Did you expect any sort of spotlight on Clay Buchholz this season? I certainly didn’t think he would be worth anyone’s time, with his last healthy season producing a 4.78 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, watching his strikeout rate dive to an abysmal 16% mark and hinting at a 10% walk rate. But here we are, four starts into his 2018 season and Buchholz is getting our attention. Seriously, he’s been quite remarkable thus far (I’m ignoring 2017 stats wise as his poor health reduced his season to just two starts in 7.1 innings):
I was like many of you at first, waving this away with a slight scoff, quickly quoting small sample size and the inconsistent nature of Buchholz, and suggesting that nothing has changed. Maybe even adding a quick “this is the same old Buchholz” quip.
But it isn’t. This could be nothing, yet another byproduct of a minuscule 24 frames, but there’s a chance that it sticks across the weeks and months of the year.
That thing is Clay Buchholz’s cutter.
Let’s go straight to the tape. I’ll be showcasing games exclusively from his home start against the Miami Marlins on June 1st as it has the closest camera angle to the Phillies from 2017. Here his cutter did a little bit of everything to get through the outing. He induced foul balls:
Earned called strikes:
And of course, generated swinging strikes (over a 25% rate in this game!):
It doesn’t look overpowering, but notice the locations on these pitches. Buchholz is starting most of these inside the zone before they sweep and dive out of the box, forcing batters to commit when they don’t want to, or he steals a strike as the ball slides back over the plate.
The whole act is adding up across his four starts, including a 22.5% whiff rate. I’m not joking:
Those are absurd numbers. A 40% O-Swing is considered excellent, but a 65% mark? With a 56% zone rate?! The product is a pitch that gets strikes when he throws it. Seriously, Buchholz has earned a strike – including balls in play – on 84.5% of all cutters he’s thrown this season (60 out of 71). That’s unheard of…and obviously unsustainable but we still have to give credit to Buchholz as he’s performed extraordinarily well with the pitch thus far.
I mentioned this is a change, however. In preparation for this piece, I wanted to see what the pitch was like in previous seasons. I went back to his two starts in 2017 to get a look at his cutter and I was initially pleasantly surprised.
But then the pitch got him into trouble quickly as there was more bad than good:
While those GIFs are from his final game of 2017, it should convey the main point of the article. The pitch itself was never really that poor of an offering (a solid 3.9 pVal in 2016!), but Buchholz wasn’t dipping off the edges the same way and was prone to leaving it to get smacked. In 2018, he’s executing it better than he ever has and it’s making a massive difference.
His heatmaps support this. On left we have the locations of about 500 cutters thrown in 2016 and Buchholz’s 71 cutters thrown in 2018 on the right:
It wasn’t a detrimental pitch in 2016 – actually, the best pitch in his arsenal – but it wasn’t overwhelming or debilitating. Just, good. However, it’s taken a step forward now as Buchholz is doing a better job of avoiding the middle of the plate while emphasizing the down-and-away corner to right-handers and jamming lefties. Batters are questioning if each pitch is a strike or a ball and getting great outcomes as a result.
To go one step further, let’s add it to the table from before showing its numbers against 2018’s iteration:
Everything is better. A lot better. Moreso, adjusting for vertical movement relative to his four-seamer, Buchholz has gained an extra inch of vertical movement on his cutter in 2018 as well. That combination of consistently better drop and execution is making all of the difference. Buchholz suddenly has a money pitch and is earning success.
I should make something clear. I don’t believe that Buchholz’s cutter will hold a 20%+ whiff rate through the season. I don’t think he will be able to avoid punishment and be pristine with the pitch through all starts moving forward – the pitch wasn’t even perfectly executed each time in the showcased Marlins game. However, we’ve seen written-off pitchers improve one of their pitchers and suddenly make a fantasy impact, including Kyle Gibson and Trevor Cahill, and this could follow suit. Don’t overlook Buchholz because of the name, he’s a different pitcher than you remember.
In shallow leagues, Buchholz isn’t worth the gamble, but there may be something here if you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, and that’s not something I expected to say about Clay Buchholz.