Saturday, August 29, 2009

Clay's command getting better and better

If you're starting to think that Clay Buchholz looked as good on Saturday as he's looked all season, well, you're right.

Just look at his curveball.

Yes, we've spent so much time examining that particular pitch in this space that we really could start to call this the "Clay If By Curveball" blog. But that doesn't have the same ring to it -- and, besides, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would not approve.

Besides, if Buchholz is going to finish this season and go into next season as the No. 3 starter in the Red Sox rotation, he's going to need his best pitch to start working for him. He's a pretty good pitcher with a fastball and a changeup and a slider. He's a tremendous pitcher with a fastball and changeup and a slider and a world-class curveball.

The three charts below all measure horizontal movement and vertical movement, all have nothing to do with speed and everything to do with command and location. A pitcher needs to know exactly how much his pitches are going to break if he's going to hit his target, and the more consistent he can be with that break, the better the results.

A pitcher with four pitches needs to have four distinct groupings of data points on the chart. He's going to have the most success when the ball comes out of his hand the same way but goes all sorts of directions after that. It's OK if the changeup moves the same way the fastball does -- the difference in speed is the weapon there -- but if the curveball is too flat or too straight, well, it's going to get hit.

None of that matters, though, if he can't command it. If he can't throw the pitch consistently -- and throw it for strikes -- batters won't even have to swing.

Here's Buchholz against Toronto on Aug. 19:

Check out the pink dots in the charts above. Buchholz shied away from throwing his curveball at the Rogers Centre 10 days ago because he didn't have a good feel for it. That shows up on the chart in the way the pink dots are spread out along the bottom of the chart. One of his curveballs moved just one inch horizontally, and a couple of them moved five inches. Considering that the plate is just 17 inches wide, that's a pretty significant difference.

To make matters worse, his slider and his changeup ran together, looking far too similar to make either pitch all that effective.

He ended up pitching six solid innings, but he was going to get burned if his stuff kept looking like that. That's what happened last Monday against the White Sox:

His fastball, changeup and slider all formed tight groups, but his curveball still wasn't there. You could tell he was making the pitch an emphasis -- he threw more than twice as many curves as he had in Toronto -- but it wasn't there. His vertical break varied from eight inches to 12 inches, and his horizontal break varied from two inches to nine inches. There's no way he could expect to hit a target with command like that.

His other three pitches, though, differentiated themselves from each other far better than they had in his previous outing -- a curious development considering that the results were far worse. He seemed to have found his fastballs and his changeup and his slider, and he just still needed to find a feel for his curveball.

That brings us to Saturday's gem against the Blue Jays:

Not only was his curveball dramatically set apart from his slider and his changeup, but the data points finally were clustered all together. Every time he threw his curveball, he threw it with between four and six inches of horizontal break. When he aimed for the inside corner, he hit the inside corner. When he aimed for the outside corner, he hit the outside corner.

(The only pitch that's offset a little bit is the curveball that slipped and almost hit Jose Bautista in the ninth inning. That's only fair, though, given that Buchholz completely embarassed Bautista in the first inning with his nastiest curve of the game.)

He recorded most of his strikeouts via the changeup, but that's in large part because he threw his changeup later in the count than his curveball. (Warning: That link takes you to yet another chart.) He started hitters with his fastball, baffled them with his curveball and finished them off with his changeup.

It was by far the best he's thrown his Uncle Charlie since his return to the major leagues about six weeks ago.

Not coincidentally, it was by far his best start, too.

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