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Unsung Diamondbacks Hero of the Year: Clay Buchholz

Party like it’s 2013

San Francisco Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

I was kinda hoping someone else would win the award, mostly because I already wrote about Buchholz in detail. I toyed with the idea of simply copy-pasting my previous article, and seeing if anyone noticed. After all, this was a pitcher who, when the D-backs got him on May 6, was deemed not even worth an article here reporting on the news. At the time, we we far more concerned about Paul Goldschmidt’s slump. The sole mention of the signing was a secondary note in Snake Bytes during a paragraph about us sending down Kris Medlen. “Mike Hazen also went out and obtained Clay Buchholz on a minor league deal to provide additional rotation depth, a player he is familiar with from his days in Boston.”

Discussion of Buchholz joining Arizona in the comment section? Zero.

It’s kinda understandable. The pitcher hasn’t been effective in the majors since 2015, with an ERA over the following two seasons of 5.15. He’d missed virtually all of 2017 with injury, and wasn’t able to get a contract anywhere over the winter. It was not until March 20 that he signed a minor-league contract with the Kansas City Royals. and unsurprisingly, was not able to claim a roster spot there. He was sent to the minors at the end of spring training, but Buchholz felt he was better than that, and when he hadn’t been called up by the end of the first month, exercised his opt-out and became a free-agent. Which is where Hazen was re-united with his former player.

Why did Arizona need him? Going into the season, our starting pitching depth was an area of concern, and it didn’t take long for this weakness to be exposed. We made it three turns through the rotation before Taijuan Walker was lost for the season to Tommy John, Matt Koch becoming his replacement. When Robbie Ray could record only four outs in his start on April 29, and had to go on the DL with a right oblique strain, Arizona as in trouble. Kris Medlen’s first start was a disaster (the pitcher retired entirely from the game thereafter), and may have hastened the team’s signing of Buchholz. He couldn’t start immediately, but Troy Scribner proved little better as a replacement.

Therefore, by the time Clay made his 2018 major-league debut on May 20, in New York against the Mets, D-backs fans were hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. given the failures of the previous two reclamation projects. While the Diamondbacks lost both of Buchholz’s starts in May, very little of that was on him, as the offense mustered a total of one run across the two games. Buchholz held the opposition two four hits and two runs (both on solo home-runs) over the 11 innings he pitched. Though there was still reason for concern, as those outings saw Buchholz record a minute and unsustainable .067 batting average on balls in play, with only five strikeouts.

But it turned out the player was just adjusting back to life in the big leagues, after more than a year away from a major-league mound. His next appearance was another one-run outing, this one over seven innings in Miami, picking up his first victory since 2016. And Clay had a much more impressive 9:1 K:BB ratio there. That set the pattern. All told, of Buchholz’s 16 starts for Arizona (not including his final one, which is technically included in his stats, even though he never took the mound), he allowed three or fewer runs in all but one, and two or fewer in 13 of 16. The team only went 8-8, but the result depended entirely on the offense: if they scored four or fewer, Arizona always lost; five or more and they always won.

We achieved peak Buchholz on the night of August 15 in San Diego, when Clay threw one of only two complete games for the Diamondbacks this season. On this occasion, he got the support he needed, with Arizona putting up a five-spot in the top of the first, and Buchholz was in complete control thereafter. He took a shutout into the eighth inning, where he allowed a two-out solo home-run to Hunter Renfroe. As a result, Clay had to settle for a mere complete-game five hitter, on 112 pitches, with no walks and six strikeouts. It started a sequence of five starts covering 34.1 innings, where Buchholz allowed just three earned runs (0.79 ERA), held batters to a .190 average and had a K:BB of 26:6.

Unfortunately, there was an unhappy ending to his season. While warming up before his start on September 13, Clay felt tightness in his throwing arm, and was pulled from the game. It turned out to be a strain of his flexor, the same issue - albeit a lesser injury - which ended his 2017 campaign. If not for this, Buchholz would have rebuilt his value and had a good shot at a nice, multi-year contract in free-agency this winter. Instead, he’s likely in a similar state as last winter: though this ailment is less severe, it happened at the end of the year, rather than the beginning. He’s first going to have to prove his fitness to any potential employers, which is a pity: after what he did for the D-backs, he deserved a better fate.

Contemplate what life might have been like for Arizona without Buchholz. Presuming Mike Hazen wouldn’t have thrown young prospects Taylor Clarke or Alex Young into the fire, it would probably have been one of the other main starters for Reno who got the call after the failures of Medlen and Scribner. The results would likely have been little if any less ugly. The most active starters available for Arizona, pitching in Triple-A last year were as follows.

  • Jake Buchanan: 26 starts/ 1 relief appearance, 5.17 ERA
  • Neftali Feliz: 12 starts/16 relief appearances, 4.81 ERA
  • Anthony Vasquez: 9 starts/9 relief appearances, 5.57 ERA
  • Bradin Hagens: 8 starts/8 relief appearances, 7.74 ERA

Collectively, that’s a 5.53 ERA for the Reno Aces: even by Pacific Coast League standards, that’s not good, given the league average was 4.60. It’s doubtful the 16 starts Buchholz made would have been anything close to 8-8, if they’d been made by those pitchers. No-one who endured the Lovecraftian sense of creeping dread which was Kris Medlen’s outing, can have any doubts about the saving throw Clay Buchholz provided for Arizona fan sanity this season.