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Is Clay Buchholz for real?

Apr 26, 2013, 7:15 PM EDT

Clay Buchholz AP

If you had Clay Buchholz being the first pitcher to five wins, please collect your prize. The Red Sox hurler, now 28, has had a great start to the season as seems to be the case for a lot of pitchers on the Beantown roster. Buchholz struck out ten Astros last night and has yet to allow more than two runs in any start thus far in the season. He is looking like a new-and-improved pitcher, perhaps better than the one we saw finish sixth in AL Cy Young voting in 2010, when he posted a 2.33 ERA.

The most striking change for Buchholz has been his strikeout rate. He has traditionally hovered between 16-17 percent, which is a shade below the American League average. In his first 38 innings so far in 2013, it’s at 27 percent. Marc Normandin of Red Sox blog Over the Monster asks the obvious question: can we trust his strikeout rate? His research shows that Buchholz’s sudden improvement wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Since 1993, 17 pitchers — including Boston’s own Jon Lester — have seen their K/PA increase by at least eight percentage points from one year to the next, minimum 100 innings in each season. The quality of these pitchers themselves varies, but that’s not the key question with Buchholz: what’s important is that jumps in strikeout rate like the one he is currently experiencing do happen, even if they seem unbelievable at first glance.

Consider that, plus the fact that it’s been expected Buchholz would eventually evolve as a starter once he grew into his stuff — that whole fractured spine thing kind of interrupted his growth as a pitcher, though.

Though strikeout rate is one of the best predictors for a pitcher’s success, I have a hard time buying Buchholz in the 27 percent area. The only pitchers that wound up there last year were Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish. I would, however, buy an improvement that puts him in the 20 percent area, which is certainly something for Red Sox fans to get excited about nonetheless.

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