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2018 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews #4: Clay Buchholz

If there was a ‘Pittie for Pleasant Surprise of the Year, Clay would win, in a land-slide.

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Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
  • 2018 rating: 8.36
  • 2017 rating: N/A
  • 2018 salary: $1.2 million (approx)
  • 2018 performance: 7-2, 2.01 ERA, 98.1 IP, 80 H, 25 R, 22 ER, 9 HR, 22 BB, 81 SO
  • 2019 status: free-agent

“You live and learn, and most of all you learn from failure. Before you face adversity, you don’t know how to handle it. And I’ve faced a lot of it. All in all, the bumpy roads and bad times have helped me. They’ve propelled me forward.”
Clay Buchholz

If you’d said at the start of the year, that 2018 Clay Buchholz would be worth more to the D-backs than 2017 J.D. Martinez, I’d have looked at you VERY strangely. It’s especially remarkable, considering he wasn’t even in the major leagues on Opening Day, or anywhere in the Diamondbacks’ organization. But that’s exactly what bWAR tells us: Buchholz was worth 3.2 wins, compared to Martinez’s 2.6 wins - and cost the team nothing in prospects, as well as about one-quarter of J.D’s salary. Indeed, Clay set a franchise record, giving the team its best ERA ever by any pitcher throwing 80 or more innings in a season. Here are the top 10 such years. [A lot of Randy Johnson, to no-one’s surprise!]

Best D-backs pitchers, 80+ IP

Rk Player ERA IP Year G GS W L H R ER BB SO HR
Rk Player ERA IP Year G GS W L H R ER BB SO HR
1 Clay Buchholz 2.01 98.1 2018 16 16 7 2 80 25 22 22 81 9
2 Byung-Hyun Kim 2.04 84.0 2002 72 0 8 3 64 20 19 26 92 5
3 Randy Johnson 2.32 260.0 2002 35 35 24 5 197 78 67 71 334 26
4 Randy Johnson 2.48 271.2 1999 35 35 17 9 207 86 75 70 364 30
5 Randy Johnson 2.49 249.2 2001 35 34 21 6 181 74 69 71 372 19
6 Oscar Villarreal 2.57 98.0 2003 86 1 10 7 80 40 28 46 80 6
7 Randy Johnson 2.60 245.2 2004 35 35 16 14 177 88 71 44 290 18
8 Randy Johnson 2.64 248.2 2000 35 35 19 7 202 89 73 76 347 23
9 Brandon Webb 2.84 180.2 2003 29 28 10 9 140 65 57 68 172 12
10 Ian Kennedy 2.88 222.0 2011 33 33 21 4 186 73 71 55 198 19

Buchholz did spend spring training in Arizona, as a member of the Kansas City Royals, with whom he signed a minor-league contract in March. He had missed virtually all of 2017 with a flexor strain in his throwing arm, and this was his attempt at a comeback season. He pitched well in the remainder of the pre-season, but was assigned to the minors to continue his work. When April ended, and he had not been called up, Buchholz exercised an opt-out clause in his contract and became a free-agent. With the D-backs needing help, due to the loss for the season of Taijuan Walker, Mike Hazen - who was familiar with Buchholz from the Red Sox - signed the pitcher to a minor-league contract on May 4.

By the time Clay made his Diamondbacks’ debut a little more than two weeks later, we were very pleased to see him. This was simply because he took the spot in the rotation occupied previously by, first, Kris Medlen, and then Troy Scribner. They had combined to allow nine earned runs over 7.2 innings, on 13 hits and 10 walks, so we were happy simply to have someone on the mound who was #NotKrisMedlen. And after those two, Buchholz’s debut appearance was like a glass of fine Cabernet Sauvignon, after being waterboarded with a case of Mad Dog 20/20. In his first start (above), Clay pitched five innings of one-run ball, holding the Mets to two hits.

His second again allowed a pair of hits and one run, as Buchholz threw six innings in Oakland. He had been lucky - over those two outings, his BABIP was an unsustainable .067. But the peripherals started to follow in his third outing, where he again allowed one run, this time over seven frames, and struck out nine Marlins while walking one. That gave Clay his first major-league victory since Sep 21, 2016, and with the exception of a speed-bump against the Pirates on June 12, Buchholz continued to pitch well. He didn’t allow many free passes, walking barely two per nine innings (MLB average = 3.25), got ahead in counts (68% first-pitch strikes), and his hard-hit rate of 38.1% was the lowest of our regular starters.

Clay missed a month with a strained oblique, but came back stronger than ever, peaking on August 16 in San Diego (above). He threw one of two complete games tossed by Arizona this season, on five hits and no walks. It was his first nine-inning effort since Independence Day 2015 in Boston, opening a spectacular stretch. He had five consecutive starts allowing zero or one earned runs, a streak not surpassed since the D-backs’ inaugural season, when Andy Benes had six in a row [Buchholz’s five matched that of Robbie Ray and Patrick Corbin in 2017, as well as Brandon Webb (2007) and Randy Johnson (2002)]. Overall, his line was:
Clay Buchholz: 34.1 IP, 23 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 6 BB, 26 SO, 2 HR, 0.79 ERA

Unfortunately, the streak and Clay’s season came to an abrupt end on September 13, with the D-backs fighting for playoff daylight. While warming up in the bullpen, he felt tightness in his throwing elbow, and had to be scratched from the scheduled start. A subsequent MRI showed a flexor mass strain, the same area of his arm which brought an end to Buchholz’s 2017 campaign. It ended his season prematurely again, although unlike last time, there was no apparent need for surgery: rest and an injection of platelet-rich plasma to help the healing process was the prescribed treatment here, and Buchholz is expected to be ready for spring training next year.

The question of with whom he may be pitching, remains to be decided, Clay having become a free-agent at the end of last season. Although the question of health would have to be answered first, it initially appeared that the player was definitely interested in returning to Arizona. Clay said, “It’s a lot easier going into a clubhouse in spring knowing everybody rather than a new one... when you already have a bond and relationship with people in the clubhouse.” However, the additions, first of Merrill Kelly and then Luke Weaver to the rotation, appear at this point to have filled the slots which were opened by the loss to free-agency of Buchholz and Patrick Corbin.

The key words, of course, are “at this point.” If, for example, the team moves to trade away Zack Greinke, and doesn’t get a starting pitcher back, then there would be another spot in need of being filled. Given how well he pitched for Arizona in 2018, learning to pitch with diminished stuff (his average fastball this year was 90.2 mph, compared to 92.1 with the Red Sox in 2016), we could do a lot worse than look at bringing Clay back in such a scenario. Regardless, we thank Buchholz for his service - and in particular, for saving us from having to endure the likes of Medlen and Scribner every fifth day.