You wouldn't think it to look at him. A gangly-looking guy with scraggly hair and drooping shoulders, he has a beard that manages to be simultaneously full and scruffy. His in-game habit of dousing himself with water between innings makes him look like he just stepped off a treadmill, or like he shares a hair stylist with 1980's Rick James. To recycle Billy Beane's old line, Clay Buchholz won't sell many jeans.
So it's fortunate that Buchholz's job is pitching, because he's particularly good at it. In fact, pitching is one of two things that Clay Buchholz is particularly good at. The other is not pitching. It's the combination of those two that allows the best starting pitcher on the defending World Series Champions to go into the season virtually unnoticed.
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If David Ortiz hadn't hit .688, Jon Lester would have been the World Series MVP. His dominant pitching in the World Series and ALCS was paramount in Boston's third championship in 10 years. Lester won the deciding game of the 2007 World Series as well, which is around where the idea that he is the team's ace germinated. It has grown since.
Yet, if you look at the numbers, Clay Buchholz is a much better pitcher. Last season, for example, Lester threw 213.1 innings, struck out 177 batters, and had a 3.75 ERA. Baseball Reference* says that season was worth three wins. Now, three wins is nothing to scoff at; a three-win player makes roughly $15 million a year on the free agent market. That's a good season. Clay Buchholz threw fewer innings (108.1) and struck out fewer batters (96), and by Baseball Reference he was worth 4.3 wins.
*FanGraphs' version of WAR paints a slightly different picture; they use FIP instead of actual runs allowed for their calculations. In a nutshell, that means FanGraphs is using what they believe 'should have happened' in their WAR, while Baseball Reference uses what actually occurred. It's for this reason I'm using Baseball Reference's version here.
This is no slight against Jon Lester; Clay Buchholz is really good. Last season, the leading pitcher in Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference version) was Clayton Kershaw. No surprise there. Kershaw was fantastic, amassing 7.9 WAR. Cliff Lee was second with 7.3. As opposed to an average stat like batting average or on-base percentage, WAR is a cumulative stat, something more akin to home runs or RBIs. The more you play the more you can get. Kershaw threw 236 innings to achieve his WAR figure. Breaking it down, just for the sake of argument -- though admittedly WAR is not this precise -- that's 0.03347 WAR per inning. Last season Clay Buchholz was worth 0.0398 WAR per inning. In other words, in 2013, when he actually pitched, Buchholz was better than Kershaw. We can't assume he would have kept it up the entire season, as Kershaw did, but it's not out of line with what he did in 2011 or 2012.
"When he pitched." I said above that Buchholz was good at not pitching. Buchholz threw 108 innings and missed part of June, all of July, all of August and part of September, not because he's a perfectionist who decided to shut it down after reaching the apex, but because he got hurt. Buchholz has been injury prone throughout his career. He missed half the 2013 season because his shoulder became inflamed after his infant son slept on it. That sounds strange, but it was a legitimate injury, and an unfortunate one. It cost the Red Sox half a year of, at the time, one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. It cost Buchholz a shot at the AL Cy Young Award. Buchholz pitched through the injury in September and the playoffs, notably throwing four innings against the Cardinals in Game Four of the World Series, but his typically mid-90s fastball was in the high 80s. Over his career, Buchholz has missed time with a stress fracture in his spine, reoccurring hamstring problems, and Esophagitis. It sometimes seems getting to the mound is more challenging for him than beating major league hitters.
Buchholz the pitcher is almost as odd as Buchholz the facial hair connoisseur or Buchholz the shower addict. Buchholz is an excellent pitcher, and his stats clearly show it. Except they don't. Except they do. Stay with me for a moment. When analyzing a pitcher, people usually look first at his ERA. Buchholz has a very good ERA, 21 percent above average over the course of his career, 30 percent above average since he established himself as a major league pitcher in 2009. But ERA paints an incomplete picture. So, like those pixilated pictures at the mall, you have to look deeper, and this is where you might start to think of Buchholz as a lesser pitcher than he is. His strikeout rate is just above average, and he's prone to walks. When he came up, he was a fireballer with a killer curveball. He would come after batters, daring them to touch his mid-90s fastball before dropping a knee-destroying curve on them. Like this (any of the video links).
But since Buchholz has been in the majors, that profile has changed. Now he induces weak contact with his changeup, gets ground balls with his sinker, and keeps the ball in the park. That's a profile that doesn't necessarily scream ace, but it's one that can provide ace-level results.
It used to be the prevailing wisdom on pitching was that pitchers were in control of just about everything -- if a batter singled, or doubled, or grounded out, it was the pitcher's fault. Then came Voros McCracken. McCracken invented DIPs theory ("defense-independent pitching"), which in essence, states pitchers can control walks, strikeouts, and home runs, and that's all. It was a revolutionary idea. Further research has been done, and we now think that some pitchers have some ability to control other events, such as ground balls and fly balls.
This, fundamentally, is why Clay Buchholz is so good. His ERA says he's great, but if you were to look up his numbers -- his DIPs stats -- you wouldn't think he was an ace. But when you look at his results on the field, it becomes clear that, when healthy, he is. Buchholz gets ground balls at an above-average rate, he strikes batters out at an above average rate, and he keeps the ball from flying over the fence better than most. Individually these are all nice. Together they're devastating.
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The Red Sox have a strong starting rotation this season. It's headed by incumbent ace Jon Lester, who's followed by a newly healthy John Lackey, Felix Doubront and his reasonable impersonation of a league average pitcher, and the (hopefully) solid Jake Peavy. That is also the order that manager John Farrell has deployed his starting rotation to begin the season.
You will notice the absence of Buchholz's name. That's because Buchholz is, by number anyway, Boston's fifth starter. The leader in the AL Cy Young race in June of last season is the last in line. But we've seen what a healthy Clay Buchholz can be. When he's healthy and on the mound, he can be better than them all.