Clay Buchholz is off to a horrid start in the early goings of his 2012 season. He does have 2 wins but his ERA sits at 8.87 and his WHIP is a disgusting 1.93. After his last start against the Minnesota Twins there were reports that he looked much better, but in all honesty, besides some sharper movement on his breaking stuff I thought it was another weak effort. If Buchholz were to leave the same pitches in the same locations versus the likes of Nick Swisher, Jeter and other AL East hitters, all of those singles yielded to the slap happy Twins would have resulted in doubles and Home-Runs. So, what is the problem with Clay right now. There seem to be many. Some are citing his mechanics, his discomfort for throwing the change-up and last year’s back injury as the causes. I believe his reliance on the cut-fastball he developed back in 2010 is the cause of his problems. I refer to his cutter as Fool’s Gold and would rather see him spend his time playing on <a href="partycasino.com " target="_blank">Party Casino than to continuously take chances throwing this pitch in key 2 strike counts. Once again I turn to Pitch F/X data found on Brooks Baseball as I did with my Tim Lincecum breakdown last week to break down these issues.
Let’s start with the cutter and it’s overall effect on his velocity. A cut fastball is held very similar to a 4-seam fastball. You use the same seams (across the horseshoe seams with the opening facing left for a RHP) yet with a cutter you slide your index and middle finger over to the right side of the ball. The pitch is released with almost the same arm action as the 4-seamer with the difference being the extra pressure on the ball with the middle finger and a slight twist of the forearm. These little nuances end up costing pitchers some MPH on their 4-seam fastballs and prevents them from throwing through the catcher instead of to the catcher as I mentioned in the Tim Lincecum article. I also firmly believe that the cut fastball grip causes muscle memory issues that can adversely affect the comfort of throwing other pitches thus changing movement, so we will look at those results for Buchholz and finally mechanics as well as looking at Buchholz’s cutter itself.
Here are the Velocity drops for Buchholz in comparison to Beckett and Lester, who also rely on this pitch often.
As you can see Buchholz has seen the quickest and most significant drop in velocity, especially considering how early it is in his career and taking overall innings pitched into account. Clay had not yet thrown a cutter in 20098 and 2010 was his first full season as well as his most successful as he posted a 17-7 W/L with an ERA of 2.33. Some of his MPH decrease can be attributed to a back injury as well but we’ll get into the mechanics further along in the article.
Of course I am aware that fastballs should decrease over time, but at such a rapid decline and in the primes of their pitching careers? Naturally I had to take a peak at other MLB pitchers to see if they all suffered similar results and I was surprised to find that pitchers such as Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay didn’t incorporate this pitch until later in their careers and not until after they had already seen a drop in MPH. The remaining MLB pitchers who use their cutter’s at a similar rate as the Red Sox pitchers do seem to be in relief roles. This may just be minor but I thought it was interesting to note and worth a look at. Despite the loss in fastball MPH for Buchholz he has dropped his velocity on his off-speed stuff to keep the change in MPH consistent. His change-up is also down 2 MPH as is his Curveball over the same time frame. While the difference between these pitches is still in effect the loss in speed on his change may be causing it to move a bit less plus as I mentioned before that middle finger pressure may be affecting the tail on his change.
Below are the changes in movement on his pitches since 2010 when Buchholz started using the cutter and using it on at least 19-22% of his total pitches thrown. The movement below charts the horizontal and vertical in inches.
The slider is a pitch that Clay scrapped when he developed his cutter and looking at the lack of horizontal break on the pitch it is no wonder why. Moving at just 9/10ths of an inch is a pretty flat spun pitch and results in it hanging. If he is going to continue using this pitch I highly recommend only doing so as a backdoor pitch vs left-handed hitters.
What really concerns me on this chart is the lack of tail on all of his pitches since the cutter became an oft used option. Here is where that middle finger pressure and slight wrist snap at the release point is killing Clay. The 4-seam, sinker and change-up are all seeing a serious change in movement. His change-up which was once known as his best pitch has become so flat that he is barely using it now. He once used this ground ball and 2 strike pitch at a 19% rate which is now down to just 6%. When it was an effective pitch for Buchholz it was ringing up a 22% swing and miss rate, now down to just 6.90%.
The curve seems to be gaining horizontal break and why? Again that middle finger pressure is very similar on his curve as it on a cutter. When you throw a curve all of the pressure on the ball is with that finger. In fact when you lose the ability to get over the ball on that pitch most pitchers will start throwing it with the index finger off the ball until right before they release it. Clearly the cutter is something that Clay believes is helping him, but as you can see the impact of this pitch on his repertoire is of the negative variety.
Why has Buchholz become so reliant on this pitch then? Well, it does have the most movement breaking at 3.56 inches across the plate, but it is also resulting in the most Line Drives against and the highest swing %. He has the most control over this pitch, not command..control. He throws it for more strikes than any other pitch, but inside the zone it often ends up in the middle of the plate. There is also the issue that Beckett and Lester have thrown their cutters with an enormous amount of success, however there are a few glaring differences between their cutters and Clay’s. Lester and Beckett both throw their cutter’s from almost the exact same release point. Both of those pitcher’s also see their cutter’s start breaking from a 4-seam fastball plane within 20 feet from home plate while Clay’s cutter starts breaking 23 feet away from the plate. For comparison purposes Mariano Rivera’s cutter breaks at 16 feet and then seems to kick into another break about 8 feet from the plate. I am not making that up either. When I checked on Mo’s cutter I laughed at how hopeless a hitter is with just 0.07 seconds to react to the second break his cutter gets. As always I have trajectory breakdowns of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz to show the differences in their pitches from their last starts all vs the Twins.
The graph shows the 4-seam as the green line, the 2-seam as orange and the cutter as yellow.As I said before you can see Beckett’s cutter break from a different plane than both his 4-seam fastball as well as his 2-seam fastball around 17-18 feet away from the plate. Very effective even with just a 0.74 inch break on the pitch. Also notable is the fact that it is coming out of Beckett’s hand at virtually the same spot.
Now let’s look at Jon Lester’s cutter which is absolutely ridiculous in every way.
This time we are looking at the Green line for his 4-seam and the orange on his cutter. Lester’s cutter breaks off plane from the 4-seam about 13 feet away from the plate and breaks on average about 2.44 inches. Look at Lester’s release points on all his pitches. His ability to repeat his mechanics is other worldly.
Finally let’s look at Clay Buchholz.
Here we are looking at the Green line in comparison with the Yellow line. The first thing I should mention is that out of the three pitchers, Beckett, Lester and Buchholz, Clay has the most movement on the cutter at 3.56 inches, That is a lot of movement but as I mentioned earlier it isn’t how much the cutter moves as much as it is when it moves. Buchholz’s cutter starts to break differently from his fastball between 23-25 feet away from the plate which is way to early. Making matters worse is that he releases it almost 3 inches away from his 4 seam fastball and away from his body. Can you say tipping a pitch. Jenny Dell commented on his mechanics in NESN’s last broadcast during Clay’s start and here we can see that the cutter is the only pitch coming out of his hand at a different slot. This is a major problem. The first thing a good hitter is taught when a pitcher is warming up is to find the fastball plane. You can do this when he is warming up in the bullpen or on the mound before innings while you are in the on-deck circle. Clay’s cutter is far to easy to see. When you combine all of these things with the fact that his cut fastball is costing him MPH, movement and command in the strike zone, I think it is safe to say that Clay should start tucking this pitch into his back pocket more often. Many experts will continue to blame the back for his issues but that is too easy of a scapegoat. His vertical movement on all pitches looks fine which tells me his follow through is in tact, but this one pitch has become a crutch for Clay and I’m hoping somebody notices the effect it is having on almost all of his pitches.
As always Questions and comments are welcome below. What do you think are Clay’s issues?