On Tuesday morning, Jon Heyman reported that the Red Sox and Phillies had matched up on a trade, sending pitcher Clay Buchholz to the Phils for 24-year-old infield prospect Josh Tobias. As you can see from the replies to Heyman’s tweet, there was much rejoicing in Boston. (Seriously, scroll down the replies; it’s quite entertaining.)
Boston drafted Buchholz in the sandwich round of the 2005 draft, 42nd overall. He worked his way through the system, and made his major league debut in 2007. In only his second start, Buchholz managed to toss a no-hitter. While it seemed like a great sign of things to come, it ended up being the professional baseball equivalent of peaking in high school.
Since his major league debut in 2007, he made another six shuttle runs down to the minors. Between injury rehabs and abysmal performance, Buchholz simply was never consistent for the Red Sox.
Fans joked that you never really knew which Clay one would be getting on any particular night. This is player who would string together multiple starts of six or seven excellent innings... only to not be able to get out of the second in his next appearance. A player who had the repertoire to shut down big AL East offenses... and who would get knocked around by a B-squad on a random Sunday afternoon game.
Things just never seemed to align perfectly for Buchholz. In 2008, Boston originally tried him as a starter, and he started 15 of the 16 games in which he appeared, but posted a 6.75 ERA and 4.82 FIP. Over 76 innings, he struck out 72 batters but walked 41, which along with a soft-contact rate of only 26.4 percent, led to far too many baserunners. The addition of too many home runs (11 in ⅓ of a season’s work) didn’t help.
Having come up through their own system, Boston gave him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they rushed him (even though he had pitched in 2007). They started him in AAA in 2009, where he spent half the season. He looked good over those 99 innings, posting a 2.36 ERA and 3.18 FIP, striking out 89 batters, and improving his walk rate from 4.86 per nine innings in the majors the year before to 2.73. Remarkably, he also cut his home run rate by more than half. Success!
Not quite. Buchholz again struggled in the majors, striking out batters at only ¾ the rate he did in the minors, and doubled his home run rate. Despite the difficulty in getting major league hitters out, the Red Sox again threw him in the back of the rotation to figure things out on the big stage in 2010, and again it looked like he turned a corner.
Over the course of 173.2 innings Buchholz managed a three-win season (per FanGraphs). He started 28 games, and he managed to perform. As a 26-year-old with a FIP 12 percent better than league average and an ERA 46 percent better than league average, the Red Sox had a pretty valuable commodity on their hands. In hindsight, they should have let him loose while they had the chance; instead, Buchholz signed a four-year contract extension that offseason worth just under $30 million.
Seeming to have finally figured out how to be a productive, albeit unspectacular, pitcher, Buchholz suffered from injuries in the latter half of the 2011 season. With the ink barely dry on the extension, he unexpectedly went on the DL that June. He pitched his last game of the year on June 16th, totaling only 82.2 innings and an unremarkable 0.7 fWAR.
Under new skipper Bobby Valentine, 2012 brought more innings (a career-high 189.1), but Buchholz continued to struggle with health and performance issues. His strikeout rate of 6.13 per nine was the lowest of his career at any level to date, and the control and home run problems returned in true Buchholz-ian fashion. (You might call this a recurring theme of his career, and you would be right.) He finished the year with a 107 ERA-/115 FIP-, having been one of the least watchable pitchers on a very unwatchable team.
2013 looked like a new beginning, but everyone should have known better. Buchholz started off tremendously! From his first start on April 3rd, to a well-pitched game against Anaheim on June 8th, Clay tossed 84 1⁄3 innings of 1.71 ERA/2.47 FIP baseball. He only gave up two home runs in those 84+ innings, and barely allowed any of the games he pitched in to be competitive. Clay won “Player of the Month” honors that April, and positioned the Red Sox as the mid-season favorites to win the AL East. Then, he went on the disabled list, and missed three months of the year. Just another frustrating year of watching Clay Buchholz pitch, but in a new and unique fashion.
2014: forgettable. Buchholz posted a miserable 5.34 ERA and below-average FIP. He did not pitch well enough to look like a front-of-the-rotation pitcher, muddling through 170 1⁄3 innings of lousy baseball.
2015 was a repeat of 2013: pitch great, get hurt. How tiring for everyone. Again Boston fans got to see how well Buchholz COULD pitch, only to realize it was not sustainable, and that it seemingly would never be sustainable. After posting a meager 1.6 fWAR over 170 innings in 2014, he doubled the production in much fewer innings, posting a 3.2 fWAR over 113 innings. But injury struck again, and his season ended on July 10th.
Last season, Boston tried him in the pen, a last-ditch effort to protect the porcelain pitcher in which the talent seemed to exist. It did not work. Buchholz posted his worst home run rate of his carer, walked 55 batters in 139 innings, and barely contributed anything (good for a 0.5 fWAR).
It’s been a decade of Buchholz shuttling up and down the Red Sox system. Over that time, Buchholz posted only 14 wins above replacement. Despite moments of brilliance, his career is mostly defined as an inconsistent mess. He’s a failed project who could never put together strong performance and health at the same time. Although fans grew accustomed to him pitching poorly, his bursts of sudden greatness would get some people excited. On the fourth iteration of getting excited and having your hopes crushed by injury or bad pitching, it got pretty repetitive.
Sometimes it’s sad for a fanbase to say goodbye to homegrown player, warts and all. This is not the case when it comes to Clay Buchholz. On behalf of fans who watch the Red Sox on a near-daily basis, not knowing every fifth day if it’ll be worth watching past the fourth inning, I say: good riddance. The roller-coaster ride is over in Beantown, and the team is all the better for it. Have fun, Philadelphia!
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano