Things started out well enough for David Buchanan's major league career. As a rookie in 2015, he threw 117.2 surprisingly useful innings for the Phillies with a 3.75 ERA, a groundball rate around 50%, and expectedly modest strikeout and walk numbers.
Buchanan provided fans with even more reason for optimism that his future held a long career as a Kyle Kendrick-type pitcher who wouldn't totally suck as the 5th starter on a good team with a strong Spring Training performance leading into the season. In 21 Grapefruit League innings, Buchanan had a 1.29 ERA supported by a surprisingly high 6.43 K/9 and a stingy 0.86 BB/9.
At Spring Training, he credited the Phillies coaching staff for emphasizing the importance of attacking the zone and Phillies coaches were unanimous in praising the development of his changeup, which was already an above-average pitch in 2014. A useful starter can be made out of one elite pitch complemented by two or three near-average offerings and Buchanan looked set to establish that sort of repertoire as his path to a lengthy major league career.
Then the regular season started, and Buchanan did everything he possibly could to erase all that optimism from the minds of fans. Out of the gate, Buchanan posted a 8.76 ERA over 24.2 April innings while losing the control that made him effective in 2014 and Spring Training. In April, Buchanan walked more hitters (15) than he struck out (12). Not a recipe for success at all.
He was optioned to AAA in early May and was immediately greeted with an ankle injury that kept him on the shelf for over a month. He returned to the majors in July and made three starts, with a brief demotion in the middle as the Phillies got their roster in order in preparation for the Cole Hamels trade, and was relatively effective. In 18.2 July innings, Buchanan had a 3.38 ERA and was back to offsetting his unimpressive strikeout ability with a low walk rate (3.8%) and a high ground ball rate (50.8%).
He followed that promising month with two disastrous August start. In his first August start against the Dodgers, Buchanan lasted only 4 innings and gave up 7 runs (2 HR, 10 hits, 1 BB) against only 2 strikeouts. It was a bad start, to be sure, but given his July and 2014 and Spring Training track-record, I was comfortable writing it off as a bad start against one of the better offensive teams in baseball.
But the nail in Buchanan's coffin and his most definitive start of 2015 came five days later against the Arizona Diamondbacks. After a harmless first inning, in which he bounced back from a leadoff hit to retire the next three batters, shit came flying into David Buchanan's fan in the second inning. He did not survive that second inning, but before he was removed, he had recorded two outs on 14 batters-faced. In those two outs of second-inning work, Buchanan gave up 10 hits, including two home runs, while walking two Diamondbacks. After 45 futile pitches, Buchanan was removed from the game. David Buchanan must have paid a hefty sum to MLBAM because, if you search his name on an MLB.com video search, no video footage from this game comes up.
But history will tell his tale regardless. That August 11th start was a historic one. He was only the third Phillies pitcher to give up 11 or more runs in an inning since 1900 and the first since 1938. Likely due to this disaster of a partial-inning, Buchanan was optioned to AAA the following day.
After nearly a month in AAA, Buchanan was called back up to the Phillies when rosters expanded and they transitioned to a six-man rotation, in part, to limit Aaron Nola's innings. In 25.2 innings over 5 September and October starts, Buchanan once again looked like the viable back-end option we were optimistic he could be. He had a 3.16 ERA and, more encouragingly, his strikeout (15.8%) and walk (7%) rates in the last month were right in line with his career rates of 13.5% and 7.1%, respectively.
So, what should we make of Buchanan's up and (mostly) down season? If you haven't gotten around to it yet, check out the FanPost contributed by Beyond the Boxscore's Spencer Bingol in which he paints an optimistic picture of Buchanan's future as a Kyle Hendricks-type starter (no, not Kyle Kendrick) capable of starting in a playoff game in non-disaster scenarios. Spencer looks at their similar repertoires and speculates that, if Buchanan can improve the command of his sinker, he might be able to match Kyle Hendricks' production.
While Buchanan will probably never be effective enough to produce a ~3 WAR season like Hendricks, it is certainly reasonable to expect him to improve on his disastrous 2015 going forward. A portion of his 2015 struggles can be attributed to a higher-than-normal walk rate. A pitcher with mediocre stuff can ill afford to walk many hitters, so a key to 2016 will be getting his control back.
One thing to note in this context is that David Buchanan's release point looked a lot different in 2015 than it did in 2014:
Whether this change in release point was a conscious decision by either Buchanan or the Phillies coaching staff is unknown to me. So too is whether his struggles with control in 2015 were a direct result of this change. What I do know is that it is certainly possible, if not probable, that a change in release point with lines of such a slope as those in the graphs above (can you imagine running up or down those things?) could come with an adjustment period during which control and other pitcherly things would be a bit out of sorts.
But I still haven't completely answered the question of what we should make of Buchanan's 2015. I must be watching too many presidential debates or maybe it's just because, as with any question I am asked in life, the only honest answer is "I don't know."
What I think, though, is that Buchanan's 2015 was a fluke and will appear to be an aberration years down the road. With a changeup as good as Buchanan's has been, his floor is well above where his 2015 numbers imply. Between injuries and a slip in performance, David Buchanan's 2015 does not earn a passing grade. However, that should not be taken as reason to give up hope on David Buchanan: real-life back-end starter. Look for him to bounce back to mediocrity in 2016.