Buchholz…One More Time

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In case it was less than obvious, I was driven insane some months ago by the media’s complete inability to grasp even the basics of player evaluation; most acutely with respect to Clay Buchholz.

But while reading Over the Monster’s interview with the Globe’s Tony Massarotti – kudos to OTM on that, BTW – I really think I’ve had a breakthrough in my comprehension of how Massarotti and his colleages can look at the same set of data and come to such different conclusions: we’re not looking at the same data.

Everything about the media’s evaluation of our players begins to make sense if you do one, simple thing: discount their minor league performance and scouting reports. If you base your analysis off of nothing more than their performance with the big club, Tony, Nick and the rest of the gang are exactly right. Phrases like, I still think “Buchholz’ greatest value is on the trade market,” or “Masterson seems like the best of the lot,” are not controversial, obtuse or perplexing, but simple statements of fact. Well, maybe not so much the former, because it flies in the face of basic precepts like “sell high/buy low,” but you get the point.

Try it. Just look at the major league numbers for a minute. Not the ones that provide context like BABIP, and not the ones are decent indicators of ceiling like K/9. Don’t look, in fact, any further than ERA, because that’s all you’ll need. Buchholz’ ERA last season was 6.75 (ignore the 1.59 over 22.1 IP in ’07). Masterson’s was 3.16. Who’s the better pitcher? Masterson. Who’s expendable? Buchholz.

Simple.

What makes life hard for me, I can see now, is that I actually consider their minor league histories, and factor them in when evaluating the player. To make matters worse, I view ERA as slightly more important than a pitcher’s W/L record – which is effectively irrelevant for the purposes of evaluation, as far as I’m concerned – but significantly less useful than, oh, BABIP, K/9, HR/9, and K/BB. And the nail in the coffin? I’m reluctant to project too much on the basis of sample sizes of less than a hundred innings at the major league level.

If I didn’t have those problems, none of the following would trouble me when I concluded that Buchholz was a bust and should be shipped for the first available need:

  • Buchholz’ BABIP – career – is .343. The average typically allowed on balls in play for pitchers of virtually any type is .290, which in English means that hitters have an average 50+ points higher against Buchholz than they should.

    One of two conclusions, therefore, is supportable: a.) Buchholz has found some new way to uniquely allow a higher average on balls in play, or b.) he’s been unlucky in a small sample size and will inevitably revert to the mean.

  • In 344.1 IP in the Minor Leagues, Buchholz has struck out 417 guys while walking 95. His ERA over that span? 2.43. In case you’re fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing, those numbers are good. Exceedingly good. For the sake of comparison, Masterson – who, in spite of being the media’s flavor the month, I really like – has struck out 193 while walking 59 in over a hundred fewer innings (233.1). His ERA? 3.78. What do those numbers mean? Buchholz – per nine innings pitched at the minor league level – has struck out roughly three more guys, while walking .2 more. It’s always difficult to predict pitchers, but the ability to strike men out while walking as few as possible is one of the best indicators.
  • Aside from the statistical arguments that Buchholz is a pitcher with a higher upside than Masterson (and Bowden, in my view, isn’t even in this conversation yet), there’s the scouting report on their respective arsenals. Buchholz has two pitches that are considered plus – his curveball and changeup – and his fastball is, when he can locate it, more than adequate, with good to plus velocity. Masterson has one pitch that is considered plus – his fastball – and two that are not: his changeup and slider. Thus, while both pitchers have suggestive platoon splits in their major league history to date, the scouting reports indicate that Buchholz has more weapons than Masterson to attack left handed hitters.

Ignoring all of that, it’s easy to see why Buchholz is on the media’s shit list at the moment. Not living up to the impossible expectations created by the no hitter would be enough on its own, but carousing with Victoria’s Secret models and Penthouse pets? You’re done in this town, kid: no matter what your minor league numbers say.

Well, except for the fact that Theo’s running things. Thank Jebus.

Maybe Bucky pans out, and maybe he doesn’t: he’s a pitching prospect, after all. But to regard him, as the media quite obviously does, as done after 98.2 innings is, to me, the real insanity here.

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