Clay Buchholz has been quite a disappointment this year. After throwing a no-hitter last September, Buchholz has posted a miserable 6.75 ERA in 76 innings this season, leaving many people wondering what went wrong. Upon closer examination, we can see many of Buchholz's problems stem from bad luck.
The first thing to note about Buchholz's season is that he has still managed to strike out 72 batters in his 76 innings. This is an excellent sign for his future, as it suggests that Buchholz possesses the ability to make major league hitters swing and miss. On the downside, Buchholz has also walked 41 hitters this season. However, Buchholz's biggest problem this season has been his teammates.
The Red Sox have an excellent defense, posting a .699 DER while playing half of their games in a ballpark that is very difficult to defend. In fact, once adjusting for park, the Red Sox's defense is second best in baseball, behind only the Chicago Cubs. Yet this year, Buchholz has seen an inordinate amount of his balls in play become hits. Buchholz currently sports a .345 BABIP, the third highest BABIP of any pitcher with at least 70 innings this year (poor Kevin Millwood and Ian Snell). Buchholz does have a rather high line drive percentage of 20.9%, but this is not terribly high and hardly explains his high BABIP. Rather, Buchholz has simply been unlucky.
But his poor luck does not stop there. Unsurprisingly, Buchholz has stranded only 60.9% of the runners that have reached base against him (some of this, most likely, is related to his high BABIP - more runners are scoring because more balls in play are becoming hits). This number is extremely low, and is likely influenced by bad luck as well. Furthermore, 17.3% of Buchholz's fly balls have become home runs this year, leading to 12 long balls allowed. Only three pitchers who have pitched at least 70 innings have seen a higher percentage of their fly balls become homers this season.
In addition to giving up more hits than he should, Buchholz has given up far more hits when runners were on base than when no one was aboard. With no one on base, batters are hitting .259/.326/.394 off of Buchholz this season, and he has allowed a high-but-not-terribly-high BABIP of .315. However, when there is at least one runner on base, batters are hitting .348/.441/.546 off of Buchholz, and have an absurd .402 BABIP.
Perhaps Buchholz buckles (yes, the pun was intended) under pressure. After all, he's only 24 years old. This season, Buchholz has struck out 21.9% of the batters he has faced with no one on base, while striking out only 18.2% of the batters he has faced with runners on. Some of this may be due to nerves and/or diminished stuff from the stretch, but it is not a large enough split to back up Buchholz's ridiculous balls-in-play splits. Most, if not all, of Buchholz's inability to work himself out of jams is likely due to bad luck.
His velocity is fine (Buchholz's fastball has averaged over 92 MPH this season). He's still getting a lot of break on his slider and curveball. He's getting a lot of ground balls (47.7% of his balls in play have been grounders, as compared to 31.4% fly balls). Heck, his strikeout rate is 26th highest in baseball (of all pitchers who have pitched at least 60 innings). While some of Buchholz's problems may relate to his age and inexperience (perhaps he is trying too hard with runners on base), most of Buchholz's problems are simply bad luck: he has an extremely high BABIP, an extremely high HR/FB rate, and he is giving up many more hits with runners on base. All three of these factors are likely to regress, and if they do, Buchholz's ERA will plummet.
In his impressive (albeit brief) stint in the majors in 2007, Buchholz posted a 3.91 xFIP. This year, Buchholz has a 4.31 xFIP. Essentially, he has only been a little worse this year than he was last year (and most of this can be attributed to his higher walk rate this year). While it is yet to be seen if Buchholz can contribute to the Sox in September, his long-term prognosis remains excellent, and he should be quite a sleeper for fantasy baseball players next season.