Will Clay Buchholz Remain Lucky Or Is He Set Up to Crash?

Clay Buchholz is due for a correction in 2011. Nothing along the lines of a NASDAQ 2000 crash, but still a rather significant pullback that will sting those who own CB stock. That is the yarn that the Globe’s Pete Abraham spun here in today’s Globe.

Today’s article doesn’t do much to shatter the Earth. In fact, it’s a rather picked over piece that has appeared in other places since last summer. Basically, it surmises that Buchholz was a bit lucky at the tables year, as he recorded more outs on balls put in play than he probably deserved. The effect was particularly pronounced when runners were on base, meaning that any type of normalization in 2011 will cause Clay’s ERA to spike.

To be clear, I am not saying this is a bad article. Perhaps stale.  And hardly “investigative.”  But I applaud Abraham for canvassing the numbers and identifying an issue that bears watching. Beyond that, he gets some pretty candid comments from Buchholz and a valuable quote from an opposing hitter, which just so happens to come from Carl Crawford.

But here is my problem with this story. It correctly identifies a statistical anomaly and then cites some supporting data to prove its point. But at that point, it declares victory without revealing any exculpatory evidence or providing much explanation for why the anomaly may be explainable. The numbers are what they are, according to the prosecution, and little allowance is made for unique situations.

This is the problem, as I see it, with all “fangraph-ian” sonnets. Less you don’t read fangraphs – which is the internet’s danceclub for statistical geeks – most of the writing follows the exact same formula. Identify outlier. Cull the advanced stats for supporting evidence. Nitpick to death. Refer to obtuse statistical categories that establish the “inside” credentials of the author. And then state, with certainty, that a particular conclusion is absolutely correct.

Now in Abe’s defense, he isn’t guilty of this last offense as he didn’t suggest a CB crash is inevitable. But outside of the Crawford quote, he also didn’t spend much time presenting the case of the defense, which is what I will do here.

To be fair, Abraham is right in pointing out that Buchholz BAbip (batting average against on balls put in play) was unusually low last year. In fact, it was 30 basis points below the league average and 104 basis points below the league average with runners in scoring position. The former is significant and the latter is glaring. If these numbers move in the other direction this season, it would be safe to assume that Buchholz will be allowing quite a few more runs.

But what the prosecution doesn’t point out is that there could be a good reason for this outperformance, making a full regression to the mean unlikely. So here is exhibit A and I apologize for using the same technique that I disparaged up above.

Take a look at Buck’s pitch data from last year and you will find that he got a lot more swings and induced a lot more contact on balls out of the strike zone. This is a good thing as contact outside the zone tends to be weaker and less dangerous to a pitcher. Was this just more luck? Perhaps. But Buchholz also discovered and leaned on a much better two-seamer last year that had some late life. So isn’t it possible that Clay found a pitch that he could use to get hitters to chase and miss? Accordingly, if Buchholz has added a “quiet killer” to his arsenal, isn’t it possible that he might be able to outperform the league averages? This pitch may not do wonders for his strikeout totals but if it induces higher levels of weak contact, the tradeoff isn’t so bad.

My point is there may be good reasons that help explain Clay’s outperformance. These may not account for all the outperformance Buchholz experienced in 2010, but they can potentially mitigate some of the backsliding that critics argue is inevitable.

That said, I am not suggesting Buchholz will repeat his 2010. But I am not buying “puts” to protect my ass either. And that is because I no longer think Buchholz is a meltdown waiting to happen. Yes, his BAbip and ERA should rise in 2011 but with the help of better outfield defense and some better two-strike luck, CB should be able to keep his ERA on the right side of 3.50. With a good offense in tow, that should net 17-18 wins and a nice rise in CB’s stock price.

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