Sunday, October 11, 2009

Buchholz sliding into the postseason

Looking for a common thread between the final two starts made by Clay Buchholz, two starts that saw him go from perhaps the most dominant starting pitcher in the American League to a rookie caught up in the pressure of the final week of the season?

Check out the way he used his breaking pitches down the stretch:

Sept. 3 -- Changeups 23.1 pct; curveballs: 13.2; sliders: 8.8
Sept. 8 -- Curveballs: 14.2 pct; changeups 12.3; sliders 11.3
Sept. 13 -- Changeups 24.7 pct; sliders 12.4; curveballs: 10.3
Sept. 18 -- Changeups 20.0 pct; sliders 12.6; curveballs 10.5
Sept. 24 -- Changeups 22.0 pct; sliders 17.4; curveballs 15.6
Sept. 29 -- Sliders 26.6 pct; changeups 19.0; curveballs 7.6
Oct. 4 -- Sliders 27.1 pct; changeups 20.0; curveballs 7.1
(Thanks to for the data.)

A few things to notice:
* His tendency to throw his slider has increased and increased with every single one of his last six starts, and given that it's a pitch that's most effective when he throws it out of the strike zone, that's not necessarily a good thing.
* His two worst starts of the season were the only occasions on which he threw more sliders than changeups.
* The only offspeed pitch he's throwing less frequently now than in early September is his curveball -- the pitch that, theoretically, should be his best pitch.
* He was throwing more offspeed pitches, period, in his final few starts than he did during his run of dominance in early September. If you add up the percentages from all three of his offspeed pitches, you get this:

Sept. 3: 45.1 percent
Sept. 8: 37.7 percent
Sept. 13: 47.4 percent
Sept. 18: 43.2 percent
Sept. 24: 55 percent
Sept. 29: 53.2 percent
Oct. 4: 55.7 percent

What does that mean? He's gone from throwing his fastball between 53 and 63 percent of the time to right around 45 percent of the time.

From Terry Francona to John Farrell to the upper echelon of the Red Sox organization, they've all the same thing: The biggest stride Buchholz made from last season to this season was the command -- and the more frequent use -- of his fastball. Farrell has even said specifically that Buchholz needs to be throwing his fastball 55 or 60 percent of the time to be successful.

"He’s using his fastball more effectively, commanding it better, and he has more confidence in the pitch," assistant general manager Ben Cherington said in early September. "His secondary stuff has always been so good that he’s been able to get away with pitching without using the fastball as much, and he hasn’t been as comfortable with it. Against major-league hitters, the margin for error is smaller, and he struggled when he was not using his fastball effectively to set up his other pitches. We challenged him to do that when he went back to Pawtucket, and he’s worked at it and is more confident using that pitch."

In the last couple of weeks, though, he's gotten away from using that pitch. It worked for him against Kansas City on Sept. 24, but, well, that was against Kansas City. That start -- he threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings and didn't walk anyone -- might have been a fool's gold sort of start for him. He then gave up a home run on a first-pitch fastball to Toronto's Jose Bautista, a home run that left no doubt as it sailed over the Green Monster, and that might have spooked him, too.

But he can't get away from his fastball. It's not a plus pitch the way his changeup is, but it's still a good pitch -- and the changeup isn't any good if hitters are looking for it. If he's going to beat the Angels, he's going to have to get back to his fastball.

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