For years, there’s been a great deal of focus on what Clay Buchholz is not, the mold that he does not fit. That being the case, it’s a worthwhile exercise every now and again to take stock of what he is, particularly at a time when the possibility of the Red Sox as trade-deadline sellers raises the question of whether they are better off with or without him.
Right now, he’s on the sort of run of which only a few pitchers are capable, evident not just in his 2.28 ERA over his last eight starts but in the ease with which he sees the game and performs surgery on the strike zone. At his best, he is among the most masterful in the game, a strike-thrower with at least four pitches in his arsenal that can move in all different directions to all different parts of the zone.
“I’d seen Clay from the other side,” said Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis. “Seeing him now every fifth day and throwing bullpens on the side, he really does have a tremendous feel for the baseball. He can manipulate it to both sides.
“What it allows is for him to attack different kinds of lineups — not only righthanded and lefthanded, but guys who are contact-oriented, lineups that are power-oriented. It really allows him to have weapons to go to and attack multiple kinds of hitters. That’s how you’re consistent.
“Every fifth day, you’re facing different teams, different hitters, guys with different approaches. That kind of ability lends itself well to attacking them.”
Of course, Buchholz is not always at his best. The maddening component of his game is that he derails not just for a game, but for weeks or even a month at a time. Or he gets injured. Therein lies the perpetual sense that he can be something more than he has been.
Buchholz is aware of the dialogue. He’s beyond being irked by it.
“I’ve been here for eight years,” said Buchholz. “I’m as comfortable as anybody can get. There are certain situations that have happened that haven’t enabled me to pitch 200 innings, make 30 starts. But a bunch of people talking about that stuff have probably never done it, either. It doesn’t bother me when people talk about that.
“I’m comfortable in my own skin. I can go out and give a team six, seven, eight innings and give them a chance to win. You can always nitpick and say that I can work on something.
“I’m a firm believer in that. If you give up one run on two hits or one run on 10 hits, there’s something I can work on after each start. But I’m comfortable where I’m at.”
Between his 3.86 ERA, the team-leading nine starts in which he’s worked at least into the seventh inning, the career-best marks in strikeouts per nine (8.8) and walks per nine (2.3), and the upper-echelon ground-ball rate, he’s pitching as well as he has at any point in his career.
Manager John Farrell noted that Buchholz’s ease, execution, and arm strength are reminiscent of his dominance at the start of 2013, when he could identify opponents’ plans of attack and adjust in the middle of a game or an at-bat to neutralize them.
Buchholz feels that he’s throwing the ball even better now than he was in that season, when he went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA. Given that he’s striking out a higher percentage of hitters, eliciting more ground balls, and walking fewer than he was two years ago, there’s considerable merit to the claim.
“I look back at 2013, there were a couple games where I had all my pitches working but I worked off fastball command and might have had a changeup that day or my curveball,” said Buchholz. “But very rarely did I have all four or five working that day. It just doesn’t happen that often.
“The last couple times out, I’ve had a really good feel for a strike curveball and a curveball I can throw in the dirt. Same thing with the changeup. I actually feel like I’m throwing a little better now than I did then in terms of having a feel for each pitch.”
Conservatively, he has pitched to the level of at least a No. 3 starter this year, with his current stretch offering a look at a pitcher who exceeds that. FanGraphs pegs him as having the ninth-best Fielding Independent Pitching mark in the majors at 2.71, while crediting him as having been worth 2.4 Wins Above Replacement, 14th-best in the big leagues and seventh-best in the AL.
That’s a pitcher who will garner interest on the trade market. In an environment with few clear sellers, Buchholz would represent a significant asset.
He’s different from Jon Lester a year ago, in that he has two option years left on his deal at relative bargains in the vicinity of $13 million. Right now, that’s fourth- or fifth-starter money. Buchholz, even with the injury concerns and inconsistencies, is better than that, and the Red Sox recognize it.
“What pitcher would the Red Sox get back to replace him?” one evaluator wondered.
Perhaps a team will dangle the next Eduardo Rodriguez (or two) in front of the Sox to get them to part with Buchholz, but barring that, the Sox view Buchholz as part of the answer, not a piece to move.
Indeed, as the team surveys the wreckage of the first half of this season and tries to identify those components that will buoy the club going forward, the idea of pairing Rodriguez and Buchholz at the front of the rotation represents a potential strength.
Rodriguez’s prime is ahead of him. Buchholz is both affordable and under team control for a desirable duration of his career. Even given the caveats that there may be some maddening departures from excellence, the Sox don’t have someone who represents a reliable upgrade inside the organization, and as last summer’s John Lackey/Jon Lester trade exercise demonstrated, the theory of upgrading a rotation by dealing one of your best pitchers is often more difficult than the practice thereof.
Buchholz is aware that his name has become part of the rumor mill, even as multiple Sox officials say the team has no designs on moving him.
“I wasn’t mentioned last year,” he mused. “I wasn’t doing good enough to be traded.”
Yet Buchholz says that, 10 years into a professional career spent entirely with the Red Sox organization, his hope is that he goes nowhere, and that he gets the opportunity once again to help the franchise return from its struggles.
“It’s the only place I’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s the only thing I know.
“I would love to have my career stay here. It’s definitely more gratifying whenever you sit here and go through the struggles to get to the high points. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that a couple of times.
“When it comes down to business, they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. They’re going to try to make the team better. If something like that happens, we’ll have to cross that bridge.”
In all likelihood, the blueprint for Red Sox improvement will not feature Buchholz crossing any bridges. In spite of his flaws, the 30-year-old is more difficult to replace than he is valuable as a chip.
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