Although Clay Buchholz had enjoyed his share of success heading into 2013, from a no-hitter to a 17-win season, one assumes the Red Sox were hoping for more. Buchholz was Baseball America’s fourth-best prospect entering 2008 and appeared to be a top-of-the-rotation power arm capable of ace-level dominance. Instead, Buchholz has had one very good season — a 2010 with a 2.33 ERA and a still-solid 3.61 FIP. He has otherwise pitched like a back-end rotation-filler, with a 4.26 ERA and a 4.38 FIP over 500.1 innings.
Wednesday night, Buchholz’s fifth start of his age-28 season, is the latest signal of the step forward the Red Sox have been waiting for. Buchholz held the Blue Jays to just two hits and three walks over seven shutout innings as he struck out eight to lower his ERA to 1.01. And fret not, the peripherals are fantastic as well: he owns a 2.28 FIP and 3.00 xFIP.
The strikeout total he put up Wednesday night has been there all season, and it’s the main difference between the new Buchholz and the old Buchholz. Despite his blazing fastball and breaking pitches lauded as grade 70 pitches in Baseball America reports, Buchholz was posted remarkably consistent and mediocre strikeout rates from 2009-2012, always between 6.1 and 6.7 K/9. He now has 47 strikeouts in 44.2 innings in 2013.
Additionally, Buchholz kept a Blue Jays lineup loaded with power hitters without a home run, and he has allowed just one this season. His HR/FB was a horrible 13 percent last year and he had four seasons above 10 percent in his last five.
So what’s new? Via last night’s Blue Jays broadcast, Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Buchholz’s biggest difference is improved fastball command. And indeed, the numbers (via BrooksBaseball.net) bear this out: Buchholz has thrown his four-seam fastball for a called strike 27.5 percent of the time this year after just 22.8 percent in 2012. Conversely, the pitch has seen a similar drop in in-play rate. Considering Buchholz has allowed a .537 slugging on contact on the pitch for his career — the worst by over 100 points for any pitch he still throws — the fewer four-seam fastballs put in play the better.
By keeping the fastballs on the corners, something he did proficiently Wednesday night, he’ll turn what used to be balls in play into called strikes or foul balls. He has thrown the fastball for a strike but not in play 51.8 percent of the time this year, six points higher than last season. And, with 160 four-seam fastballs thrown already this season, this difference is already statistically significant (in a 90 percent confidence interval, to be specific).
His HR/FB won’t stay grounded at 3.7 percent, but keeping fastballs out of play will keep it from escalating too quickly. It’s especially key because he needs to be able to throw the fastball to get into favorable counts — it’s his best-controlled pitch at about 68 percent strikes the last two seasons, slightly better than the two-seamer and much better than his off-speed options.
And thanks to those fastball strikes, Buchholz has been in plenty of two-strike counts. The next question, then, is which pitch will be the out pitch. His curveball has been shockingly bad at drawing whiffs — under 10 percent since 2007, close to the major league fastball average — and that hasn’t changed this year. But his changeup, at least in 2013, has been an elite swing-and-miss pitch. Of the 74 Buchholz has tossed, hitters have waved at 20, a massive 27 percent.
As mentioned above, Buchholz’s changeup has been heralded in the past; a 70 grade is frontline material. But he was struggling mightily with the pitch last season, so much so that he scrapped it for a splitter Josh Beckett taught him after he threw the pitch for a ball nearly 50 percent of the time in April last season.
That arsenal change didn’t take as the calendar flipped to 2013. Buchholz had little trouble drawing swings and misses when he used the changeup in 2012 — 18.9 percent is still an excellent mark for a changeup — and his control issues have disappeared. Buchholz threw 13 changeups Wednesday night with nine (69 percent) going for strikes, and his 63 percent overall strike rate works fine for a pitch designed to fool hitters. The pitch has been devastating to left-handers and right-handers alike, with whiff rates over 20 percent to both sides. It’s been so good, he’s put the splitter back in the toolbox, leaving it as a side project for bullpen sessions.
Things will come back to earth. Buchholz’s changeup probably won’t finish with a higher whiff rate than Aroldis Chapman’s slider (currently at 24.4 percent). Teams will tag his fastball for a few home runs. But Buchholz has already thrown enough fastballs to suggest his control and command of the pitch have improved this year, and his changeup has been a highly regarded pitch dating back to his time in Double-A. If he can maintain even a fraction of the improvements he’s shown over his first five starts with these two pitches, the Red Sox can expect Buchholz to finally step into his frontline potential.