Improving David Buchanan

ethanwitte
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Last year, the Phillies’ pitching staff consisted of Cole Hamels and this. Hamels was so good last year, he single-handedly brought the team into the top 13 of all starting rotations in MLB by rWAR. Without Hamels, however, the rotation totaled -3.4 rWAR, which would have been good for 27th in baseball.

While it is true that some of the WAR lost by removing Hamels would have been made up by some other anonymous pitcher, it is a fair approximation to say that value wouldn’t be anywhere near what Hamels was worth.

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Even with the dreck that starters like A.J. Burnett, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez produced, there was a glimmer of hope found midway through the season in 25-year old David Buchanan.

Buchanan seemed a revelation, coming from basically nowhere to be the very epitome of a league average pitcher. He produced a 99 ERA+ over 117.2 innings, spread across 20 starts. While that isn’t exactly star quality, it is something that is of real value to a struggling team – someone who can soak up innings and not stink up the ballpark.

A quick recap: Buchanan was a 6th round draft pick by the New York Mets in 2009, but chose not to sign, heading instead to Georgia State University. The following season, he developed a finger injury that would cause him to slip to the Phillies in the 7th round of the 2010 draft, with whom he eventually signed.

While he has never had dominant stuff, it was usually good enough to get by, but not enough to ever get him placed on the Baseball America Top 30 prospect list for the Phillies. Most people thought he would be an “organizational player”, one whose parent club would be the only one to truly appreciate his talents.

However, in 2014 spring training, Buchanan opened some eyes with a very good performance. Though it was only in 12 innings, his 2.25 ERA to go along with 11 strikeouts and only 2 walks earned him consideration as a “first arm up” in case of injury.

That injury came in May, when Cliff Lee was put in the DL. Buchanan was summoned to make his first start against the Dodgers and fared well. He lasted 5 innings, only giving up 5 hits and 2 earned runs, while striking out 2 without giving up a walk, and he earned his first MLB win.

He would go on to make 19 more starts, finishing with a 3.75 ERA, 5.4 K/9, and a solid 2.2 BB/9. All of this puts him in the running to earn the 5th starter spot out of spring training in 2015, though he does have competition from Jerome Williams and the rehabbing Chad Billingsley.

Normally, a team such as the Phillies would jump at the chance to have a pitcher like Buchanan take up a spot at the end of the rotation, giving them good value where there might not have been any previously.

However, the fact they signed other pitchers with more proven track records suggests that they feel he isn’t going to be as good, perhaps headed for a large regression, thus eating into that value. So how can a pitcher like Buchanan improve? Let’s dig a little deeper.

His ERA was a solid number, but his FIP (4.27) suggests that he was a bit lucky. However, throughout his minor league career, he has beaten his FIP mark by about the same margin each year. His BABIP number (.289) also suggests that a slight regression could be on the horizon, though he never had a high BABIP in the minors either.

He isn’t going to be striking many people out, since the previously noted repertoire demonstrates he is not a power pitcher. Buchanan did manage to induce ground balls at an above average rate (50.7%), and since his 5.4 K/9 is a below average number, the Kyle Kendrick comparisons that are often bandied about do actually bear out.

This KK comparison is probably due to the fact that he relies on his defense more than the average pitcher. If he has a good defense behind him, he will beat his FIP. If he doesn’t, the ERA will climb to match up with his FIP. But will he, and more importantly, CAN he improve on last season’s numbers? Looking at what he throws does show a slight change that I believe he will have to make this season.

According to Brooks Baseball, Buchanan has three versions of a fastball: a four-seam, a sinker, and a cutter. He also throws a changeup and a curveball, making him basically a 3-pitch hurler. If Buchanan is to truly improve this coming season, he may want to ditch his four-seam altogether.

Last year, he threw the pitch only 16.06% of the time, but in that time he was lit up. When batters made contact with the pitch, it resulted in a .768 SLG against. Hitters blasted 5 HR and 7 doubles when he threw the pitch.

Now, the “small sample size” rule applies here, as we only have Pitchf/x data for 117 innings of Buchanan. But a philosophical change is something he needs to consider, if he wants to remain in a major league rotation. It’s very similar to something that Kendrick did at one point.

In 2008, the first season of available Pitchf/x data, Kendrick threw his four-seamer only 10% of the time. When he did throw it, hitters recorded their highest SLG against him, with a .588 mark.

A change made by ex-Phils pitcher Kyle Kendrick could be beneficial for Buchanan as well.

(Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Kendrick noticed that his four-seamer was getting hit hard, so he began to limit the usage of the pitch. He limited it so much that in fact, from 2010-2013, Pitchf/x has no record of him even throwing the pitch. He resurrected it last year, but on an extremely limited basis (0.86%).

Kendrick and his coaches saw that in order to survive, he had to ditch a pitch that would be the equivalent of a slightly harder batting-practice fastball. Buchanan would do well to consider doing the same. Having watched him pitch for a little more than half a season, it’s fairly obvious that he is not a strikeout pitcher. Buchanan is a ground ball pitcher, as the stats and stuff bear out.

This coming season, he potentially has an average to slightly above-average infield behind him. Freddy Galvis and Chase Utley project to be good with the glove, while Cody Asche might be just under that average line. Allowing people who are good at the job to do their job (i.e. field ground balls with aplomb) would make Buchanan more successful, enabling him to hang in the majors.

It isn’t an earth-shattering move, and time will only tell if it actually works. But featuring the pitches (sinker, changeup, curveball) that will make his outings more successful, and ditching the one pitch that does not, might force the Phillies hands on whether to consider Buchanan a favorite for the rotation, or a frequent passenger on the Triple-A Express.

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