Whither Clay Buchholz?

Clay Buchholz

There’s really no other way to say this: Clay Buchholz has been a miserable pitcher in 2012. Sunday’s two run, 6k, one walk affair notwithstanding, Buchholz’ 2012 campaign has been a train wreck so far. Aside from Ubaldo Jimenez, he’s been the least valuable pitcher as measured by WAR (-0.3). Among AL starters, only five are giving up more home runs per nine. Among MLB starters, no one has a higher ERA than Clay’s 7.19. Most alarming, perhaps, is his MLB worst (starter) WHIP of 1.83: each and every inning, he’s putting almost two guys on base by walk or hit. Tough to win games that way, though he’s managed to squeeze out four thanks to his MLB best run support which is just this side of two touchdowns per game.

The question isn’t whether he’s been bad, however, it’s what to do about it. The talk show shouters, of course, would have us dump him for spare parts. More rational commentators would have him succumb to a phantom injury and get himself sorted in the minors where we wouldn’t need the offense to scare up ten runs to win every five days. That approach might yet be the correct one, but Sunday’s start offered at least some hope that Buchholz will start being Buchholz, sooner rather than later. Looking closer at the numbers, there are a few other signs that he might regress at least towards being league average, which would sadly be a massive improvement over his performance to date.

  • BABIP: Buchholz’s career average on balls in play is .289, which is almost exactly what it should be. This season, however, batters are hitting .342 on balls in play. Which, translated, they’re hitting fifty points better than they should be when they make contact. Unless the laws of baseball have been repealed, this is likely to rectify itself over the balance of the season, which in turn should forecast better numbers from Buchholz.

  • xFIP: If it’s true that xFIP – which controls for defense and expected home run totals – has one of the highest correlations to future ERA of any metric, Buchholz should be happy. His xFIP of 4.97, while still poor, is far more palatable than his bloated (and league worst) 7.19 ERA. Buchholz’s xFIP is actually better than that of teammate Daniel Bard, which is obviously damning with faint praise, since the reliever turned starter has lost nearly five miles an hour of his fastball and is walking as many as he strikes out. Still, xFIP offers some hope that Buchholz may have better days ahead.

  • Velocity: Anecdotally, it has appeared that Buchholz’s velocity has been ticking upwards in recent starts. The odd 94 here, 93 there, offered some hope that his arm strength has been coming back, slowly but surely. The metrics offer some support for this; the last time we looked at his average fastball velocity, he was at 91.8 MPH. Today, he’s up to 92.

  • BB/9 / K/9: This is admittedly grasping for straws, but if you look at the graphs of his BB/9, K/9 and K/BB, they’re beginning to trend in the right direction.

Ultimately, there’s nothing in the data that points to Buchholz reverting to his 2010 form in the immediate future. There are signs, however, that he is trending towards becoming at least a league average pitcher again, which is a start. And while his performance in the number three spot in the rotation has been a major disappointment, it’s been offset to some degree by the emergence of Doubront as an above average number four. In spite of his absymal performance to date, then, I’m inclined to put more faith in his history than his ten starts this season.

I know he’s been awful, but have some patience.

Forgive Bobby or Blame Tito: Pick One

Fenway - Field Of Dreams April 20, 1912 - April 20, 2012 (6)

Through thirty-five games, the Red Sox were officially one game off of last season’s pace. The offense, as anticipated, is fine. The loss of a 2011 MVP runners up didn’t help, but we’re fourth in OPS, fourth in slugging, fifth in OBP and second in runs scored. Just as with last September, the problem so far is pitching – this last solid turn through the rotation notwithstanding. Only six teams in baseball have gotten fewer innings from their starters, and only the Royals are walking more per nine. Which might be acceptable if the starters were striking people out right and left, but that’s not the case either: we’re 26th in K/9. All of which adds up to a starters ERA of 5.46 (second worst in baseball) and an xFIP of 4.45 (third worst).

If you’re looking for an explanation, then, as to why the Red Sox find themselves in the AL East basement, there it is. It’s true, as the excellent Alex Speier documents, that Valentine’s decision making with his pitchers has been questionable, and that the poor numbers above may be exaggerated by this. But even if we were to give the pitchers the benefit of the doubt regarding usage, at best they might approach middle of the pack. The simple fact is that the pitching has been bad.

Which is why most of the Red Sox reporters have been inclined to give Bobby V a pass thus far. The team’s performance is not his fault, they argue – it’s the starting pitching. And they’re correct to do so, because the truth is that as much as I believe Valentine is the wrong manager for the Boston Red Sox, our record to date is not his responsibility.

But here’s the catch, if you’re a reporter. If you take this position – and it is, in my opinion, the correct position – you cannot simultaneously hold Francona responsible for the Red Sox failure last September. You know where the Red Sox starters ranked last September in ERA? Dead last, with a horrific 7.08. The next worst rotation? Baltimore, at 6.09: almost a full run better. How about innings pitched by starters in September? Second to last. Pittsburgh’s rotation pitched one fewer game than we did and thereby eked out the fewest starters innings title. Pick your metric, and the starters were awful. They had the worst BB/9 and the third worst HR/9. The Indians starters were the only ones to allow more runs than the Red Sox rotation in September; which would damn them if they hadn’t pitched thirty one and two thirds more innings than our guys. The average hitter against last September’s rotation put up a .300/.386/.489 line for an .875 OPS. Which meant, effectively, that the average hitter was performing a bit better than Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli or Miguel Cabrera have so far this year.

If you were ever curious as to how you go 7-20 in a month, those numbers are a good place to start. Also, throwing poor, obviously not ready Kyle Weiland every fifth day. But what’s the point of all of this? It’s simple. Reporters, you can pick one of the following: a) the 2012 slow start is not Bobby Valentine’s fault or b.) the September 2011 collapse was Tito Francona’s fault. Last I checked, it’s still a free country, so you’re entitled to choose either one of those options, even if one of them is laughably absurd. You cannot assert that both are correct, however. Throwing one the book at one man without even charging another for the same offense is just too much, even for a profession with a notoriously casual relationship with the facts.

Stop the Middlebrooks Madness

If Will Middlebrooks continues to play a pivotal role in the offense, what will the Red Sox do once Kevin Youkilis ready to return? Youkilis is eligible to return on Monday, although it is unlikely he will be activated that day.

Middlebrooks was a third baseman in high school and has played only third base professionally. Could he play the outfield?

“I don’t know,” Bobby Valentine said. “It’s been tossed around in some quarters.”

[…]

“It hasn’t been a table discussion yet. So I don’t think it even has to enter his domain. That being said, I think he’s a pretty — small sample, my being around him — he’s a pretty mature baseball guy. He’s not going to be flustered by a lot of things.”

Red Sox contemplate using Will Middlebrooks in outfield – Extra Bases – Red Sox blog.

Two things.

First, it’s been four games. Four. It seems unlikely that a 1.361 OPS represents his expected level of performance from here on out, so why on earth would we be making decisions off of it? And if you want to argue that he was tearing it up in the minors before being called up, remember that that was 24 games. It’s early, and he’s been hot: that’s to his credit. But Middlebrooks’ career minor league OPS is .787. Youkilis’s career major league OPS is .878.

In Youkilis is healthy, he’ll probably put up better numbers than Middlebrooks over the balance of the season, the kid’s hot start notwithstanding. If he’s not healthy, play Middlebrooks.

But let’s not go crazy with outfield schemes, or worse, trade Youkilis for pennies on the dollar as Edes would apparently have us do.

Second, it strikes me that if Bobby V didn’t want talk of playing the outfield to “enter [Middlebrooks] domain,” it might be better to not talk to the media about the possibility. You know, because the media might ask him about it, and therefore put it into his domain.

Just a thought.