By Mark Lawrence, International Editor
Sydney, Australia. For quite a while now, there’s been significant concern about Boston’s pitchers and their apparent inability to perform consistently at the MLB level. One guy in particular seems to have been getting it in the neck on a fairly regular basis. But before we examine the misfortunes of one Clay Daniel Buchholz, let’s have a little physics lesson.
The basis of a pitcher’s success is, of course, the rare ability to get the ball through the strike zone without the batter being able to hit it – if you can’t hit, you can’t win. Simple. It’s a confluence of speed, accuracy and deceit. What looks like a 90mph fastball turns out to be an 80mph changeup. The fastball – the usual pitch of choice – is at the essence of the contest between hitter and hurler – and the physics behind it all is genuinely fascinating. That off-the-shelf 90mph fastball travels to the plate at around 130 feet per second. Wow. Given that the distance from mound to plate is a mere 60 feet, six inches, the hitter has a literal split second to make the decision to hit or not. On that basis, you’d have to wonder how anybody ever manages to hit a grounder much less a home run. But, somehow, they do.
Buchholz owns a pretty good four seam fastball. It can move at speeds between 90 to 94mph. His two seamer travels at 89-93mph, while his cutter’s range is 87-91. His go-to pitch (when he’s ahead in the count) is an 11-5 curveball that lopes in at 74-79mph. Oh, and he has a 79-81mph changeup, too. Not a bad pitching arsenal for the lanky young Texan, who once tossed a no-hitter for Boston in only his second major league start. So, what happened? Well, that no-hitter is almost ten years in the rear view now and his best season– arguably– was 2010, where he pitched 170-odd innings, went 17-7 and wound up with an ERA of 2.33–and that’s six seasons ago.
I found this guy on the Interwebs, a biomechanical engineer named Glenn Fleisig who studied pitching at the prestigious American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. Fleisig lined up a bunch of medical cadavers and – don’t ask me how – subjected their arms to the repeated, replicated pitching motion of a typical major league fast ball pitcher. Cutting a long story short, it turns out that the average ulnar collateral ligament, which connects the humerus (nothing funny here, folks) to the ulnar in the elbow– or something like tha – will snap at around 80 Newton meters (which is a unit of torque, apparently). And how many Newtons is your ace pitcher applying to his pitching arm with each fast ball? Yep – 80 units. And your ace is generally no stiff, either.
Back in June 2010, I recall being dragged into a Maine saloon to witness the debut of a young pitcher named Strasburg. As we watched him strike out an astounding 14 batters on the way to his first win, we all came to the inevitable conclusion that this kid would be absolutely world-class-unbeatable for many seasons to come, he was that good. Hell, he could throw in triple digits with apparent ease and reasonable accuracy. Of course he’d be great. Why wouldn’t he?
That was in June. In July, Strasburg went on the DL with – surprise, surprise – an inflamed shoulder. The next month it was announced that the 22 year old had – you guessed it – snapped that old ulnar collateral ligament and was done. He would later undergo Tommy John surgery and endure about a year and a half of rehab-and all because he tried to maintain that unmaintainable 80 Newton performance level.
All of this makes me think about the perceived decline in Buchholz’s performance. Strasburg is four years younger than Buchholz - maybe Clay’s trying to stay ahead of that inevitable surgery – and you can bet that if he’d pushed himself like Strasburg did earlier in his career, he would’ve been done a year or two back. He must know that and I believe he has acted accordingly. In the years since his stunning Boston debut, poor old Clay has suffered injuries ranging from back fractures to esophagitis (you could look it up) to a ‘gastrointestinal situation’– aka the Valentine ‘flu. These conditions don’t just happen - they’re the direct result of the stresses, physical and emotional, of working at one of the hardest jobs in Major League Baseball and trying not only to stay ahead of the curve but trying to meet the demands of the media and the hopes of the fans, as well.
We need to re-calibrate our expectations of players like Buchholz to a more realistic degree and try to get a sensible idea of just what it is they’re trying to do out there. Pitching at the MLB level is something that not even a single one of you reading this, could ever even faintly hope to do, admit it. Pitching a baseball really is that hard and that fraught with physical peril.
I don’t believe Clay Buchholz is anywhere near done just yet. But I do believe that the glory days of his early career are well behind him. There is no shame or disgrace in any of this, either – it’s just a fact of life. As the years pass, Clay will have increasing difficulty on the mound, just as I’ll have increasing difficulty bending down to tie my shoes. But at least I’ll be able to switch to loafers. Clay Buchholz may not have that luxury, but until that day comes I’m betting he’ll approach each game the same way he did on that hot August day back in 2007. Like a professional. So, let’s cut him a break and treat him like one.