Thursday, July 23, 2009

Clay Buchholz's year off

Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are not, in any way, the same pitcher. Lester is a lefty and Buchholz is a righty, for one thing. Lester is more of a power pitcher with an outstanding cutter; Buchholz can touch 96 on the gun but does most of his damage with his changeup and curveball.

But the track record Lester left behind certainly can be a teaching tool as we evaluate Clay Buchholz's first two starts. Lester, like Buchholz, reached the major leagues and pitched into August of his first full season before enduring a rude interruption. (For Buchholz, the interruption was an inability to get major-league hitters out and a demotion to Double-A Portland. For Lester, of course, it was lymphoma.)

Lester, like Buchholz, returned to the major leagues in July and did not exactly pitch like a future ace right away. But Lester, like Buchholz, has always been viewed as someone who could be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the Red Sox rotation for years to come.

The Red Sox stayed patient with Lester. You'd better believe -- barring a sudden eagerness on the part of the San Diego Padres to get rid of Adrian Gonzalez -- they'll stay patient with Buchholz, too. Let's go straight to the numbers:

Jon Lester
Overall Triple-A numbers
25 starts, 3.42 ERA, 1.403 WHIP, 1.68 K/BB ratio

First big-league stint
15 starts, 4.76 ERA, 1.648 WHIP, 1.40 K/BB ratio

First two starts of second big-league stint
12 2/3 IP, 4.26 ERA, 2.25 K/BB ratio, 193 pitches, 61% strikes

Clay Buchholz
Overall Triple-A numbers
33 starts, 2.73 ERA, 1.075 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio

First big-league stint
18 starts, 5.56 ERA, 1.601 WHIP, 1.84 K/BB ratio

First two starts of second stint
9 2/3 IP, 3.72 ERA, 1.2 K/BB ratio, 193 pitches, 63% strikes

That last number is interesting. The issue for Buchholz hasn't been results as much as it has been efficiency: He threw 90 pitches through four innings on Wednesday and forced Terry Francona to go to his bullpen far too early.

But while Lester was more efficient in terms of pitches per inning, he actually threw fewer strikes in his first two starts post-cancer than Buchholz has.

Either way: They can't all be Tommy Hanson and tear the major leagues apart right away. Sometimes, even if a pitcher has a little bit of experience in the major leagues, it takes some time to get re-acclimated.

Oh, and in case you're wondering about how Lester fared in his next few major-league starts, here are the next two:
* Aug. 3 at Seattle: 5 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 4 K, 2 BB, 99 pitches
* Aug. 8 at Los Angeles: 3 1/3 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 3 K, 3 BB, 93 pitches

His ERA at that point was 6.43. His strike rate still was just 61 percent.

It wasn't until three weeks after his return to the major leagues that he started to look like the Jon Lester who has become one of the most unhittable pitchers in the major leagues:
* Aug. 14 vs. Tampa Bay: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 4 K, 1 BB

(He threw 62 of his 97 pitches for strikes, a rate of 64 percent.)

Two months later, he was pitching in the World Series.

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