Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz’s sensible option for an insensible pitcher

Aug 18, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 18, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox picked up controversial starter Clay Buchholz’s 2017 option. Was it the right move for the team going forward?

Go to your local amusement park, pick out the roller coaster with the most twists and neck-breaking turns, and you’re looking at a smoother ride than Clay Buchholz‘s Boston Red Sox tenure.

At the same time, no player has shown up as consistently on the 40-man roster since his debut in 2007 save Dustin Pedroia and now-retired David Ortiz. After a brief period of indecision by management to pick up his 2017 option, Buchholz has another year to prove his resilience in Boston. Was it the right move for the team going forward?

Perhaps no season best encapsulates Clay Buchholz like 2016. The man who can make the Fenway faithful turn from cheering to cursing his name as fast as Johnny Damon — without having to join the arch nemesis.

More from Red Sox News

After a dreadful start to the season out of the rotation (6.24 ERA through May), Buchholz was exiled to the bullpen, where he sat idle for 19 days before Farrell had any confidence in using him in blowouts. That’s quite a drop for the pitcher who threw 113.1 innings of 3.26 ERA ball just the season prior.

But, in typical Clay Buchholz fashion, he managed to transform himself back toward the pitcher of 2010, 2013, and 2015, and vault back into Red Sox relevance. The second half of 2016 saw the 32-year old pitch to a 3.22 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a measly .219/.289/.322 line. Both his walk and home run rates plummeted, and his WHIP was even lower than David Price‘s. 

Yes, as always, there are numbers that can diminish these results. His already-low first half BABIP of .272 fell to an unsustainable .252 in the second half. His 1.02 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio from the first half skewed in the direction of the fly ball, ending in a second half ratio of 0.87 (less than ideal when pitching half the time at Fenway Park).

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

However, it would be unfair to point to these numbers and say what Buchholz did in the second half was a certain fluke. Following his demotion to the bullpen, the righty underwent a mechanics study, poring upon film of his 2013 dominance to see what had changed. What he and assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister found was that his release point had dropped considerably. And to further simplify his mechanics, he decided to pitch exclusively out of the stretch. With a pitcher as utterly dominant as Buchholz can be when he’s on, positive results following a mechanics change is a flashing green light for Boston management. Finally without current health problems and a new mechanical base, there’s reason to hope for Buchholz in 2017.

But for many, the Buchholz enigma is too much of a headache to want to keep around. Baseball is a game of consistency, and Clay doesn’t fit the mold. However, there are many more factors at play that convinced Dombrowski to pencil in his name for $13.5 million. 

1) The free agent market for starting pitchers is stacked… if it were 2012

R.A. Dickey, Jake Peavy, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Bartolo Colon, Mat Latos, and Doug Fister would have made for an incredible crop of free agent starting pitchers about four years ago. Now, they’re all looking for one last pay day before cashing in on retirement. This is the free agent market that GMs have to work with this offseason: back-end, veteran, short-term deals (Both Dickey and Colon have already inked one-year deals with the Braves). And none of them have the upside that a 32-year old Buchholz does.

2) A young, controlled top-shelf starter costs the farm.

More from Red Sox News

An uncharacteristically thin free agent market usually lends itself to an active trade market. But that activity comes at a steep price for interested clubs. Basic economics state that when demand is high and supply is low, price is inflated — and the current starting pitching market is no different.

Look at recent trades for young, cost-controlled, high-caliber pitchers. Shelby Miller infamously cost the Diamondbacks Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte. In 2014, Jeff Samardzija netted the Cubs a key piece in their championship run, Addison Russell. Cole Hamels (albeit not exactly young) was swapped for Jorge Alfaro, Jerad Eickhoff, and three other prospects in the Phillies-Rangers blockbuster. Compare those costs to Buchholz’s $13.5MM option, a pitcher who threw the ball as well as any pitcher just one season prior, and this deal screams low-risk, high-reward.

3) You can never have too much depth

Injuries happen. Even the team’s with the best luck have to replace a couple of injured starters every year. Thus, a five-man staff no longer cuts it in the big leagues. A contending team needs six or seven major league caliber starting pitchers ready to go at any given time, because at some point, all of them will see big league starts.

With the Red Sox set to enter 2017 with David Price, Rick Porcello, Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez in the rotation, Buchholz will likely be competing with Drew Pomeranz for that fifth spot. The loser of that competition would probably head to the bullpen as a long reliever (where Buchholz and Pomeranz both enjoyed moderate success in 2016).

Next: Farrell finishes 4th in AL Manager of the Year

The importance of depth was as apparent as ever in 2016. Buchholz went from being the Red Sox No. 2 starter to useless reliever to important reliever to important starter to playoff starter all in the span of a single season. Stocking the roster with players with the upside to make effective starts is vital, because you never know how a season is going to shake out.