout his big league career, and how else to explain the depths of his struggles?
But the answers aren't as easy as that.
Despite the fact that he elicited just two swings and misses among his 90 offerings, Buchholz insisted that he's healthy, that the early-season efforts to build arm strength are behind him. He feels that he has the necessary power to be an effective pitcher -- nothing that he was capable of reaching back for 93-94 mph fastballs when he wanted to on Wednesday -- and yet the results have been abysmal. Manager John Farrell concurred.
"Physically there's no complaints, no issues. We've got to make either an adjustment or a correction mechanically because too many misfires up to the arm side," said Farrell. "[On Wednesday he struggled with] inconsistent command. Far too many at-bats where he pitched behind in the count. Uncharacteristic, from what we know of Clay, is that mistakes found their way to the middle of the plate."
Those complaints almost never followed Buchholz's outings in 2013. And the contrast of those two performances has been painful for the pitcher to endure.
Buchholz seemed beleaguered by his struggles. His greatest frustration is with the absence of a changeup -- long his signature, bread-and-butter pitch -- that he can rely upon consistently. But beyond that, he expressed confidence in his ability to work with the rest of his pitch mix (two- and four-seam fastball, curve, cutter) but confusion as to his absence of results.
"I know that I have everything that I need to compete," said Buchholz. "It's just taking a little bit more time than I want it to right now."
Of course, as much as there is a tendency to view the start of Buchholz's year as an utter mystery -- to struggle to understand how a pitcher could be so dominant one year and then so vulnerable the next -- this progression through a season is anything but unfamiliar.
In his rookie season of 2008, Buchholz had a 6.75 ERA -- a year that the right-hander recalls as the most difficult of his career because he didn't understand how to escape his struggles. In 2010 he enjoyed a year of singular dominance, going 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. The next year he had a 5.33 ERA through the first month of the season before settling into familiar excellence for the next seven weeks (before non-displaced fractures in his lower back cost him the final 3 1/2 months of the year). And in 2012 he had a 9.09 ERA through six starts and a 7.84 mark through nine starts -- yes, a worse performance than he has endured to the same stage of the 2014 season -- before authoring a sub-3.00 ERA in his next 19 starts.
On the one hand, that career pattern offers plenty of precedent for Buchholz to emerge from his current funk.
"It's tough letting down the guys half the time that I run out there. That's something that I'm struggling with right now myself," said Buchholz. "[But] I've been through some ups and downs throughout my career. I've always found a way to battle back and find where I need to be to be consistent, to be a guy who can go out there and have confidence and the team have confidence in me to be in a game."
On the other hand, the fact that Buchholz is drawing from a familiar playbook in getting off to this kind of start speaks volumes about what he is -- and is not -- as a pitcher.
He's 29 years old, with 130 career starts on his resume, and his body of work suggests that his runs of dominance -- while appearing regularly -- ignite and extinguish like a firefly. The fact that Buchholz can juxtapose one of the great runs with recent Red Sox history with one of the worst feels like a surprise, but based on career track record, it shouldn't.
The Red Sox can take solace that Buchholz usually figures out a way to emerge from his considerable, all-encompassing struggles to enjoy a sustained run of excellence. But in comprehending what Buchholz is on a year-in, year-out basis -- what they can expect from him going forward for the duration of his three years under team control that run through 2017 -- there needs to be a mindfulness that the times when he performs like a top-of-the-rotation presence typically have a shelf life that is either antedated or followed by a period careening off the rails.
In the immediate term, his transformation from an almost guaranteed win (the Sox were 14-2 in his regular-season starts last year) to a pitcher whose team is 3-6 in his starts has played a significant role in the team's struggles to date, as evidenced by the fact that he's the only starter who's been on the mound for two of the team's six losses during its current losing skid.
But for the longer term, Buchholz's roller coaster career underscores that he is in a separate category from a pitcher like current teammate Jon Lester. While his long-term deal (signed at the start of the 2011 season) was meant to give the Sox a rotation anchor after the departures of teammates like Lester, John Lackey and Josh Beckett, the reality is that the Sox can't view Buchholz in such terms.
He has the potential to go on runs that separate him from virtually anyone in the game, yet he can just as quickly find himself enduring one of the worst runs in the game.
Buchholz, who led the majors in ERA (among pitchers with at least 100 innings) last year, currently is ranked 109th out of the 110 qualifying ERA starters, his 6.32 mark for the year ahead of only the 6.52 posted by Kevin Correia. And while that sort of gaudy number isn't who he is, it's certainly part of who he is -- a pitcher who now has a track record of dazzling and confounding performances that makes it difficult to have certainty about what he ultimately might contribute in, or even within, any given year.
He has the ability to have stretches that are as good as anything that any pitcher in the game can deliver. And based on his precedent of rebounds, there's a very good chance that he'll be very good for much of the rest of this year.
But for the Red Sox, the start of such a run -- and the end of the confusion about why it hasn't arrived yet -- can't come quickly enough.