Monday, November 29, 2010

How Good is Clay Buchholz?

Many people have lauded the Cy Young Award voting with Felix Hernandez winning the award despite not having an impressive won/loss record. This Fan agrees. Other than wins, King Felix led the American League in most pitching categories including WAR. But he was beaten in one category: ERA+. The winner there was Clay Buchholz. And yet, Buchholz finished sixth in Cy Young voiting. If we assume that this year's voters were much more statistically savvy, what turned them off to the young Red Sox hurler?

Part of the vote seems to be the K/BB ratio. All the pitchers that finished above Buccholz were over 3 in that category except Sabathia, whose 21 wins naturally pushed him higher on the list. Buchholz came in at 1.67 with 3.2 walks per nine and 6.2 strikeouts per nine. As Buchholz gets more reps, his strikeout rate has declined. He was at 6.7 in 2009 and over 8 the two partial years before that. And yet Buchholz had a marvelous season with a 17-7 record and a sparkling 2.33 ERA.

Jon Lester, whose ERA was higher than Buchholz finished higher on the Cy Young voting list. There is also the questions of BABIP and xFIP. Buchholz had a .263 average against on balls in play. That and some other statistics pushed his xFIP up to 4.20. There is a part of this Fan that still rebels against such numbers, but the truth is that guys with low BABIPs and low K/BB ratios are not going to get as much love.

The question of WAR is again troubling. B-R gave Buchholz a WAR of 5.4 in 2010 which would have placed him tied for second in the AL behind Hernandez. Fangraphs gave him a WAR of 3.7 which places him significantly down the list. So which one is closer to reality?

A couple of things factored into the success that Buchholz had in 2010. For one thing, his homers per nine innings were minuscule at 0.5. He only gave up nine homers all year. Though his fly ball percentage rose slightly from 28.6% in 2009 to 31.5% in 2010, his percentage of fly balls that went over the wall went from 15.7% in 2009 to a remarkable 5.6% in 2010. He also raised his infield flyball rate from 2.4% to 8.1%. That means that fewer of his fly balls went over the wall and he got more cheaper outs on infield fly balls than in 2009. That will certainly help a pitcher, eh?

Buchholz threw the same percentage of fastballs in 2010 as he did in 2009, but he threw more sliders and less curves and change ups. But one big difference is that the value placed on his fastballs were much higher. His fastball in 2010 was rated at 20.8 wins above average compared to having a negative value the year before. Good fastballs can either lead to more strikeouts (they did not) or weaker contact (seemingly). His slider and change up both had positive values but his curve finished in the negative numbers--probably a good reason he stopped throwing it so much.

Buchholz seemed to learn the trick of getting more strikes with less pitches thrown in the strike zone. His percentage of swings on pitches outside of the strike zone went up while his percentage of pitches in the strike zone went down. On the pitches outside of the zone, there was more batter contact--another good reason for his low BABIP, this Fan would say.

Buchholz, in this Fan's mind, learned how to pitch in 2010. By getting batters to swing at his pitches and at pitches just outside the zone, he produced more outs and had great success. He also induced 23 double plays in 2010, undoing some of the damage his base runners could have done otherwise. And Buchholz is only 26 years old.

Experts don't rate Buchholz as high as Lester because Lester puts more batters away without contact. Bill James gave Buchholz a projection of 13-9 with an ERA of 3.54 in 2011. That seems conservative. Buchholz may not be as good as Jon Lester, but he's going to be a great pitcher for the Red Sox for years to come.


bobook said...

All those new numbers, babip and era+ and wins over average and ad nauseum, make me go foggy. Love numbers and analysis but there is such a thing of too much, of paralysis by analysis. I believe the old baseball guys were adept at determining how good a player is with the adequate tools of past days. All this new hooey is just more of the trend to baffle with bs. Looking at the old reliables for Bucholz, one can see innings increased, strike-out rate edged up but not significantly, walk rate remained the same. What improved greatly were the rates for hits allowed and homeruns allowed indicating young Clay, as you say, is maturing into a pitcher learning to trust his stuff and pitching to contact.

Josh Borenstein said...

He'll get more swings and misses as he matures. He's got an excellent fastball. Lester is definitely the ace on the Sox, but Buchholz has emerged as the clear #2. The peripherals would seem to indicate he benefited from some luck this year, but he's the real deal.