Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz proving his worth as a starter

Boston Red Sox Pitcher Clay Buchholz is lending credence to one of baseball’s golden phrases of wisdom: “One can never have too much pitching.”

Yesterday, Clay Buchholz made his fourth start in place of the injured Steven Wright for the Boston Red Sox. In what is becoming “old hat,” Buchholz delivered his third quality start in those four appearances. That is the same number of quality starts that Buchholz produced in his 13 starts between April and July.

Buchholz was a man extracted from the starting rotation, much like an impacted Wisdom Tooth, for his inability to retire opposing hitters. Nonetheless, at present, he is suddenly retiring those hitters with the greatest of ease. How did Buchholz do the impossible? Offhand, I was not sure; however, I made it a point to find the underlying cause of this mystery.

It became abundantly clear that what Buchholz is doing is not magic, wizardry, or sorcery. No, Buchholz is using pitching tactics that have been time-tested to be characteristic of successful hurlers.

One of the rudimentary characteristics of successful pitching is to get ahead of the hitter, i.e., start with “Strike One.” The Buchholz who made 13 starts between April and July started opposing hitters off with an 0-1 count only 57.7% of the time. The new and improved Buchholz, who has pitched brilliantly over the past month, is starting opposing hitters with a first-pitch strike 67.0% of the time.

An additional attribute of successful pitching is the continued throwing of strikes throughout the entire at-bat. The old Buchholz who made 13 starts before his demotion to the bullpen threw strikes only 61% of the time. The new Buchholz is attacking the strike zone with a fervor, throwing strikes at a nearly 66% clip.

Lastly, as a starting pitcher, the goal is not only to pitch well, but also to pitch economically, remaining in the game for as long of a duration as possible. A pitcher only has a certain amount of pitches in his holster and once those are used up, it is time to hit the showers.

One will find throughout baseball history that the pitchers who accumulated the most wins were also the ones who pitched deeply into ballgames. In order for that to occur, a pitcher must limit the pitches per plate appearance that the opposing batters force him to throw. Buchholz has become much more efficient with his pitch counts since stepping in for Wright and the reason for that is he has significantly reduced the average number of pitches per plate appearance.

In his first thirteen starts, Buchholz averaged 3.86 pitches per plate appearance. In his last four starts, he has reduced that value by nearly ten-percent to a sparkling 3.54 pitches per plate appearance.

Throwing more strikes has helped Buchholz on many fronts. First, throwing that first-pitch strike places Buchholz in the driver’s seat, and renders a batter more likely to swing at a ball because said hitter is now behind in the count. Second, by continuing to throw strikes throughout the entire at-bat, the hitter is aware that he needs to swing early in the at-bat or else faces an unfavorable count. Third, throwing fewer pitches per at-bat allows Buchholz to remain in the game for a longer period.

The most obvious reason for throwing more strikes is the avoidance of the dreaded base on balls.

The strikeouts and walks per 9 innings largely illustrate Buchholz’s newfound success. In his first 13 starts, he allowed 3.9 BB/9, while striking out 5.8 batters per nine IP. In his last four starts, Buchholz has allowed 1.95 BB/9, while striking out 7.3 batters per nine IP.

Since taking the place of the injured Wright in the Red Sox rotation, Buchholz has pitched better than even the most optimistic fan could have imagined. If Buchholz continues to perform at such a high level, I would not guarantee that Wright would return to the starting rotation, if he does return at all.

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