It wasn’t too long ago that Boston Red Sox (first time) All-Star pitcher Clay Buchholz was trade bait. In fact, he was once one of the key ingredients to any number of possible trades in recent years (one of which allegedly included a deal to send him and others to San Diego for Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez last offseason). The righty was also not guaranteed a spot in Boston’s starting rotation coming into this season, given the veteran depth of starters they already had.
Buchholz famously pitched a no-hitter late in 2007 in his second career start, but had a rocky 2008 (2-9, with a 6.75 ERA in 15 starts, 16 games overall). When given another chance, he started to regain form again and truly mature as a big league starter in the second half of 2009, putting up a 7-4 record and a 4.21 ERA in 16 starts.
Look at him now. In his first full season as a starter in the five-man starting rotation (joining Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey), he has had an incredible season thus far, leading his the Sox staff and the American League with a 2.21 ERA, and sporting a team-leading 15 wins. The Sox are also 17-6 in games he starts.
Even though he missed about a month due to injury earlier in the season, Buchholz has pitched himself into the AL Cy Young Award race, joining the likes of Seattle’s ace Felix Hernandez (10-10, 2.47 ERA) and Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia (18-5, 3.14 ERA).
Now, wins are the most overrated stat in baseball and out of a pitcher’s control. Just ask poor Hernandez, who has (and deserves much better than) a .500 record pitching for a team with the worst offense in the big leagues. Therefore, it shouldn’t factor all that much when it comes to evaluating who the best pitcher is.
There are some other eye-opening stats, however, that have made me think Buchholz deserves to be catapulted above the rest for the ultimate AL pitching prize. Consider that before giving up one earned run yesterday in a no-decision against the Rays, he achieved a major league-leading 30 1/3 innings of consecutive scoreless innings pitched, a feat not only unexpected from an American League pitcher given the DHs and better overall hitters in the league, but quite frankly mindblowing – as is his 2.21 ERA – considering he pitches in the AL East, against top scoring and power-hitting Yankees, Blue Jays and Rays clubs.
It’s the longest stretch of not giving up an earned run since Pedro Martinez’s 35 scoreless innings streak in 2002. Buchholz’s ERA in the low two’s is also vintage Pedro-ish and nearly a full run better than Sabathia’s. Also note that Buchholz’s .222 BAA (batting average against) is not only tied for third in the AL but better than Sabathia’s (.247) and Hernandez’s (.225).
Sabathia may have the distinction of leading the AL in wins and not having lost a game yet in the new Yankee Stadium, but he has not been as dominant as Buchholz or even Hernandez (quietly) has been this season. But as of now, the only thing that may keep Buchholz from taking home the award this year is his lack of innings pitched, as he hasn’t cracked 150 yet (due to his time on the DL), while the other two have around 200.
You should reward what a pitcher has done on the field, not punish those who missed a handful of starts like Buchholz has. Unfortunately, history has shown that award voters will pick the elite pitcher with the most innings or the most wins, and that doesn’t bode well for the Boston right-hander. Pedro lost out on a Cy Young in 2003 to Toronto’s Roy Halladay for both of those very reasons, with Pedro finishing with a 14-4 record and only 186 innings pitched versus Halladay’s 22-7 record, 266 innings pitched and 3.25 ERA. Clearly, Pedro had the better season, but he started in seven less games (36 for Halladay, 29 for Pedro).
Will history repeat itself if these three pitchers finish with similar numbers to what they have now? Meaning, will AL Cy Young Award voters simply hand Sabathia the award based mainly on his win total and durability? I hope not. Because the way I see it, he should come in third in the race, behind Clay Buchholz and Felix Hernandez, even if neither of the latter two crack the 20-win mark. And if Buchholz doesn’t end up the winner, Hernandez should.