Maturing Clay Buchholz Ready to Take on Reliable Role in Red Sox Rotation

by NESN Staff

February 14, 2010

Maturing Clay Buchholz Ready to Take on Reliable Role in Red Sox Rotation After a thrilling introduction to the MLB in 2007, Clay Buchholz?s 2008 season was nothing short of a nightmare.

But on the heels of an encouraging 2009, can the young hurler continue to improve in 2010?

His first impression three years ago as a 23-year-old was pretty remarkable to say the least. He was 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA that summer with one those victories coming in the no-hit variety. Needless to say, expectations were high for Buchholz. Fast forward to 2010 and the expectations are back.

But back then, what appeared to be the second coming of Jon Lester ? who, himself, had a surreal 7-2 debut just one season prior to Buchholz?s first look ? turned out to be a heart-wrenching tale of disappointment. It all started when the Red Sox, fresh off a World Series title and short Curt Schilling in the rotation, decided not to ease Buchholz into the rotation in the summer of 2008. Instead, the defending champs were trusting Buck as a fifth starter behind Josh Beckett, Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield.

That group had what appeared to be the perfect balance of veterans in Wakefield and Beckett and young newcomers who had recently been in his situation in Dice-K and Lester to help Buchholz along in what was supposed to be his first full season in the show. With a championship lineup and arguably the game?s most knowledgeable catcher in Jason Varitek manning the dish, the stars were aligned to mold Buchholz into one of the game?s finest young arms.

After just one month of service, however, it was obvious this experiment was a bust.

Buchholz struggled out of the gate and the team dropped six of his first eight starts. With a 5.53 ERA to go with a 2-3 record, the bleeding stopped when Buchholz was placed on the 15-day disabled list in early May with a broken fingernail. After a successful month in Pawtucket to rehab, Buchholz was given a second shot at the Fens, but that would prove to do more harm than good as he went 0-6 with an 8.29 ERA until late August when he was shipped down to Portland for the remainder of the year. He was forced to wait through the entire offseason for a second chance to prove himself to the Nation.

So in 2009, Boston re-tooled their plan for the righty and held him down in Pawtucket for the entire first half of the summer and the patience paid off. Buchholz finished with a 7-4 record and a 4.21 ERA including eight wins in a row and nine of his last 10 to close out the season.

So can Clay clamp down success in 2010?

According to the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA), he sure will. The sabermetric system for forecasting players? statistics is calling for 12 wins, a 3.71 ERA and 141 strikeouts in 164 innings pitched.

Another reliable source is Mike Cather who arguably knows Buchholz's pitching habits and needs better than the hurler himself.

The pitching instructor worked with Buchholz in Single-A Wilmington in 2006 and in Double-A Portland in 2007, the summer that led to the pitcher?s first call-up. Cather and Buchholz formed a bond in his early professional years and Buchholz has a lot of faith in Cather?s instruction. In fact, Cather was the reason why Boston sent Buchholz down to Portland ? not Pawtucket ? at the end of the 2008 season.

?Clay?s definitely a max-effort guy,? Cather told prior to last season. ?Actually, he came to me with some of that information himself. He went back and looked at some of his numbers from this year and last year. He said that he never gave up a hit when he threw a 92-mph fastball, and that hitters did most of their damage when he threw in the 94 ? 96 range. So he?s very aware of it, and that is exactly why he was [in Arizona].?

As cliché as it sounds, Buchholz learned how to stay within himself for the majority of last season. When he wasn?t trying to overpower hitters with his heater ? a tool he relied on countless times in the minors ? he was getting batters out and finding success. And developing into a reliable pitcher in doing so.

?If Clay can get to 75 percent of what he?s capable of doing, you are going to see a ridiculous career because he?s got a plus-fastball, a plus-curveball, a plus-changeup, and a plus-slider,? explained Cather. ?Clay is still learning how to pitch. As opposed to just going with his carnal instinct of the game, he?s learning how to sequence his pitches and he?s developing an understanding for what is going on in the game. Clay has to learn the precision that?s involved in this game, and he?s totally capable of doing it.?

The pressure was on leading up to that miserable 2008 campaign and this time around, it?s just as heavy. Buchholz heads into spring training as the favorite to edge Wakefield for that fifth rotation spot and the club is no longer going to baby him through his career.

After learning how to handle the big league rubber in the second-half of last season, Buchholz will have no problem developing into that reliable arm the team needs at the tail-end of the rotation.

*** will be answering one Red Sox question every day through Feb. 23.

Saturday, Feb. 13: How satisfying is it to see the Red Sox become a premier free-agent destination?
Monday, Feb. 15: Who will be the glue guy?

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