Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Clay Buchholz

On September 1, 2007, Clay Buchholz took the mound for only his second major league start and became the 17th Red Sox pitcher to throw a no-hitter. It's possible that his early success came as a surprise to some, but his potential was always apparent to those who followed his professional career. Buchholz throws a 4-seam and a 2-seam fastball that both sit in the low to mid-90's, as well as a knee-buckling curve in the low-80's and a ridiculously nasty change-up in the high-70's. When necessary, Buchholz can also mix in a decent slider. And for those of you keeping count, he's only 23 years old. But with such early success comes increased scrutiny, and there are just as many doubters as there are believers when it comes to Buchholz. The Red Sox Nation is in a frenzy over their new young talent, and expectations are so high that even a good showing in 2008 might fall well short of expectations.

So what are some reasonable expectations for Buchholz this year, and what other pitchers can we look to for forecasting his progression? First, let's look at his minor league stats:

What really surprised me about Buchholz was his ability to maintain his K/9 rates throughout his rise through the Red Sox farm system. I really expected his strikeout rate to drop to about 9.5 or 10, but it only got better as he made his way to AAA. All total, his minore K/9 rate was 11.23, with a BB/9 of 2.43 and a GB% of 47%. He has some very solid and very talented comparables, so let's get to those while we're on the subject of minor league numbers.
That's some pretty good company to be in. Of the 4 comparable pitchers, I think Buchholz most likely fits in between Peavy and Beckett, but he's also very close to Hamels as well and if you factor in his GB% he's not very far behind Prior. Regardless, that's a lot of talent summed up in that short list and Buchholz certainly deserves to be included among them. Just for fun, let's see how each of those pitchers did at the age of 23 in the majors. Keep in mind that they all pitched in the N.L. so the ERA projection for Buchholz will be slightly higher.

If we assume that Buchholz will have an ERA of about +0.50 due to pitching in the A.L., that puts him squarely between 3.25 and 3.75 for 2008 with a 4.00 ERA being the maximum. If we consider the ERAs and win totals for other Boston pitchers this year then an ERA of 3.50 should result in a win percentage of about 60%. With a conservative projection of 20 starts, Bucholz should end up with about 12 wins and maybe 6 or 7 losses, and if he makes 30 starts that would put him at about 18 wins and perhaps 9 or 10 losses. If I had to give a single projection for 2008, it would look something like this:

GS 26
IP 165
W-L 15-6
ERA 3.55

That's not counting the off season of course, but I think that if the Red Sox have a comfortable lead going into the play-offs then they might shut Buchholz down a little early and have him work out of the pen until the ALDS. The Red Sox already have a fairly stout rotation, so there's no need to have Buchholz carry too much of a load until he matures a little more, but once he's allowed to start 30+ games a year, he should be a perennial Cy Young candidate.

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