Did Clay Buchholz Lapse Out of Remission?

“Clay has arrived and he isn’t going back.” – BacktoFoulke, March 31, 2011

Am I going to regret making THAT statement in my 2011 Red Sox Season Preview? Perhaps bemoan the fact that I leapt when some of the evidence was hostile to my case? Should I have waited for a bit more confirmation before making Clay Buchholz one of my bigger long positions?

Time will tell but twenty-six days (and four starts) into the 2011 season and baseball criminologists are already working on a theory that Buchholz was a fraud last year. You probably have heard some of the case by now. 2010 was an illusion fueled by luck. His headline numbers were way better than his “peripherals.” Significant backsliding is inevitable. And just wait until those long fly balls with runners on base turn into three-run home runs rather than long outs. That, in a nutshell, is the bear case on Clay Buchholz.

While parts of this theory have merit, I didn’t buy all of it or even half of it. Yeah, some backsliding was to be expected, but my thought was Clay had learned to control his nerves and make quality pitches in big spots. In doing so, the Texas scarecrow had finally found a way to sweep away the clutter that was interfering with his elite arm. Or so I thought.

But four starts into the 2011 season and small warning signs are casting a shadow on my bullish optimism. Yes, I understand these starts may be nothing more than noise. And the numbers could normalize pretty quickly. But my worry is more grounded in the qualitative than the quantitative. And the concern here is Buchholz is now struggling with EXACTLY the same things that ruined his 2008 and bothered him in 2009. That sounds an awful like “going back” to me.

Forget the first two games of the year where Buchholz gave up four solos to the Rangers and got hammered by the Yanks. I can chalk those outings up to a slow start and besides, I thought he actually threw the ball well in Texas. But these past two starts – against Toronto and Oakland – have been absolute messes.  And it’s the same old song, titled “Distraction and Poor Concentration,” that continues to do him in.

Now one can argue that Clay got a bit squeezed in his last start, but that doesn’t explain his stunning loss of control, his difficulties pitching from the stretch and perhaps most importantly, his inability to now throw a quality pitch when the count is full. Trust me when I tell you that his “full count” and “runners on” numbers have morphed from “extremely clean” to “inescapably malignant.”

This two-headed beast reared its head in Buck’s last start after he gave up a leadoff double in the sixth. Leading 4-1 at the time, Buchholz should have simply ignored the runner, and focused on getting back into the dugout with a two run lead. But after getting an out, Buck lost an eight pitch battle with Landon Powell of all people and then he lost a full count to the equally unimpressive Conor Jackson. So instead of getting back to the dugout and saving the pen, Buchholz left a terrible mess for Dan Bard to clean up. And all because he couldn’t put away a couple of scrubs on 3-2 pitches. Similar meltdowns simply can’t happen with any frequency if Buchholz is going to cement his status as an elite pitcher.

It really isn’t all that hard to see what has been going on. And when you layer it on top of what Buchholz is saying before and after games, a pretty clear picture emerges. That picture confirms Clay is back to obsessing about his numbers and seems unable to filter out the distractions that come with putting men on base. I thought we were passed this as the picture taken during 2010 showed no problems. Unfortunately, this month”s MRI looks like the problem may have only gone into temporary remission.

Clay will get another chance to speak in his defense tonight in Baltimore as he goes for his second win of the year. And I am nowhere close to throwing in the towel or even raising this issue from Defcon five to Defcon four. But I admit to being a little worried. Not because I think his BB/IP ratio is going to stay north of 6 all season. But because Buchholz looks like he is still struggling with those same mental demons that haunted him before. If those demons are truly back, my pre-season prediction seems like a candidate for a Memorial Day revision.

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