After a decade in Boston, Clay Buchholz is on the move. And while he’s not going very far, the scenery and competitive landscape will be drastically different. He’ll even need to handle a bat consistently. Unfortunately for him, he’s going from a contender to a—well, they’re still rebuilding. Fortunately for Philadelphia, they’re not giving up a whole lot.
24-year-old second baseman Josh Tobias, who would slash .254/.324/.357 (.681 OPS) at High-A this past season, is going the other way. Philadelphia also takes on the incoming $13.5 million in salary. As we discussed Tuesday while breaking down Odubel Herrera’s extension, money isn’t an issue. So all of this being fine, what is Buchholz bringing to his new club?
Well I… I genuinely do not know. It’s tricky. I mean, we certainly know what he can do.
Buchholz is a former first-rounder (42nd overall, 2005), arguably peaking in 2010 (top-six in Cy Young voting). As a rookie (2007), he would toss a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. There aren’t many better ways to make a first impression than that. Baseball America even had him as the No. 4 prospect in the league ahead of 2008. So naturally, his body would rebel against him more often than not. He would make just 15 starts in 2008, then 15 more the following season. After his aforementioned career-year in 2010, he would make just 14 starts a season later. Results wouldn’t be all that kind to him in 2012, but at least he would eclipse 20-plus starts (for just the second time in his career).
Then came 2013, when Buchholz would once again display the ability many always knew he had. And, the ability he had shown over parts of several years prior. Despite pitching just under 110 innings, Fangraphs attributed an fWAR of 2.8. Had he stayed healthy, that season probably would have been the best of the bunch. Better than when he finished top-six in Cy Young voting. I mean, presumably. After all, 173.2 innings in ’10 would reflect a 3.0 fWAR.
So, how about 2013? (For those who love pitcher wins, this next one’s for you.) Buchholz would begin the campaign 9-0 (finishing 12-1). And as it turns out, the rest of his numbers would back the record up: a 1.74 ERA, 2.90 DRA, 8.0 K/9, and 0.3 HR/9. But of course, said season would be interrupted by his body acting out. A neck strain would send him to the DL in June, and he wouldn’t return until September.
But his 24 innings upon returning (only five earned runs allowed) showed he was just fine. Then along came 2014, and while Buchholz would once again cross the 20-start threshold (28), results would not make the journey with him. 170.1 innings would produce a 5.34 ERA alongside a 4.34 DRA. His strikeout rate would be okay, if unspectacular (7.0 K/9) and he also did a fairly fine job of keeping the ball in the yard (0.9 HR/9).
2015 would be significantly better (3.26 ERA, 3.00 DRA; 8.5 K/9, 1.8 BB/9—a career-high—and 0.5 HR/9), but again… those darn injuries. After getting through just 3.1 innings on July 10th, a strained flexor muscle would keep him out for the remainder of the season. This time, Buchholz would finish the year having pitched just 113.1 innings—only five more than he would toss during what could have been an unforgettable 2013.
Injuries literally became the story of his career.
Statistically speaking, 2016 would be the worst season we’d see out of the righty. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—injuries would play their part. But even when he was healthy, it didn’t matter much. Roughly 140 innings would produce a 4.78 ERA and far worse 6.08 DRA. His strikeout rate would fall (6.0 K/9)—a career-worst mark—while his walk rate (3.6 BB/9) would be at its steepest point since 2008. Lastly, Buchholz was worse than ever before at keeping balls in the park (1.4 HR/9).
Yet from July 21 through the rest of the season—after not pitching since July 2—the good version reappeared. He would pitch 19 times (11 such times coming out of the bullpen), pitching to a 3.22 ERA while holding opposing batters to a line of just .223/.289/.322/.611.
If we haven’t pieced it together by now, which version Philadelphia is getting comes down almost entirely to whether or not he can stay healthy. An obvious point, but an important one. Still, Josh Tobias is such a low price to pay asset-wise, that any positive production the Phillies get out of the former first-rounder might be worth it.
Arguably the most frustrating part of all this is what category so many of these injuries seem to fall into. Thankfully thus far, season-ending injuries have not presented themselves. Year-long layoffs (or longer) have not either. Instead, a sprain here or a strain there. A few weeks here and a month or two there. Nagging injury after nagging injury continues to plague what could have been a significantly more memorable career.
But on to Philly, where Buchholz will almost certainly be utilized in their starting rotation. On the other hand, striking a balance between starts and relief appearances could prove beneficial for everyone. That said, it’s hard to imagine Philadelphia messing around with a pitcher they’ll be paying $13.5 million in 2017. Especially a pitcher they actively went out and traded for. So Clay makes the rotation, and his name is added to the list of veterans that won’t be tying up payroll after 2017. It’s a smart move—one of the low-cost, high-reward variety.
All in all, Philadelphia will be interesting to watch. They’re not going to set the NL ablaze, or even the NL East for that matter, but it’s not a stretch to suggest they’ll win more than 71 games (last season’s total). As for their new pitcher, we all know what he can do. We just don’t know if he’ll stay healthy enough to do it. But if he does, then Philadelphia just got one year of good Clay Buchholz for next to nothing.