TORONTO — The best pitcher in baseball?
Make the case for Clay Buchholz. Make it strong.
Catcher David Ross said, “He’s got four-plus pitches that he can throw for strikes. Who has that many?” When Ross recently watched James Shields of the Royals pitch he said to himself, “He’s a lot like Clay because you have no idea what he’s going to throw you next or where he’s going to locate it. He keeps you guessing on every pitch. It’s mind-boggling to a hitter.”
Yes, Buchholz is blowing everyone’s mind. He has quietly taken over the league lead in wins (6-0). He has pitched seven or more innings in six straight starts and gotten into the eighth on three occasions.
There are some good starts around baseball. Lots of good, young pitchers. Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore is 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA and 0.88 WHP. The Mets’ Matt Harvey is 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA. Madison Bumgarner is 3-0 with a 1.55 ERA for the Giants. Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez is off to a great start.
Buchholz, however, is 6-0 with a 1.01 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP, 47 strikeouts in 44⅔ innings.
There’s just no stopping him right now. He can trick you with a two-seamer, a changeup, a cutter, or a curveball as he did Wednesday night, and then throw a 95-mile-per-hour four-seam fastball by you. He’s got deception. He challenges you. He makes you guess, mostly wrong. He can freeze a hitter.
And then pitching coach Juan Nieves lays this bombshell on us — Buchholz has a sixth pitch – a split-fingered fastball he hasn’t used yet. When asked how effective the split-fingered pitch is, Nieved just shook his head and said, “Unbelievable.”
Nieves indicated Buchholz will save the splitter for later if he struggles, and even Buchholz acknowledges that he probably will eventually, struggle, as Jon Lester did on Tuesday night.
But the big thing for Buchholz right now is, “I’m just riding the wave. It’s fun pitching good. I feel confident when I’m out there and that relationship with your catcher is great and you throw whatever he throws down there.”
Ross feels like he’s a kid in a candy store. What does he establish first? What part of the plate does he want to control or shut down? Ross caught a very talented staff in Atlanta the past few years, but he hasn’t seen anyone quite like Buchholz.
“Really good with his fastball tonight,” Ross said. “He had that two-seamer back and it went away to righties. They didn’t know what was coming. He’s 6-0. He’s a really good pitcher. They have a really good lineup. When you have a guy who can do all the things with a baseball that he can do, the more I get to know him the more he can manipulate the ball really well.”
Ross added that Buchholz’s repertoire is by far the most vast he’s seen.
“He can execute four to five pitches on both sides of the plate. There aren’t many guys like that in the big leagues and that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s that good. You don’t see guys throw right-on-right changeups to the heart of the order and he’s doing it on 0-0 counts. He can really pitch,” Ross said.
Nieves marvels at Buchholz and what he can do and the feel he has for pitching and the feel he has for getting hitters out. Asked who Buchholz reminded him of, Nieves, who spent many years with the White Sox, said, “Jake Peavy. The Peavy that threw 93-94. There are a lot of similarities. Peavy really knows how to pitch. Clay is very similar.”
Buchholz has held opponents to two or fewer runs in all of his starts. His 1.01 ERA is the sixth best by a Red Sox pitcher through his first six starts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Does he have the breathtaking stuff of Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez? No. But Buchholz doesn’t need the power because he has the finesse.
He pitched a total frustration sandwich to the Blue Jays. The only shaking going on was Blue Jays hitters walking back to the dugout. He allowed only two hits and walked three. Hardly perfect, but pitchers always sense a major victory when they tame the Toronto sluggers.
Never a strikeout pitcher, suddenly Buchholz has that swing-and-miss capability.
“Being on the same page with the catcher means there’s not a lot of shaking off,” Buchholz said when asked about the strikeout surge. “If there is, it’s to change to the same type of pitch. I didn’t have command of anything two or three times around the lineup and then my two-seamer came back and I had some life on the ball.”
He attributed his 1.49 ERA at Rogers Centre to, “I love the mound. I don’t know if that’s a confidence-builder but the mound stays put together really well. Not having to deal with holes or anything like that. It’s my favorite mound to pitch off.”
Buchholz said he threw his full arsenal Wednesday night. He hadn’t seen a good two-seamer in two starts. Ross kept calling it and by mid-game, Buchholz had the feel for it again.
“[Ross] kept throwing it down and I stopped overthrowing it,” Buchholz said. “It’s a hard pitch to get a feel for because it goes backdoor to righties and front door to lefties. It requires command.”
Right now there’s no pitcher in baseball commanding the strike zone, commanding the opposition hitters, and generally in command, more than Buchholz.
The best pitcher in baseball right now?
Not a hard argument to make.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.