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Pitcher caught breaks

Buchholz hoping his luck continues

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 28, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Clay Buchholz may never win an Oscar. But he aptly played the role of humble and grateful professional athlete on the evening of Jan. 20, when he accepted an award from the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Buchholz said he felt lucky to be named co-Red Sox pitcher of the year with Jon Lester and joked to the fans attending the banquet that they shouldn’t expect him to repeat that performance in 2011.

The crowd laughed, but there was truth behind those clichés.

Buchholz was 17-7 last season with a 2.33 earned run average. Had a hamstring injury not limited him to 173 2/3 innings, the righthander would have been a strong contender for the Cy Young Award.

But the peripheral statistics suggest that Buchholz was, in fact, lucky and that fans shouldn’t expect a repeat of that performance.

“I don’t know the exact stats. But I know in my head it seemed like I had one point in every game where I caught a break,’’ Buchholz said last night after throwing two scoreless innings against the Minnesota Twins in an 8-4 loss. “That adds up after a while.’’

Opposing hitters had a .263 batting average on balls in play against Buchholz, the third lowest in the American League. The statistic measures the percentage of plate appearances ending with a ball in play (minus home runs) that result in a hit.

BABIP also measures luck to a large degree as pitchers often have no control over what happens to a ball once it is put in play. To some degree, the quality of the team’s defense behind him can affect that statistic. But that wasn’t the case for Buchholz given the poor defensive club the Red Sox fielded for the majority of last season.

The American League BABIP average last season was .295. By way of comparison, Lester had a BABIP of .291.

With runners in scoring position, Buchholz allowed a BABIP of .188, compounding his good fortune.

Buchholz also allowed just nine homers in 2010. Only 5.6 percent of the fly balls he gave up landed out of the park, half of the league average and nearly one-third of his rate in 2009.

At the same time, he averaged the fewest strikeouts per nine innings of his career (6.2).

Run support, another factor beyond the control of a pitcher, also went Buchholz’s way. The Red Sox scored 5.65 runs a game for him, the sixth-best mark in the American League. But even when the Sox were held down, Buchholz flourished, winning three games when they scored one or two runs.

“I think that happens,’’ manager Terry Francona said yesterday when asked if Buchholz was somewhat lucky. “But I think if you’re around the plate and guys put the ball in play, I don’t know that’s supposed to even out.’’

The researchers say it will. Bill James, a senior Red Sox adviser, projects Buchholz to go 13-9 with a 3.54 ERA. Most statistical projections are roughly the same.

“I don’t know the stats, but I know the guy got better as a pitcher last year,’’ said Carl Crawford, who faced Buchholz while a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. “We used to lay off his changeup and wait for his fastball and we had pretty good luck with that. But last year he had other pitches he could go to. He was tougher to get a good swing on.

“We faced him a lot as he came up and I think he’s different now and better than he was before.’’

Buchholz had great success with his two-seam fastball last season, getting 24 double plays. That helped to overcome his relative lack of strikeouts.

“The two-seamer inducing contact at times is good,’’ Francona said. “He’s got the stuff to strike out guys, but we’re happy when he’s running that two-seamer down and low and he’s getting that ground ball for double plays.’’

The lack of strikeouts was somewhat of a surprise given that Buchholz averaged 94.1 miles per hour with his fastball, third-best in the AL behind Detroit’s Justin Verlander (95.4) and Tampa Bay’s David Price (94.6). He also threw 22 percent of his pitches at 95 m.p.h. or better, the best mark on the staff.

“I still want those grounders,’’ said Buchholz, who induced two last night. “But I think as I get older and know the hitters better, I’ll get some more strikeouts, too.’’

The odds are good that some of that good fortune will spin backward on Buchholz this season. Those balls in play that landed in gloves will hit grass in the outfield or clear the fence. But he is confident in his ability to pitch through that.

“Some things you can’t control,’’ Buchholz said. “But I think I can be a better pitcher. That I can control.’’

Strikeouts are very much something a pitcher can control, taking luck out of the picture.

“He’s got the stuff to strike people out,’’ Lester said. “I got better as I got a little older in terms of strikeouts. The same could happen with Buch. We haven’t seen how good he can be, even with how good he was last year.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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