Whither Clay Buchholz’s Fastball?

by Marc on April 28, 2011

in Red Sox

photo courtesy of projo.com

Clay Buchholz has not looked himself during his first five starts of the 2011 season. His early season Run Average is 5.66, nearly three full runs above last year’s RA–it was expected there would be a rise in that figure, but this is far more than what it should have been by about two runs. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 0.9, as he has struck out just 15 while handing out free passes to 16 hitters. Lastly, while things have improved on the home run front, he has still given up six in 27 innings after allowing nine all of last season.

The culprit for at least some of these issues appears to be his four-seam fastball, as the average velocity on it has dropped from 2010 to 2011, down from 94.1 mph to 92 even. After adjusting for calibration error, that is more like 1.5 mph of difference, but it’s still enough to be a problem.

Of course, that is comparing all of 2010′s averaged data to what he has accomplished in less than a month this season. Looking at things more on a game-by-game basis, we can see where his velocity has fallen off from (thanks to Pitch f/x guru Mike Fast for putting this chart together):

These speeds are adjusted for Pitch f/x calibration and temperature, so they are not the raw data that MLBAM collects (and are therefore a better representation of what Buchholz has done).

He started off the 2010 season above where he has been in 2011, but he did have a momentary lapse between starts six and nine where his velocity trended downward before hitting a low of 92 mph on average. From that point forward, his velocity climbed, finishing up at nearly 95 mph average velocity per start.

Something is clearly off with Buchholz if he is seeing nearly a three mph drop from the end of last year, but last year’s velocity increase throughout the season is encouraging news for anyone concerned that his fastball is gone and never coming back.

Also of concern is his location. Buchholz pounded the inner portion of the plate with his heater against right-handers in 2010, and pitched away from lefties with it. While we have far fewer pitches to look at in just five starts, you can see that the location hasn’t been the same to start the year:

His fastball has been left up a bit higher in the zone, and he isn’t attacking that lower, outside quadrant nearly as often–that could also explain why he has induced just 42 percent groundballs (and 18.8 percent groundouts) this year compared to 51 and 24 percent last year.

There is no reason to be worried about Buchholz after so few innings and starts, but we have seen enough at this point to at least pick out some symptoms of his struggles. Let us hope that Buchholz, pitching coach Curt Young and the Red Sox can figure out the underlying cause–one which is likely mechanical in nature–and get Buchholz back on track sooner than later.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Duncan April 28, 2011 at 8:58 am

Well written Marc. I think his 4-seam FB is part of the reason to his slow start. It really does setup his best pitches (curve, change) and while the sample is short, his first pitch strike % has trended down quite a bit the last couple of years and his swinging strike has taken a hit. I wonder if he has focused on his cut FB more and feels more comfortable with that pitch?

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Matt April 28, 2011 at 1:56 pm

The thing I’ve noticed most about Buchholz, which fits with Marc’s excellent analysis above, is that his control is off. He consistently misses his spots, leaving balls up in the zone and out over the plate. This has led to lots of hard contact. He gave up a ton of hits last time out against Baltimore and watching the game it didn’t strike me the O’s were getting lucky. Almost all the hits were very hard hit grounders or line drives. A few mphs on his FB would help things, but I think the real culprit is Buchholz’s location.

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TsB April 28, 2011 at 4:10 pm

The weird thing is, his LD rate is actually only 12.5% this year, which is well below career norms. His HR/FB rate this season is 14.0% which is fine also, so the problem (at least one of them) does seem to be that his leaving balls up in the zone resulting in such a large number of fly balls. Even if not a huge percentage are going for HRs, there’s still going to be quite a few due to the sheer number of balls in the air.

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Jim April 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Nice work Marc, I hadn’t realized that his speed was off. I agree with Matt though, that Clay’s problem is more of location and FB command than speed. Buch’s FB isn’t overpowering nor does it have a great amount of movement, so location is paramount. Missing outside explains the jump in walks, missing over the plate are cookies that end up in the bleachers. He was lucky last night that he only gave up 4 runs.

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