Clay Buchholz: The Ultimate Wild Card in Boston’s Rotation

Since his full-time insertion into the Boston Red Sox’ rotation in 2010, Clay Buchholz has been a right-handed enigma.

In seasons in which Buchholz has pitched at least 100 innings for the Sox, his ERA has gone as such: 2.33 in 2010, 3.48 in 2011, 4.56 in 2012, 1.74 in 2013, 5.34 in 2014. Essentially, there’s a mixed bag of results from the lanky 30-year old.

He’s shown “ace” potential, especially in his injury-shortened 2013 season, in which he looked like arguably the best pitcher in the American League over the course of the first half of the season. On the other hand, he’s had seasons where he’s looked like nothing more than a liability on the mound.

Whether he earned it or by default (quite possibly more of the latter), Buchholz is the veteran of the 2015 Red Sox pitching staff, both by age and length in tenure with Boston. While that doesn’t necessarily translate to him being the number one starter skill-wise, it seems the job is his to lose.

“If he stays on a five-day rotation, Buchholz is in line to be the Red Sox’ Opening Day starter on April 6. Sox manager John Farrell tends to wait until the last minute to name the order of his rotation, but all signs are pointing to Buchholz, the oldest member on the staff.” – Jason Mastrodonato, Boston Herald

With a starting rotation riddled with questions and concerns coming into the season, Clay Buchholz’s “A-game” is going to be needed more than ever before. Given his shaky history, loaded with injuries and drastic inconsistency, there’s no telling what Boston is going to get out of him.

ESPN’s Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS calculations projected Buchholz to post a 4.17 ERA, with 118 strikeouts in 153 innings pitched. For the record, he projected Rick Porcello to have the lowest ERA of any starter at 3.71, with Wade Miley not too far behind at 3.90.

Just for the sake of argument, Buchholz was projected to have a 4.16 ERA in 2013, the year he posted the best ERA of his career. Projections are an inexact science, but they’re arguably the best way to gauge what kind of numbers players could be posting in upcoming seasons.

For Buchholz, the numbers are not on his side.

Success for Buchholz in 2015 may come down to whether he can stay healthy or not, something that’s slowed him down in the past. He’s yet to pitch over 200 innings in his career, and has seen a variety of injuries stop him from doing so — stress fractures, nagging neck pain, and esophagitis, just to name a few.

It’s hard to key in on what Buchholz exactly needs to find success this year. He’s never been a strikeout-heavy pitcher (his career high in a season is 132, a total he accumulated last year along with his 5.34 ERA). In his first three seasons in the rotation, his walk totals per game hovered above three per contest (3.47, 2010, 3.38, 2011, 3.04, 2012) but he’s managed to keep his walks below three per game in the past two seasons, averaging 2.88 in 2013, and 2.85 in 2014.

There hasn’t been a drop in pitch speed throughout his career, with his fastball consistently averaging 93 mph, his two-seamer at 92, and his curveball at 86.

His numbers all across the board, save ERA, are relatively similar historically, and it’s difficult to find a correlation between those stats in his good seasons and his bad. While it’s unfair to pretend to be inside the mind of any athlete, and equally unfair to throw out assumptions, it could come down to a mental game for Buchholz; has he been focused, or “in the right place” in these seasons in which he struggled?

It’s impossible to tell, at least right now, but it could have the potential to make or break his upcoming season.

Is the entire season resting on Buchholz’s back? No, not necessarily, considering Boston is projected to have one of the best offenses in all of baseball. But it wouldn’t hurt to have the clubhouse veteran pitcher step up, and help pace a rotation bolstered with new faces.

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