Listen, don’t talk to Red Sox fans about Clay Buchholz.
The guy the Phillies traded for on Tuesday has been driving Boston fans absolutely bat-crap-crazy for nearly a decade, mainly because he’s a walking example of baseball bi-polar disorder on the mound.
One start, he’s amazing. The next, he’s a mushroom cloud. It also varies from season to season with Clay. One year, terrific! The next, he’s hen poop on a pump handle. There is usually no in-between.
So no, you shouldn’t be reading anything penned by Red Sox reporters or talking to Red Sox fans on Twitter or Facebook about Clay Buchholz. You’re not going to like what you hear. But general manager Matt Klentak went ahead and traded for him anyway, and in doing so, may have given the Phils a rotation that could - clears throat - actually be pretty good?
Obviously, a lot would have to go right for that to happen. As it stands, the Phillies do not have a clear ace. If healthy and pitching effectively, Aaron Nola is their best starter, capable of flashing No. 1 stuff on occasion. If he is the guy who had a 2.65 ERA in his first 12 starts and not the guy who put up a 9.82 ERA in his last eight, he can front the rotation just fine.
The returning Jeremy Hellickson, who would have been the second-best starting pitcher on the free agent market this winter had he not accepted the team’s qualifying offer, is a decent innings-eater whose 3.71 ERA in 32 starts was the best he’s had since 2012. His 3.2 fWAR was tied for 21st in baseball with Tanner Roark, and was just one-tenth of a point behind Kenta Maeda and Carlos Martinez among qualified NL starters.
Jerad Eickhoff is as solid as they come, never putting up back-to-back substandard starts at any point in 2016. His 3.65 ERA in 33 starts and 197 1⁄3 innings makes him one of the few starters on the staff that does not enter the 2017 as a question mark. He can miss bats and doesn’t walk a ton of guys. And while he gives up the home run with some frequency (30 allowed was tied for 9th-most in MLB), many are the solo variety. He’s not flashy, but is the prototypical No. 3 starter.
Vince Velasquez is a guy who can be an ace if he can figure out a way to pitch deeper into games. Among starters with at least 130 innings pitched last year, Velasquez’ 10.44 K/9 was 8th-highest in baseball. But pursuing the strikeout with relentlessness led to lots of full counts, which led to high pitch counts, which led to too many outings that lasted less than six innings. If Velasquez can find a way to get outs more quickly, he can be a top-of-the-rotation arm.
And finally, there’s the schizophrenic Buchholz, who put up a 5.91 ERA in the first half last year and allowed a slash line of .265/.348/.482. But after realizing on video that he had been lowering his arm slot over the last few seasons due to his many injuries, he began pitching solely from the stretch and raised him arm slot. He went on to put up a 3.22 ERA in the second half, allowing a vastly improved .219/.289/.322 slash line.
In eight starts after returning to the rotation on August 13, here’s how he did.
Earned runs given up by Buchholz in his last 8 starts:— John Stolnis (@FelskeFiles) December 20, 2016
3 (4.1 IP)
1 (6.1 IP)
1 (6.2 IP)
6 (3 IP)
2 (6 IP)
1 (7 IP)
0 (6 IP)
Tim Britton of the Providence Journal noted that through his start against the Angels on July 2, Buchholz had allowed opponents to hit .341 against his fastball, all from the lower arm slot. In July, batters hit .235 against his heater, in August it was .103 and in September it was .180 (stats from Brooks Baseball).
This is a guy who has made two All Star teams and thrown a no-hitter. When he’s on, there’s no denying he’s one of the better pitchers in baseball, and he seems to be a clear change-of-scenery guy. Moving to the National League where there is no DH and no Fenway Park for half his starts should help.
The rotation is reminiscent of the one in 2004, which was celebrated heading into the season as a collection of number-two and three starters, albeit with no clear ace.
Things didn’t turn out so well for that group.
The team went 86-76 and finished second in the NL East, but the rotation of Milton-Myers-Millwood-Wolf-Padilla never materialized into the collection of No. 2 and 3 starters we all expected. Instead, it devolved into a collection of No. 4 and 5 starters who finished with a 4.91 ERA, 21st among MLB starting rotations.
If Nola stays healthy and regains his early 2016 form, if Velasquez can give the team one more inning per start and stay just as effective, if Eickhoff can keep doing what he’s doing, if Hellickson can repeat his 2016, and if the Phillies are lucky enough to get a Dr. Jekyll season out of Buchholz rather than a Mr. Hyde effort, then all of a sudden this rotation has a chance to be pretty good.
And if things don’t go well with one or two of these guys, the Phils will have Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin in Triple-A, two intriguing youngsters who can potentially jump into the fray and provide intriguing depth.
Of course, the offense could still stink and the bullpen still has many question marks. This isn’t a playoff team yet. But the starting rotation could be solid, and that could keep our eyeballs on the Phils for perhaps a little while longer this summer.