Clay Buchholz Is A Pitcher On The Right Trajectory

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Sep 6, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) pitches during the third inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 6, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) pitches during the third inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /
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On Tuesday the Phillies announced they were acquiring Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox. It’s a salary dump for Boston and a possible reclamation project for the Phillies that they’re most likely hoping will pay some dividends come the trade deadline.

Buchholz has been hit or miss throughout his ten-year major career as a starter. One year he’ll put up fantastic numbers, like he did in 2010 when he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 173.2 innings, or he’ll be almost worthless, like in 2014 when he put up a record of 8-11 with a dismal 5.34 ERA in 170 innings.

So what exactly is the deal?

He’s had a ten-year career but last year can be used as a microcosm for his entire career. For the season as a whole Bucholz put up a 4.78 ERA in 139.1 IP but look a little deeper and you can see two stories: one where Buchholz was effective and one where he wasn’t.

Through the first half of the season, up until July 23rd, Bucholz pitched 84.2 inning and yielded a 6.06 ERA. But then he made an adjustment for the last part of the season, starting with his start on July 27th, and it showed up in his numbers. Through that remaining 54.2 innings he managed a very respectable 2.80 ERA.

So, what was the adjustment? Did he throw his fastball more, cut down on the curve? Was he pitching to lefties differently?

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Nope, not really. He started only throwing from the stretch, ditching the wind up completely. That’s change elicited much better control and as a result, walks went down and strike-outs and weak contact went up.

For those first 84 innings Bucholz threw 42% of his pitches in the zone and threw first pitch strikes 59.2% of the time. After July 27th, for the last 54 innings of the season he threw 45% of pitches in the zone and his first pitch strike rate skyrocketed to 68.4%.   To illustrate the three percent difference in the pitches in the zone, the 42% is about what Andrew Cashner throws; the increase to 45% is about what Jose Fernandez (RIP) threw. And the 68.4% first pitch strike percentage? That would be in the top five in baseball while the 59..2 would’ve put him in the bottom third of the majors. Those are huge differences.

So how did that change affect actual walks and strike outs? It was impactful to say the least.

Prior to July 27th Buchholz was walking batters at a 10% clip and striking out batters at a 15.1% rate while after making the adjustment the BB rate went down a full two percent to 8.0 and strike outs increased at almost the same rate to 16.8%. Batters that were previously walking were now striking out and his ratio of K’s to BB’s almost doubled.

His numbers were improved across the board, all by making one simple adjustment. Perhaps most telling of the improved command though is the rate at which he gave up home runs. Before the change he was surrendering the long ball at a rate of 1.81 pre 9 innings pitched. After that number was obliterated, reduced by almost 75% down to .64 HR’s per nine.

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Less walks, more strike outs and significantly fewer home runs is the very definition of making a positive adjustment for a pitcher.

So perhaps that what the Phils were looking at when they made this trade; a much improved pitcher who seems to have figured something out. No doubt with Bucholz being in the final year of his deal tha he’ll be a candidate for trade come the deadline so for the Phillies purposes he only needs to maintain what he ended the season doing for another 70 to 90 innings.

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