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2017 Phillies Player Preview: Clay Buchholz

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You might know him as Mr. Consistently Inconsistent

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The other night, Clay Buchholz started the team’s first spring training game at night against the Yankees. It didn’t start well, with Buchholz surrendering a second inning home run to Greg Bird.

From there, he did end up going five solid innings, only surrendering two runs total. Yet if you remembered Buchholz’s last season with Boston, that home run from Bird might seem very familiar, as he served up 20 home runs as a starter in 2016. This type of gopheritis leads to Twitter machine exchanges like the one I had that night:

Yes, it’s a wonder that last year, Buchholz wasn’t disabled by a severe case of whiplash. It has been one of the hallmarks of his career, being included in the disabled list report. However, last year, there really was no known injury - it just his being ineffective.

That ineffectiveness led to his demotion to the bullpen after his May 26 start against Colorado. After that start (5 IP, 6 R, 3 HR), his ERA stood at a ghastly 6.35 with opponents having an .826 OPS off him that included 12 home runs in 56 innings. It’s been particularly frustrating since he came up as such a heralded prospect that threw a no-hitter in his second career start. However, after being sent to the bullpen, Buchholz figured something out and was actually quite productive. In the 27 games he pitched in after that May 26 start (11 of which he started), he produced a much more palatable 3.70 ERA with only nine home runs allowed and a .680 OPS against.

What changed? For starters, Buchholz was throwing more strikes. In the 10 games before his first relief appearance on May 29, he threw only 61% of his pitches for strikes, 8% of which were of the swinging variety. After the demotion, those numbers bumped up to 64% and 10%, quite the difference. It’s a basic tenet of baseball: if batters aren’t missing your pitches, you won’t get outs.

Yet that answer seems so simple as to why Buchholz was better after that demotion, so we search for other answers. Did Buchholz change his repertoire? He didn’t really change it so much as he altered it. Check out this graph of his velocity on pitches:

Some time around June, his fastballs (four seam and sinker) each ticked up a bit velocity. It stayed that way throughout the year, with the season long dip that can be expected factored in. His changeup and curveball velocity remained steady, meaning there was more of an effective differential between the hard stuff and the offspeed stuff. That uptick in velocity can be explained away because of his new job as reliever, but he did start 11 more games the rest of the season. Did the velocity increase get batters to swing and miss more? Well, the difference, you saw in the percentages, wasn’t much, but it is definitely noticeable.

There is an uptick in whiffs on the curveball and four seam fastball, but the other main pitches he uses don’t see much of a change. So, as much as we’d like it to be that easy, we can’t really use this as the reason. Is there something else that changed Buchholz’s fortunes last year?

This spring, he has been speaking about how he wanted to get back to a lower arm angle that he had used in the past. After looking at it, it’s quite apparent that he has lowered his arm slot to a much lower spot that he has in the past. Click here to see where he was releasing pitches from when he first came up. Now, compare that by clicking here to see where he was last year. That is almost a foot of difference in where Buchholz was throwing the ball. Has he lowered his arm because of injury? Age? Hard to tell, but he was most effective when he had his arm coming from a higher position than he did last year. Perhaps that is the reason for his effectiveness. There’s also the switch from full windup to constantly pitching from the stretch to consider as well.

Whatever it is, Buchholz was better at the end of the season, making his acquisition less frightening for Phillies fans to consider. Sure, the team saw him as a possible reclamation project that could be had for cheap (yes, $13 million is cheap to this team), but they were also probably looking at him as more of an innings eater than staff leader.

With injuries to their starting pitching depth taking a toll at the end of the season, the Phillies were in need of a veteran who is able to take the bump every fifth day and produce for 150-175 innings, thereby lessening the need for Aaron Nola to be stretched out unnecessarily. Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin can be brought back slowly from their injuries as well, meaning that simply being able to pitch each time it’s his turn shows Buchholz’s value. If his being able to prevent Nola/Thompson/Eflin from further injuring themselves is the only value he provides this year, then he has been a successful acquisition.

His end of season run provides hope that he can be something more. He ended September healthy on a good run, posting a 3.14 ERA in 28.2 innings, a 21:10 K:BB ratio and decent groundball rate, all of which portends to the idea that perhaps he has discovered everything he needs to be successful in 2017. If he can do so, he’ll be a great trade target for teams looking for starting pitching depth, or, hoping against hope, he’ll be leading a team on the fringes of the wild card hunt. Either way, he’ll be contributing in a positive way, and that makes his trade a win for Matt Klentak.