Murphy: Four reasons for optimism about Clay Buchholz
There are a number of reasons why you might want hide that cocktail napkin rendering of your design for a "Pocket Aces: Hellickson and Buchholz" T-Shirt. Thus, let's dutifully preface our holiday spirit with a quick run-down of the reasons to hold onto your (wooden rocking) horses as you digest the news of the Phillies' acquisition of a pitcher who at one point was expected to ascend into the ranks of baseball's elite.
First and foremost, baseball is like anywhere else in that you tend to get what you pay for, and the price the Phillies reportedly paid to acquire Clay Buchholz was a 24-year-old who had an OPS figure of .681 in 146 plate appearances at high-A last season and is listed as a second baseman/designated hitter, which rarely constitutes a resounding endorsement of a player's defensive potential up the middle.
While Buchholz, who will make $13.5 million in 2017, did not have a spot in a Red Sox rotation that is fronted by American League Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and also includes David Price and Chris Sale (lol), it is still hard to imagine the Phillies getting him for what is essentially salary relief, if Boston thought he'd have a decent chance to be serviceable. Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez aren't exactly sure things.
The question with Buchholz is the same as it's always been: how many starts will he make? Because he won't make all of them. At least, he never has before. Since his first full season in the majors in 2008, Buchholz has averaged just 21 starts, topping out at 29 in 2012 and 28 in 2010 and 2014. That 2010 season was the one that was supposed to herald his arrival as a legitimate top of the rotation starter. He finished sixth in the Cy Young voting while posting an ERA+ of 187: 2.33 ERA, 6.2 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9 in 173 2/3 innings. But he entered a cycle of every-other-year endurance, making just 14 starts in 2011, followed by 29 in 2012, then 16 in 2013, 28 in 2014, and 18 in 2015.
And then, there's a question equally as big: even if he's healthy, can he still pitch effectively?
Buchholz was brutal for most of 2016, particularly the first three months, when he allowed an astonishing 17 home runs and 37 walks while striking out just 53 in 80 2/3 innings, finally losing his spot in the Red Sox rotation.
That being said — and with the full realization of how much 'that' there is — Buchholz does come to Philadelphia with some upside. In the spirit of the season, here are four reasons why you shouldn't discard those T-Shirt designs entirely (though I'd suggest that Pocket Aces is a bit cliche and would be better replaced with something like "The Hard H's," or maybe you could get Jerad Eickhoff involved and call them 4-H, and maybe find a way to involve Frank Hermann and Dalier Hinojosa, though no 'Enry 'Iggins).
Anyway, the reasons:
1) For all his struggles last season, Buchholz' did not show any diminishment in his fastball velocity, which sat at 92.1 according to Fangraphs, the same level it was at the year before, and where it has been ever since his breakout performance in 2010.
2) Buchholz throws four different pitches for strikes, including a curveball and a changeup. So there is some material to work with if he needs to reinvent himself.
3) This one might be the most interesting: Buchholz was a remarkably competent pitcher away from Fenway Park last year. In 16 games on the road, he posted a 3.90 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 28 walks in 67 innings (10 starts, six relief appearances. That's 7.3 strikeouts per nine and a 1.93 strikeout-per-walk ratio, compared with 4.9 K/9 and 1.44 K/BB at home, where he posted a 5.60 ERA in 21 games. The road numbers were actually right in line with his career marks. It was Fenway where he was more awful than normal (his career ERA at Fenway is 4.14 compared with 3.79 on the road).
It makes sense when you look at his overall platoon splits: .363 OBP and .425 slugging percentage versus lefties, .286 and .410 vs righties. There is some chicken and the egg there, of course. Did Buchholz struggle against lefties because he played at Fenway or did he struggle at Fenway because he stunk against lefties?
One could optimistically look at his inflated walk rate vs. lefties and his relatively static slugging percentage and surmise that he pitched around lefties because of the park he was in, which, according to one study, increases the rate of doubles by 30 to 40 percent for left-handed hitters compared with a neutral field.
4) Buchholz had a quietly decent finish to the season. He allowed just 10 earned runs in 28 2/3 innings in his last five starts of the season, all in September. And in the two starts before those five, when he filled in as a spot starter, he allowed two runs with 12 strikeouts and two walks in 12 1/3 innings. All told, his numbers over the final six weeks of the season were quite good: 2.86 ERA, 34 strikeouts, 14 walks, three HBPs, four home runs, 44.0 innings over seven starts and three relief appearances.