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Alex Speier

Clay Buchholz a reminder fixes, not trades, sometimes best solution

Clay Buchholz has retired 17 of the last 18 batters he's faced.USA Today Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The trade deadline looms, and with it comes the curiosity of who the Red Sox might acquire.

Yet while curiosity abounds about the remaining moves for the Red Sox, and particularly whether more pitching help is coming, it’s worth noting the disappointing early returns on a series of recent pitching acquisitions.

The Sox repeatedly have bought high on pitchers for this season only to see the newcomers fall far short of expectations in their adjustment to Boston. In order:

■  They invested four prospects in acquiring closer Craig Kimbrel, who is on the disabled list for the first time in his career and owns the worst ERA (3.55) of his career.

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■  They spent $217 million on David Price, who has shown bursts of excellence, but who at this point has a 4.26 ERA, with the Sox going 11-11 in his starts.

■  Carson Smith, who, coming off a breakout year, cost the Red Sox starter Wade Miley, is out for the season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

■  Since the Sox acquired him in exchange for their top pitching prospect (Anderson Espinoza), Drew Pomeranz has offered what manager John Farrell described as a “mixed bag” in his first three starts. He’s yielded five or more runs as many times in three starts for the Sox (twice) as he did in 17 outings with the Padres.

It’s entirely possible that some or all of those four pitchers will become the sort of contributors the Red Sox imagined they would be, and all except Smith have a chance to do so this year. But for now, any pitching additions would be at least in part a function of the inability of that group to perform to expectations.

There is a pattern of lower-than-expected returns for acquired pitchers. The idea of adding more pitching in an effort to address the shortcomings of the pitchers the Sox already spent handsomely to land seems like an act of brushing their teeth more often at a time when they need a root canal, a surface solution to a deeper, underlying problem.

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How to end the cycle? Start fixing pitchers instead of replacing them.

If that is indeed the case, then perhaps the most important symbol for the staff is the most maligned member of the staff. The answer might start with Clay Buchholz, whose three shutout innings out of the bullpen on Sunday helped set the stage for a 5-3 Red Sox comeback win against the Angels.

For weeks if not months, it’s been an article of faith that the Red Sox would deal or dump Buchholz before Monday’s trade deadline. Even Buchholz acknowledged that, during the 18-day twilight zone July 3-20 in which he didn’t pitch, it would have been hard to imagine claiming another win in a Sox uniform.

“It was an out-of-body experience not pitching,” he noted. “It’s still my job to be ready for whenever they do call down there. Anybody can sulk and feel sorry for themselves, but I wasn’t raised that way.”

And so, he tried to find solutions to his dreadful early-season performance. Buchholz turned to video of a 2013 season that he identifies as his best performance and noted that his release point was higher than it was in 2016. He conferred with Sox director of pitching analysis Brian Bannister, who confirmed that Buchholz’s release point had indeed migrated steadily south over a three-year span.

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“It had just become second nature at some point trying to prevent myself from hurting whenever I was throwing,” Buchholz explained of the year-to-year downward movement of his release point. “My release point has dropped a lot since 2013, and 2013 was when I was at my best. The only reason I think that [happened] is because of the injuries I’ve had with the arm and the shoulder and the elbow. I was trying to find a spot where I could throw without it hurting. I guess slowly but surely it started creeping down.”

According to BrooksBaseball.net, in 2013, Buchholz’s release point was typically about 6 feet, 3 inches off the ground. It moved down sharply in 2014 (about 2 ½ inches), and continued to move down in 2015 and finally 2016, when his release point has been roughly 6 feet (or just under 6 feet) off the ground. That might sound insignificant, but subtle changes can have considerable effect on an arsenal.

Clay Buchholz's pitch action
Comparing Clay Buchholz's release point, movement, and results by pitch type, 2013 and 2016
Pitch Type Vertical release point Horizontal Movement Vertical movement Batting Avg Against
4-seam fastball (2013) 6.3 feet -3.61 inches 10.23 inches .223
4-seam fastball (2016) 6.01 feet -5.36 inches 8.95 inches .365
2-seam fastball (2013) 6.26 feet -7.11 inches 7.09 inches .246
2-seam fastball (2016) 5.96 feet -7.8 inches 6.27 inches .304
Cutter (2013) 6.18 feet 2.58 inches 5.83 inches .160
Cutter (2016) 5.9 feet -0.4 inches 6.15 inches .175
Curveball (2013) 6.27 feet 9.02 inches -7.35 inches .231
Curveball (2016) 6.02 feet 7.76 inches -4.89 inches .375
SOURCE: BrooksBaseball.net

“Early, he was trying to manufacture sink, and sometimes that turns into horizontal run and it's not as valuable,” Bannister said. “I think his secondary pitches suffered a little bit because of that.”

His fastball and sinker both lost about 10-20 percent of their vertical movement, and instead tended to move more from side to side – meaning pitches intended for corners that leaked back into the barrel of bats. His curveball likewise flattened, featuring about one-third less north-to-south snap in 2016 than Buchholz possessed in 2013, resulting in batting practice offerings that stayed in the middle of the plate. His cutter went from having about 2 ½ inches of horizontal break – enough to slide off a barrel – to have virtually no side-to-side movement, meaning a batting practice fastball.

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Buchholz is a pitcher whose success is a product of movement and deception. Through early July, the diminished movement of his stuff thus created an unsuccessful pitcher. He and Bannister worked to counter that trend.

“The movement on my pitches, it’s been really flat this year,” said Buchholz. “With that [higher] arm slot, the angles it creates with the different pitches – the curveball is spinning more 12-to-6, the cutter is going to have a little bit more depth to it instead of staying on the barrel. That’s basically the pitches that I’ve been hurt with, the cutter and curveball this year. There wasn’t a whole lot of separation between them. Just trying to get back to what I was at one point. The work that we’ve been putting in, it’s starting to turn a corner right now.”

Sunday offered the most impressive evidence of progress. He breezed through three innings without allowing a hit; the only runner he put on base was Mike Trout, whom he walked. There was no hard contact against him, just a string of mis-hits pointing to the return of his movement.

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“He's now getting that true depth and getting the swing-and-miss on his secondary,” said Bannister. “That's the Clay we're used to seeing when he's pitching well.”

Buchholz has retired 17 of the last 18 batters he’s faced out of the bullpen. As a starter-turned-reliever with a full, four- to five-pitch mix, evaluators with both the Sox and other teams have suggested increasing belief that he has a chance to emerge as a bullpen contributor, much as a pitcher like Trevor Cahill did with the Cubs last year.

There are no guarantees, of course, that Buchholz’s recent improvement will prove lasting. Perhaps his recent improvement is an illusion, particularly given that it is coming in a role with which he is still unfamiliar and that he does not prefer.

“I mean, I want to start. That’s what I want to do,” said Buchholz. “[But] I’m still privileged that I’m getting to play baseball. I’m not going to whine and gripe about what’s going on. If I can help the team out of the bullpen and that’s my role for right now, then that is what it is. … But I can try to get better at it and work and whenever I get in the games, give them the innings that they need me to give them. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

In the process, he’s opening eyes and positioning himself to have a chance – with what now appears to be a likelihood that his chance will come with the Red Sox beyond the trade deadline.

“The last chapter hasn’t been written,” one Sox official recently noted of Buchholz.

For a Red Sox team that faces the alternatives of improving its current pitching inventory or decimating its farm system while risking the possibility of throwing good money after bad, it seems worth waiting before closing the book.


Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.