I first interviewed Clay Buchholz in June 2005. Newly drafted — 42nd overall by the Red Sox — he’d made his professional debut a few days earlier. His future was bright.
A lot has happened since then. Buchholz has had a roller-coaster career in Boston, with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He’s thrown a no-hitter, won a World Series ring, and made a pair of All-Star teams. He’s also had train-wreck seasons. Injury prone and maddeningly inconsistent, he’s become a lightning rod for the Fenway Faithful.
Earlier this year, his days in Boston looked numbered. Relegated to the bullpen, he was 3-9 with an ERA north of 6.00 as the July trade deadline approached. By all accounts, he was as good as gone — assuming a rival team made a decent offer. It didn’t happen.
Buchholz is still wearing a Red Sox uniform. He’s also back in the starting rotation and showing signs of a revival. The 32-year-old right-hander has pitched well in two of his last three outings, and his ERA is down to 5.20. His future remains cloudy, but for now, he’s taking the ball every five days in a pennant race.
Buchholz talked about his past — and where he is today — prior to his last start.
Buchholz on how he’s changed since 2005: “I think it’s probably moved in three- or four-year intervals. Obviously, the older you get — the more innings and pitches that you throw — your stuff goes down a tick. The velocity on my fastball has gone down three or four mph. That’s happened gradually. When I go out there now, I’m anywhere from 91 to 94. When I came out of junior college, I would start the game 88-90. Third inning I’d be 92-94. Fifth inning on I’d be 97.
“I’ve learned a two-seam fastball since I was drafted. I’ve learned a cutter. I feel like I’ve learned how to pitch a lot better, as opposed to relying on 95-97, just throwing it and hoping they don’t hit it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times where I still do get hit. That’s obviously going to happen.
“In regard to staying the same or changing, I’ve had years where it wasn’t going to get any worse. That’s when I’ve tried to change. Those are the years I’ve learned what I needed to do and when I needed to do it. Depending on how I’m feeling on a given day… if I don’t have command of a few pitches, I’m able to pitch without those pitches. Before, I wouldn’t have known any better.”
On locating and not being predictable: “Now it’s more about knowing the opposing team, rather than just walking on the field and not having a plan. I know how to comprehend scouting reports a lot better. And I’ve faced a lot of these guys — especially in the AL East — a number of times. There’s a lot more of not doing the same thing every time I face a team. I’m having to go a couple of different routes, as opposed to saying, ‘OK, I beat you last time so that’s what I’m going to do.’
“When I’m getting hit, it’s command and location in the zone. If you get beat on 10 pitches in a game, I’d say eight of them are because you missed the exact location you wanted. For me, I don’t think it’s a case of mechanics or loss of focus, or anything like that. It’s just hard. It’s hard to throw every pitch right where you want to. Sometimes you get lucky and they swing and miss, or pop up, those misses. When you’re going bad, those pitches get exploited.”
On injuries and arm slots: “Earlier this year I was dealing with some arm-angle stuff that was related to the arm injuries I’ve had in previous years. Instead of being on top of the ball, I slowly went down because it was more comfortable. Throwing from down here didn’t hurt anything. Throwing up here did, and that’s where I get my movement. My stuff plays better whenever I’m at a higher arm slot. I’ve had to work at that. It’s slowly coming, but it’s been a chore.
“I’m not thinking about that when I’m on the mound; I just throw. It’s already hard enough to know which pitch I’m going to throw and where I’m trying to throw it. I can’t be out there trying to think about mechanical flaws on top of all that.”
On his cutter: “I threw a slider in college, but stopped throwing it after my first year [of professional baseball]. The slider is really hard on your arm if you throw it a whole lot. I also wanted something that looked like a fastball that wasn’t 84 mph. If I was throwing 92-94, I wanted it to be 88-90, and that’s what a cutter is. I asked Jon Lester how he threw his. He showed me his grip.
“I started using it as more of a count-control pitch. If fell behind 2-0, I could throw a cutter to a righty on the outside corner and run it off. I had a better chance of getting a swing on that, as opposed to a slider, which is an offspeed that they can see out of my hand. I developed a cutter for those situations and it evolved into one of my out pitches. I started throwing it to both sides of the plate.
“I think the cutter is the best pitch in baseball, as far as the stats go. Actually, I know that for a fact. [Red Sox director of pitching analysis and development] Brian Bannister and I were talking about that awhile ago — the numbers on guys who throw cutters. It’s the best pitch in baseball, in front of the split. Hard-sinking changeups are the third-best pitch. A four-seam fastball is the worst pitch as far as hard contact and batting average on balls put into play.”
On Brian Bannister and high fastballs: “He has [impacted how I think about pitching]. He’s really good at what he does, and he’s really easy to talk to. Yeah, throwing pitches in certain situations, versus throwing pitches just because you don’t want to throw another fastball: that’s how I’ve gotten in trouble a lot in my career. I would throw a changeup because I already threw two fastballs and didn’t want to throw another one.
“If I can throw a curveball for a strike, and then throw a curveball for a ball, then elevate a four-seam fastball, I’m going to get a lot more swings and misses on the high fastball. Not just concentrating on down, down, down is one of the things we’ve sat down and talked about in depth.
“Up until this year, I’ve never really intentionally thrown fastballs up in the zone. I’ve started doing that, and whenever I execute, it works out. Above the zone, above the belt, or maybe belly-button high at the top of the zone.
“The game has evolved. When I got called up, a lot of guys were high-ball hitters. They would take that pitch and hit it out. You were taught to throw the ball down, down, down. Now everybody is worried about their bat path and how they can get that ball going down and lift it. There are a lot more low-ball hitters in the game today than there were 10 years ago.”
On becoming less of a power pitcher: “I throw multiple pitches, and some days my best pitch could be the opposite of what it was the start prior to that. At times, I’ve relied on a couple of pitches too much. I’ve relied on the cutter a lot. Whenever I have a good one, it’s good, but when it’s a ball that’s just spinning, it’s not. It’s a learning process, still.
“If I can throw a curveball for a strike, that puts a little seed in the back of a hitter’s mind. Then I can also throw a curveball in the dirt, or I can elevate. Pitching backwards isn’t a bad thing.
“For the most part I feel pretty good about my fastball command, but it only takes one pitch in an area where the hitter wants it to get hurt. I’ve figured out that 92-94 is more of a hitter’s speed than it used to be. You’re not going to blow guys up with 92-94. Not when you have guys on every team that throw close to 100. I think I probably started figuring that out around 2012.
“I have [struggled at times since then]. But everybody is going to have struggles. It depends on how bad they are, and whether you can come out of them a better player. Sometimes that takes longer than everybody wants it to. I’ve found out a lot about myself in the past two or three years. I’ve pitched through some injuries and I’ve had some struggles. It’s a hard game sometimes.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.