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Touching All the Bases

Clay Buchholz Has Been an Enigma His Entire Career, but This Season Really Takes the Prize

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It took a little bit of poking around, and the context is downright hideous, but we finally have found one aspect of Clay Buchholz's pig's breakfast of a performance in 2014 that mirrors his sensational 2013 season.

Last season, Buchholz allowed 75 hits. This season, Buchholz has allowed 75 hits.

See ... he's just the same! Nothing to see here. All is well with the Red Sox' presumed No. 2 starter. Say, Larry, are World Series tickets on sale yet?

Ah, hell, you know better. The truth is in the context, and the context in this case tells you all you need to know about Buchholz's mysterious collapse this season.

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Yes, he's allowed the same amount of hits as he did last season. That is ... all of last season.

Those 75 hits came in 108.1 innings a year ago, for a nifty 6.2 H/9 rate. This year, he's given up 75 hits in 50 innings, and mix in the 24 walks (he walked 36 all of last season) and what you're left with is a 1.98 WHIP.

Buchholz, who was one of the stingiest pitchers in baseball last season -- and probably the best pitcher in the American League at this point a season ago en route to a 12-1 record and a Guidryian 1.74 ERA -- is now allowing two baserunners per inning. He has a 7.02 ERA, the worst in baseball among qualified starters, and after Sunday's three-inning, eight-walk mess against the Braves, it only seems to be getting worse.

In that search for context, I was tempted to compare him to John "Way Back" Wasdin, whose penchant for giving up long home runs during his four seasons in Boston has left him perhaps unfairly designated as a barometer for inept Red Sox pitching.

Then I looked at Wasdin's numbers, and Buchholz's ineptitude this season was magnified even more. His WHIP this season is .67 higher -- a significant gap -- than Wasdin's as a member of the Red Sox. My apologies, Way Back. You were never this bad.

As Peter Abraham pointed out in his story this morning, the eight walks were the most by a Red Sox pitcher since Daisuke Matsuzaka walked eight on May 27, 2010.

Now that's just the perfect name to dredge up here. That's who, in terms of performance and aggravation, Buchholz has become.

Right now, he is the most enigmatic, exasperating Red Sox pitcher to stall on the mound at Fenway since Matsuzaka was refusing to challenge hitter after hitter during his mostly disappointing six-year run with the Red Sox.

Buchholz? More like Texas Dice-K.

Sheesh, not even John Lackey, who submitted the worst single season of any Red Sox starter in the modern era in 2011 (6.41 ERA, 1.61 WHIP), was this brutal. And he was pitching with a shot elbow.

The explanation for Buchholz's woes isn't so simple, apparently. He says he's physically healthy, which in a sense is more alarming than if he had a serious injury -- at least that would provide some explanation for his ineptitude. That would provide a starting point to begin to repair him.

Right now, it's as if everyone -- Buchholz, manager John Farrell, the bright and thorough pitching coach Juan Nieves -- is stumped by what's happened to him. It would be easy to suggest that the Red Sox should have shut him down a few starts ago.

That they didn't suggests some level of hope or expectation that he would find his missing changeup, a consistent release point, a boost in self-confidence, that he would solve whatever the thing or combination of things is that has turned him into the lousiest starting pitcher in baseball, and all would suddenly be right again.

That may have happened before -- on this date in 2012, he had a 7.19 ERA after 10 starts. He promptly won all four of his starts in June, including allowing just three earned runs and 15 hits while whiffing 22 in his first 24 innings that month over three starts.

It's hard to believe that sort of instant turnaround is in the cards this June. He was so bad yesterday, such a mess in so many different ways, that the Red Sox really have no other option other than to put him on the disabled list and try to solve his issues away from a major-league mound.

You'd like to believe it's a solvable mechanical issue. Buchholz suggested yesterday that he hasn't had the right feel for his pitches since tweaking his mechanics last season upon returning from the mysterious neck/shoulder problem that cost him much of the summer.

"Whenever you're hurt you try to throw a way that doesn't hurt and that might not be exactly the same way you pitched prior to that,'' he said. "There's a little rust in between last year's mechanics and this year's mechanics.

"Even in spring training, I wasn't 100 percent in tune. Hard to do it during the season. In the bullpen I felt really good commanding. It's got to be second nature. I have to get to the point where I'm not thinking about anything."

Well, good to know he's still a Pregame Bullpen All-Star. I don't doubt that lingering effects from last season are are part of the problem. Ot might explain his AWOL changeup and his maddening command issues. But it's hard to believe, given Buchholz's history of fluctuating results, that it's that simple.

He has ability to envy, but too often during six-plus seasons with the Red Sox, there's been something inexplicable holding him back. Look at his baseball-reference page -- he's never been consistent in a conventional way from season to season.

He pitched the no-hitter in 2007, capping a dominant ascent through the minors that season, entered 2008 as a consensus top-five prospect in baseball ... and melted down to the point that he was back in the minors in mid-May. In 2009, he was eventually fine (111 adjusted ERA), but there was telling concern about how he would handle the mental pressure of starting a playoff game.

In 2010, he set the standard for what he should always be -- he won 17 games and just missed the ERA title (2.33). Save for the first half of last season, he's never matched that, with injuries and sporadic ineffectiveness limiting him in 2011 and '12. You'd have to create the word enigma to describe him if it didn't exist.

Buchholz strikes me as an overthinker but not necessarily a deep thinker, a guileless person whose guile on the mound depends entirely on the health of his arm and his repertoire.

I don't think there was anything particularly troubling to be found in his postgame comments yesterday in which he suggested the heat and running the bases affected him.
("I had a long inning and then I wasn't ready for the heat. I think it got to me a little bit,'' he said.) It was just sort of typical Buchholz, harmless honesty that sounded like an excuse, a Nuke LaLoosh-level rookie mistake. I half expected him to say he had trouble breathing out of his eyelids.

Against my better judgment, I believe the Red Sox, with 113 games remaining, have a decent shot at winning the American League East and making the playoffs. But they need Buchholz -- an effective Buchholz -- to make that run, and I am skeptical about seeing that version of him again this year.

He needs some time away from the big leagues to solve the latest puzzling development in his good but not-as-good-as-it-should-be career. The Red Sox might be able to allow him to work out his issues in the majors if they were playing well as a whole. But they're not, and he needs to get it right elsewhere before he takes another turn here.

Hey, but at least the Red Sox are 1-0 in his last one start, right?