Don't Mess With (The Kid From) Texas: Buchholz' Delivery

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claybuchholz5 crop, originally uploaded by firebrandal.

This season, seven Red Sox pitchers have started more than five games. Six of them have ERAs below 4.20. The seventh, Clay Buchholz, pitched a no-hitter last season and currently has a 2.45 ERA in five starts since returning to Triple-A Pawtucket. Buchholz is 23, and going through the sort of thing that 23-year-old pitchers often go through.” – Rob Neyer

Precisely.

What Neyer is talking about: in 8 starts this year, everyone’s favorite 23 year old righthander that dates Victoria’s Secret models and Penthouse Pets had surrendered 49 hits and 3 homers over 42.1 IP. For those bad at math, that’s a 10.42 H/9. Not strong. Also not strong were the 20 BBs in those 42 and change innings. Not what was expected of the quote unquote best pitching prospect in the minor leagues.

Clearly, some adjustments were in order. As Neyer puts it, the kind of adjustments that most 23 year old pitchers have to make.

And to his credit, the pitcher understood this. In some candid comments following a Pawtucket start, Buchholz had the following to say about the areas on his report card marked Needs Improvement:

“The number of fastballs I was throwing was really low because I fell in love with off-speed stuff because I had success with it early,” he said. “But big league hitters catch on to it. They have video just like I have video. It’s easy to see what kind of routine somebody gets into regardless of if it’s hitting or pitching.”

Personally, I’m fine with all of the above. Particularly because, as mentioned before, the Red Sox know far better what’s good for the kid than yours truly. If they think he needs better fastball command, then he probably needs better fastball command.

But I’m worried. Not because of his performance: most young pitchers go through this, as discussed above. But because there’s nothing in his minor league history to indicate a problem with command, fastball or otherwise.

In 301.2 minor league innings, Buchholz has walked 87 guys – roughly 2.6 per 9. That’s a good number. More impressive, he’s struck out 370 guys in those 300+ innings – 11.06 per 9. That’s a really good number. Freakishly good, in fact.

Certainly it’s possible – even likely – that Buchholz didn’t need his fastball as much in the minors given the quality of his offspeed stuff. It’s just as likely that he will, in fact, need it in the majors. What worked for his no hitter was never a guarantee to work indefinitely. Still, there’s nothing to indicate numbers-wise (I don’t have PitchF/X data for him), that command was the issue.

The additional minor league seasoning I can live with, here’s my real concern: the Red Sox are reportedly tinkering with his delivery. According to Ken Rosenthal, the Sox “want Buchholz to move his arm slot away from his head, an adjustment they believe will increase the movement on his fastball.”

Again, I’m fully aware of both my lack of credentials and the Sox’ track record when it comes to managing the development of their young pitchers. Number of pitchers successfully developed by me? Zero. Number of pitchers successfully developed by the Sox? Papelbon, Lester, Masterson and if we’re being charitable, Hansen and MDC.

But still: altering his delivery? The kid has a career 11.06 K/9 and 2.60 BB/9 in 300+ minor league innings. And the Driveline Mechanics guys, in particular, love his delivery (though they do admit to preferring a high 3/4 slot). Whatever happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Isn’t this the kid what tossed a no-hitter?

Frankly, however, these concerns may be academic. Whatever changes they’ve made, they appear to be working: Buchholz has given up a total of 2 runs in his last four starts. His last outing? 5 IP, 1 H, 6 Ks.

So while I’ll trust that the Sox know best (pipe down back there, Meredith), I hope they don’t screw with this kid too much. Whatever he’s been doing to date has worked well; well enough that the numbers say he can star in the majors, delivery changes or no.