Buchholz Up

After yesterday’s fine outing, Clay Buchholz may be a bit less of a buy-low candidate. Going into said start, Buchholz was sporting a foul 6.06 ERA with a 1.65 WHIP to match. FIP, xFIP, and SIERA told a different story, of course; they were 3.07, 2.73, and 2.84 respectively, on the strength of 19 strikeouts against just four walks in 16.1 innings of work. (He’s now got 29 Ks and 7 BBs in 22.1 IP with a 4.84 ERA).

But even with laudatory marks from famous ERA indicators, we’re still dealing with a small sample, and should be digging deeper to determine whether Buchholz is doing anything differently, or whether he’s actually improved over a pretty atrocious 2014.

Based on what I’m looking at, he’s definitely doing things differently.

First, let’s look at some numbers in a table that spans the full width of this text column. (Remember these stats are through his first three starts this year; they do not include yesterday’s game vs. Tampa Bay.)

Year K% BB% GB% O-Swing% O-Contact% SwStr% BABIP HR/FB LD% IFFB%
2014 17.9% 7.3% 46.6% 30.4% 69.8% 8.5% .315 9.8% 19.0% 9.8%
2015 24.7% 5.2% 54.7% 36.6% 64.3% 10.9% .404 13.3% 17.0% 0.0%
Career 18.2% 8.7% 48.9% 29.5% 66.5% 9.1% .288 10.0% 18.5% 8.2%

The first several columns show an improvement in results so far in 2015; the last several columns offer reason to be optimistic that his traditional stats will even out. First, Clay-B has been horribly unlucky on balls in play, as compared to both his career mark and league average, and he hasn’t given up a line drives at a rate—nor does he pitch in front of a bad enough defense—to warrant such a high BABIP. To boot, he hasn’t induced a single pop-up yet this year, whereas he’s generally done so at a league-average rate in the past. Granted, his new ground-ball-heavy approach might lead to fewer pop-ups, but not no pop-ups. A higher rate of converted outs is nigh for ol’ Clayie. (Guessing that nickname won’t stick.)

You’ll also notice that Buchholz is getting more swings on pitches outside of the zone, and batters are making less contact when they swing at those pitches. Hence, a bump in his swinging strike rate. This, in turn, is also what’s helping his K%. Getting hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone is generally a good thing; it’s definitely a good thing when they’re not even making contact with those pitches.

And then there’s the difference in where Buchholz has been placing his out-of-the-zone pitches—all pitches, for that matter):

The Buchholz Zone: 2014 vs. 2015

The one with more red is 2015, and you can see that the red is lower than it was in 2014. It’s likely that this as helped to increase his ground ball rate. A defensive infield of Pablo Sandoval, Xander Bogaerts, and Dustin Pedroia is pretty solid, if not spectacular, and in fact that trio has committed no errors on ground balls induced by Buchholz in 2015, which have gone for hits at a .367 clip against him this season. For reference, the league AVG on ground balls in 2014 was .239. Now, without additional data (or without watching all 30 of the grounders that he’s induced this year), I can’t say whether Buchholz has been giving up especially hard hit grounders, but it’s probably pretty safe to say that he won’t continue to yield an AVG on grounders that’s 150% of league average.

Finally, there’s a difference in Buchholz’s pitch selection and shape. He’s throwing way more sinkers/two-seamers and a few more changeups; fewer four-seamers, splitters (now defunct), and cutters. The changeup appears to be a whole different pitch altogether, not only in terms of the results (it’s top ten in the league by value/100), but also in velocity (almost three MPH slower than in 2014) and horizontal movement (see below).

The Buchholz Movement: 2014-2015

Hitters are having trouble with Buchholz’s change, to say the least. He’s thrown the change 57 times (including yesterday’s game vs. Tampa) and hitters have yet to do anything with it—literally anything: .000 AVG, .000 SLG. Hitters have put a ball in play on five of those 57 changeups: one line drive and four ground balls. Contrast that with 11 whiffs.

The sinker has gotten different results— .357 AVG, .452 SLG— but it has a 65.7% GB/BIP rate, so one figures that hitters won’t continue to have as much success against it as the season goes on.

In sum, I’m optimistic that Buchholz has made actual changes that have lead to improvements in certain areas, and that those improvements will start to show up in his traditional stats. I’ll quickly rehash my reasons:

  • He’s been very unlucky on balls in play, especially considering his batted ball profile thus far in 2015. If he starts generating a few pop-ups (and he will), his batted ball profile should look even better.
  • His changeup is different. It now has a larger velocity gap from his four-seamer and sinker, and more horizontal movement. It’s generating a lot of whiffs, which is helping his strikeout rate.
  • The sinker is generating a lot of ground balls that are going to start turning into outs at a higher rate, probably.
  • Actually, I didn’t mention this before, but Buchholz is sporting the lowest walk rate of his career. Neither his Zone% nor his F-Strike% is anything to get excited about, so his BB% might suffer if hitters start laying off changeups and sinkers that are out of the zone. Until then, ooo-wee.

Considering what I wrote about Kendall Graveman after his first start, you might never seriously consider another word I write. But we have a bit more data with Buchholz here, and I think the data is far more encouraging (and meaningful) than the mostly anecdotal reasoning I presented with Graveman.

So, take it with a grain of salt if you must, but there are indications that Buchholz could be in line for a bounce back—or a breakout, depending on how you see his career to this point. If you find someone in one of your leagues who’s willing to sell at a reasonable price, offer a polished turd for him, if nothing else.

Hire Robert J. Baumann to live-blog your next birthday party, family reunion, or corporate event. You will not want to forget it soon.

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I’m in a deep H2H points league and my staff has struggled early, esp. Fiers and Paxton. Both Clay and Drew Pomeranz, who has the added benefit of dual eligibility are a waiver claim away.

Which 2 of these 4 pitchers will be the most valuable and reliable this season?