It is rare for a Major League starting pitcher to have such drastically differing halves of a season than Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz.
Earlier this year, fans and media members alike were debating if the 27-year-old Texas native should be sent to the bullpen or optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket, and with good reason. Over his first five starts, no qualifying pitcher in the majors owned a higher ERA (8.69) and in that span he surrendered the second-most hits (40) and allowed the third highest batting average against (.331).
After coughing up five runs and seven hits (three of which were home runs) in 3.1 innings against Baltimore on May 6, Buchholz saw his ERA ascend to 9.09. Then, his performance gradually improved.
In his last five starts, Buchholz has been masterful. He is 2-0 and his 1.15 ERA is second to only Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore (1.05) in that stretch. Over 10 starts since June 1, Buchholz is 6-1 with a 1.91 ERA.
Before the All-Star break, Buchholz was 8-2 with a 5.53 ERA, a 1.54 WHIP and a .295 batting average against. In 14 starts and 86.1 innings, he allowed 99 hits, hit eight batters and surrendered 15 home runs.
Since the All-Star break, the 2005 first round pick is 2-1 with a 1.79 ERA, a 0.77 WHIP and a .173 batting average against. In 45.1 innings, he has permitted 27 hits and two home runs.
Though the Red Sox are 56-58 and fading from post-season contention, Buchholz remains hot. On Friday, he tossed a complete game, earning the win against Cleveland while allowing two runs (one earned) and two hits with six strikeouts and no walks.
Overall, he is 10-3 with a 4.24 ERA in 20 starts. The once atrocious batting average against is down to .256 and the WHIP has been trimmed to a more respectable 1.28. With the victory on Friday, Buchholz is now 8-2 following a Red Sox loss since the beginning of the 2011 season.
Since making his debut with the Red Sox in 2007, and tossing a no-hitter in his second career start, Buchholz has shown flashes of being a top of the rotation arm. Inconsistency and injuries have deterred him from ace status, though. After a 3-1 record and a 1.59 ERA in four games in 2007, when the Red Sox last won the World Series, Buchholz flopped in 2008, going 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA in 16 games and landing back at Triple-A Pawtucket.
In an injury-shortened 2009 season, he was 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA in 16 starts, but he followed that with a breakout year in 2010, posting a 17-7 record, a 2.33 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP and a .226 batting average against in 28 starts.
In 2011, Buchholz rebounded with a 6-3 record and a 3.48 over 14 starts, but he missed a bulk of the season with a lower back fracture. His absence is a key reason why the Red Sox struggled with starting pitching depth and suffered a monumental collapse in September, falling from the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
Buchholz attributes the turnaround this year to commanding his fast ball and curve ball, and incorporating an effective split-fingered change-up to his mix. When healthy and effective, he can command two-seam and four-seam fast balls, a slider, a change-up and his newfound splitter.
Barring a stunning comeback, 2012 will mark the third consecutive season that Boston has not reached the playoffs. Significant changes will likely be made in the off-season, including the probable trade of Josh Beckett, even though he has “10-5” trade rights and is owed $15.75 million in 2013 and 2014.
All is not gloomy with the Red Sox; however, because of Buchholz, 26-year-old Franklin Morales and 24-year-old Felix Doubront. Those three pitchers, along with 28-year-old left-hander Jon Lester, give Boston four arms who have a lot of potential and are under the age of 30.
Many fans and media members believe the club desperately needs a genuine ace. Lester seems better suited as a No. 3 starter, and Beckett is no longer dominant. The Sox will likely pursue a top of the rotation arm such as Seattle’s Felix Hernandez in the off-season, and Lester or Doubront (or both) could be included in a trade package. Chances are, Boston will build around Buchholz. He is too valuable to deal.