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For Buchholz, it's a learning curve

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 26, 2009 10:35 AM

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Clay Buchholz has made it almost all the way back, and so the best thing for him now is to stop. Take pause. There is simply no point in destroying what it has taken an entire winter to rebuild.

Continuing his resurgent spring yesterday with a six-inning stint against the Cincinnati Reds in Sarasota, Buchholz allowed three hits and just one unearned run in the Sox’ 2-1 victory. In five starts this Grapefruit League season, Buchholz is now 2-0 with a 0.46 ERA. The Red Sox do not need a fifth starter until April 12 of the regular season, and Buchholz should be the man if the Sox were to base their decision solely on merit.

But they won't. And they shouldn't.

Disappointed? Don’t be. The Red Sox are doing the right thing here. The whirlwind career of Clay Buchholz began with a late-season stop at Dunkin’ Donuts in 2007 that produced a 3-1 record, 1.59 ERA and the thrill of a no-hitter, but he was collecting cans in the parking lot less than a year later. Buchholz’s career so far has been a series of meteoric climbs and precipitous falls, and what the Red Sox need to do now is to put the kid on level ground, get him to set his feet, and continue in the right direction on the long journey toward a productive career.

At the big-league level right now, Buchholz has a lot more to lose by failing than he does to gain by succeeding, which is why the Sox shouldn’t even consider him an option for the majors until his confidence is unbreakable.

Do you really think he’s there yet?

Do you?

Last year, his official rookie campaign, Buchholz was nothing short of a train wreck. In 76 innings covering 16 appearances and 15 starts, Buchholz went a dreadful 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA, allowing an unthinkable 136 baserunners. Optimists might have chalked Buchholz’s difficulties up to nothing more than the usual growing pains of a young pitcher, but the problems went far deeper than that.

How bad was it? Buchholz’s ineptitude was historic. Since the start of the 1939 season, only one first- or second-year pitcher in history (Lee Guetterman, 1986) pitched as many innings as Buchholz and posted a higher ERA (7.34). Joining Guetterman and Buchholz in the no-so-fab-five are such luminaries as Troy Herriage, Steve Baker and Dan Perkins, now among baseball’s all-time quicker-picker-uppers.

Like paper towels, big league teams bought 'em, used 'em, and threw 'em away.

Here, in Boston, many missed the point. For all of the comparisons that might have been made between Buchholz's struggles and those early-career problems of Tom Glavine and, say, Greg Maddux, neither was quite that bad during his rookie or second season. Glavine went 7-17 with a 4.56 ERA in 1988, the first season in which he threw at least as many innings as Buchholz did in 2008. As for Maddux, he went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA a year earlier; the 1987 season was his rookie campaign with the Chicago Cubs.

Interestingly, his 2008 season was very similar to the first year of another former Braves ace who debuted more than two decades ago -- one who happens to be Buchholz's teammate now. In 1988, John Smoltz went 2-7 with a 5.48 ERA for the lowly Braves, allowing a gruesome 10 home runs in 64 innings. His WHIP that season (1.67) was slightly lower than Buchholz's last year (1.76), but he struck out far fewer batters (37, while Buchholz whiffed 72 hitters in '08, an encouraging sign.) While the circumstances weren't entirely similar -- Smoltz was just 21 and had no previous big-league experience in '88 -- it is worth noting that Buchholz has a 20-year-veteran teammate who went through similar growing pains in his professional youth.

For now, Buchholz finds himself in that expansive gap somewhere between Guetterman and Glavine, perhaps the busiest intersection of all career crossroads. Even the Red Sox really don’t know which way the kid is going to go. The Sox believe Buchholz can be a successful big league starter capable of more extraordinary things, but they also know he could be the next Kevin Morton. In the baseball world, there are blind optimists and hopeless pessimists, and the good news in Boston is that the Red Sox are run by grounded realists who understand the need to avoid both extremes.

At this stage, after all, we have a pretty good grasp on how the Red Sox view Buchholz. By all indications, they have not been willing to part with him for Texas catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Yet they happily would have sacrificed him in the fantasy of reacquiring Hanley Ramirez. He's too promising to give away for another unproven prospect, yet too brittle to rely upon at the moment.

Last August, just days before he was demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket following a beating at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles, Buchholz turned 24 years old. Even after rejoining Double-A Portland (where he pitched in early 2007) for the final weeks of the season, Buchholz arrived at spring training this year with more career innings in the big leagues (98 2/3) than he has at Triple A (82 1/3). The wise thing would be to let Buchholz go back to the minors, where the reconstruction can continue, where the Red Sox can ensure that he has every chance of becoming what they believe he can be.

If Buchholz fails badly at Triple A, after all, he probably never was what the Sox thought he could be.

But if they bring up him now and he fails in Boston, they might very well destroy any chance at all.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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