Clay Buchholz made it through seven no-hit innings against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, and struck out 11 hitters in the process. He finished the eighth, bringing his season ERA and innings total to league-leading figures of 0.41 and 22. He's given up just one run on the season, and because of the near no-no and that sparkling ERA, people are starting to notice, once again, that Clay Buchholz is pretty good at pitching.
The thing is, it shouldn't be news. Buchholz has been a pretty good pitcher for years now. He's had a couple of false starts that have caused his attention, on a national scale, to jump up and fall down, though, and it's kept the attention he deserves from holding steady.
First, there was the no-hitter -- the one he managed to finish -- back in 2007. In Buchholz's second career start, against the Baltimore Orioles, he struck out nine batters against three walks and shutout the O's in a complete game, 115-pitch effort. This, plus his performance at Double-A Portland, helped push him to fourth on Baseball America's 2008 prospect rankings. However, Buchholz was far from being a finish product, despite the no-hitter. He would give up a 6.75 ERA in 2008 in 15 starts and one relief appearance, and spent the rest of the season in Double-A and Triple-A working towards a return to the bigs -- one he would be prepared for.
That was the first false start, and following it, Buchholz once again entered the spotlight. He returned to the majors in 2009, spent the entire 2010 season in the bigs, and led the American League in ERA at 2.33, finishing sixth in the Cy Young vote in the process. His 2011 was a quality follow-up, but he struggled with homers for a time, and dealt with inconsistency in his command and velocity. It turned out that the cause of this was a stress fracture in his spine, one that cut his season short after 82 innings and 14 starts.
Photo credit: Jim Rogash
So, we have Buchholz throwing a no-hitter, followed quickly by the realization that, despite this event, he wasn't ready for the majors yet. Then, once he has figured things out, and posts a 143 ERA+ over nearly 60 starts, his non-metaphorical spine cracks, and he's forced to miss half a season letting it heal. That, plus Boston's September collapse that put national attention on just about everyone else in town, caused Buchholz to once again fall off the map.
He did himself no favors once he returned to the mound. Buchholz began 2012 with six starts that resulted in a 9.09 ERA, 10 homers, and a .343 batting average on balls in play. His change-up, easily his top pitch, wasn't inducing swings-and-misses, nor was it deceiving hitters thanks to a lack of the movement it was known for. He couldn't locate his secondary stuff, and his fastball variants -- four-seamer, two-seamer, and cutter -- couldn't be as effective without that off-speed weapon in his arsenal.
It turned out that Buchholz had some real rust to shake off -- he had lost his change-up grip while working back from his spine fracture. Once this was recognized, and his grip returned, so too did the swings and misses, the weak contact on his two-seamer, and a more normal -- for Buchholz -- home run rate and BABIP. This first went down in his seventh start, on May 11 against the Indians, when Buchholz gave up three runs in 6-1/3 innings, shaving seven-tenths of a run off his ugly season ERA. From there, it was all positive for the right-hander.
Buchholz would finish the year out with a 95 ERA+ and 4.56 ERA, but that doesn't tell the whole story. His BABIP normalized, his strikeout rate jumped back up, he posted what would have been, had April not existed, the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, and, in the process, cut his ERA almost exactly in half.
Over Buchholz's last 25 starts -- from the first start after that Indians game through Sunday's contest against the Rays -- he has thrown 172 innings with a 3.19 ERA, 6.9 strikeouts per nine, 2.5 K/BB, 0.8 homers per nine, and, most importantly, a .263 BABIP. This stretch is hidden by that ugly April that was caused by his stress fracture, and it's a continuation of his success since his first return to the bigs four years ago. Since 2009, Buchholz owns a 126 ERA+, putting him right with the likes of Matt Cain, Johnny Cueto, and Zack Greinke. He hasn't thrown as many innings, in part because half his 2009 came in the minors, and also because he missed more than half the year with the spine issue. When on the mound, though, he's been as good as some of the game's best.
With his back healthy, that should continue. You might be wondering if he can sustain that eye-popping BABIP that's helped power him of late. It might not be exactly the same, but Buchholz has, and likely will continue, to befuddle BABIP rules, and by virtue of that, FIP as well. Since 2009, the league-average BABIP is .295, while Buchholz's in the same stretch is .272 -- that's not a one-year thing, that's 560 innings, and stacked on top of his better-than-average minor-league BABIP figures. He has nasty stuff that he uses to induce weak contact low in the zone, and the more success he finds with this approach, the more likely it is that he's one of those arms that can sidestep the regression expected by FIP and BABIP -- much like the aforementioned Cain.
The Red Sox have him working a bit quicker now than in the past, and he's striking out more batters than he ever has to start 2013. It's to be seen if those trends continue, but even if they do not, Buchholz deserves your attention -- sustained, this time -- as one of the game's better arms.