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The Diamondbacks have resurrected Clay Buchholz

No longer an afterthought, Buchholz can help Arizona win the NL West

Pittsburgh Pirates v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Let’s play a guessing game. I’ll give you a set of numbers that are baseball related. You guess where they’re from. Here we go!

1, 6, 4, 2, 3, 4, 1, 5, 3, 4, 12, 3

I don’t want to give the answer so close to the quiz, so please enjoy this completely unrelated blooper video.

Ready for the answer? It’s the first number of Clay Buchholz’s ERA in each of his 12 MLB seasons. If you guessed correctly, one of the following is true:

  1. You cheated.
  2. You spend way too much time on his BRef page.
  3. You are Clay Buchholz. Hi Clay.

His career ERA is 4.00 on the nose, but that number belies wild alternations of greatness, disaster, and injury.

The 33-year-old found his way to the Arizona Diamondbacks after the Royals released him from Triple-A on May 1st. After a few more starts in the minors, he was recalled to the big leagues where he’s posted a 3.21 ERA over five starts.

Now, this smells like a classic example of when ERA doesn’t pass muster. In 2016, Buchholz was demoted to the bullpen. In 2017, he made only two starts before season ending surgery. At his age, two seasons of ineffectiveness and injury are almost always followed by a fade into oblivion.

Except this time, if we dig a little deeper than ERA, it turns out Buchholz may have something left after all.

No, seriously. He’s actually good.

In his five starts this year, Buchholz compiled a respectable 3.45 DRA and a 78.8 DRA-, which puts him more than 20% better than the rest of the league. He’s not getting a ton of strikeouts (just 23 in 28 IP), and the four home runs allowed isn’t ideal. But his 4.4% BB-rate is spectacular. Only six qualified pitchers in baseball allow free passes less often. (Buchholz does not qualify, of course.)

The low walks and propensity for long balls are both byproducts of him consistently pounding the strike zone. He’s thrown 67% of his pitches for strikes this season, and he throws the first pitch for a strike 65.8% of the time. That would be 16th best in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify.

What we have here is a pitcher who throws strikes and isn’t prone to strikeouts or walks. It stands to reason that he should give up a lot of hits, but that hasn’t been the case: just 7.7 H/9. That’s just batted ball luck, right (his BABIP against is only .250)? We know hits are pretty much arbitrary!

Well...maybe not. The right-handed Buchholz may have found a way to keep lefty hitters in check. They’ve only managed to slash .184/.231/.306 against him this season. His changeup is a big reason why. Here’s a leaderboard of the biggest velocity differentials between fastball and changeup in MLB this year.

Fastball/Changeup Differential (min. 5 GS, min. 5% changeup usage)

Name Team FBv (MPH) CHv (MPH) FBv-CHv (MPH)
Name Team FBv (MPH) CHv (MPH) FBv-CHv (MPH)
Clay Buchholz Diamondbacks 90.4 77.5 12.9
Marco Estrada Blue Jays 89.0 77.1 11.9
Reynaldo Lopez White Sox 95.4 83.5 11.9
Matt Boyd Tigers 89.0 77.6 11.4

Buchholz doesn’t have a ton of heat on the fastball, but the changeup comes in 12.9 mph slower. That’s a full mph greater differential than any starting pitcher in baseball. The changeup is usually an effective weapon against opposite side batters, so let’s look at an example of how he uses it to neutralize opposing lefty hitters.

Buchholz vs. Crawford

Buchholz faced the San Francisco Giants on June 6th, his fourth start this season. He struck out seven, walked just one, and allowed a pair of runs in six innings as the Diamondbacks lost 5-4 in ten innings.

Brandon Crawford came to the plate in the third inning, his second plate appearance of the day, with a runner on second base and one out. Crawford is a pretty average hitter over his career, sporting a 98 wRC+. However, he’s off to a fantastic start in 2018 and has a 143 wRC+ so far this year.

We’ll use the Baseball Prospectus Matchup Tool to analyze Buchholz’s pitch sequence.

1st Pitch: Changeup, 78.2 MPH, Swinging Strike

Buchholz starts off by “pitching backwards.” Crawford was probably looking for a first pitch fastball, and instead gets a super-slow change. He swings through it for strike one. This is Buchholz’s comfort zone; he’s one of the best in the league at throwing first pitch strikes.

2nd Pitch: Fastball, 91.9 MPH, Called Strike

This pitch has no business reaching the catcher. It’s an absolute dream for a left-handed hitter: a fastball straight down the middle, low in the zone. An accomplished batter such as Crawford should smash this a long, long way. Instead, he watches it go by for strike two.

By today’s standards, 92 mph isn’t that fast. Nearly everyone in the majors throws at least this hard. It’s the previous pitch that makes the difference. There’s a 13.7 mph difference between the first pitch changeup and the second pitch fastball. It’s tough for a hitter to get the timing straight with such a huge velocity differential.

3rd Pitch: Cutter, 87.4 MPH, Foul

With an 0-2 count, Crawford has to swing at anything close. This is a big part of Buchholz’ game. Everyone’s stuff plays up when they’re ahead in the count. His stuff isn’t great anymore, so he has to stay in favorable counts as much as possible.

Check out the pitch tunnels of pitches one and three. Their tunnel points are almost identical. This cutter looks an awful lot like the first pitch changeup to Crawford, except faster. It’s a testament to his hitting skills that he was able to foul this pitch off.

4th Pitch: Changeup, 77.9 MPH, Foul

This is one of the slowest changeups you’ll ever see. It’s very similar to the first pitch that Crawford swung through. It’s located nicely on the lower outside part of the plate, which makes it difficult to hit hard. Crawford fouls it off.

5th Pitch: Cutter, 87.7 MPH, Swinging Strike (Y’er out!)

After trying the outside corner with the previous pitch, Buchholz busts him inside with a cutter for the K. Again, there’s nothing special about an 88 mph cutter, but it’s 10 mph faster than the last pitch and in a very different horizontal location.

This was the only pitch of the PA that was clearly a ball. Buchholz made sure this wasn’t going to leak back over the inside corner where Crawford could smash it. The only possibilities for this pitch were ball one or swinging strike three.

Any pitcher looks like an ace when they strike someone out, and Buchholz isn’t this good all the time. Crawford did get a single off him that day. In his most recent start, he was shelled for six runs by the Pirates. But he’s given Arizona four good starts out of five. If he keeps using his slow changeup effectively against lefties, he’ll add a nice low number to his string of ERAs.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983