A quick glance at Clay Buchholz’s career stats and you see that, eh, he wasn’t bad. Ninety wins, a couple All-Star selections, a 13-year career. The kind of run to tell the grandkids about.
He was supposed to be better than that, though. He was supposed to be a superstar, an ace, a legend. And if you take a closer look—sometimes, he pitched like one.
Selected by the Red Sox 42nd overall out of Angelina College in Texas in 2005, the right-hander tore through Boston’s system and was in the majors by 2007. His ERAs his first three years in the minors were 2.61, 2.42 and 2.44, respectively. He had 171 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings between two stops—including Triple-A Pawtucket—in 2007.
This kid was good.
And Baseball America thought so, too. They ranked him the 51st-best prospect in the sport going into 2007.
Making his big league debut on August 17, 2007, Buchholz went 6 innings against the Angels, allowing 8 hits and 3 earned runs. Despite winning the game, it was not a stellar start for the top prospect.
Perhaps he wouldn’t live up to the hype …
…never judge a book by its cover.
Facing Baltimore in his next showing, September 1, he silenced the bats of Nick Markakis, Miguel Tejada and the rest of that (admittedly mediocre) team, allowing no hits and just three walks to become the first pitcher to toss a no-no in his second career start since the White Sox Wilson Alvarez did it (also against Baltimore) in 1991.
He also had nine strikeouts in that game. Shades of Walter Johnson, anyone?
Then he earned another win in relief on September 6, not surrendering a run, and on September 19, his final appearance of the season, he allowed just one earned run in 4 2/3 innings.
In his first big league stint, Buchholz went 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA and 303 ERA+. He became the first starting pitcher to post an ERA+ that high in his first season (min. 20 IP) since the Orioles’ Bob Milacki in 1988. It’s only happened three times since 1950 (Cisco Carlos was the other, in 1967) and 11 times, ever, if you include available Negro league data. The last time a National Leaguer did it was in 1907.
Yeah, it’s a rare feat.
The folks at Baseball America were impressed. They ranked him #4 on their top 100 prospects list going into 2008. It’s hard to illustrate how elite that ranking is. He was placed on a pedestal higher than Clayton Kershaw (#7), Joey Votto (#44) and Max Scherzer (#66). Derek Jeter was once ranked #4. So was Chipper Jones.
And Baseball Prospectus liked him even more. They put him at number 2.
But even the best can let us down.
In 2008, he fell to 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA; in 76 innings, he allowed 93 hits. Whether it was pressure to perform or issues with mechanics or lingering health problems—he’d experienced shoulder fatigue the year before—he left the baseball world wondering, what the heck happened?
But the old Buchholz was still there. In the minors that year, he had a 2.30 ERA in 11 starts, averaging more than a strikeout per inning. He just didn’t show up on the big league stage.
2009 was an improvement, but it was like when your stocks tank and they’re working they’re way back up. Yes, it’s better than before, but still not where you want to be. In 16 starts, he was 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA. Once again, he performed like a future superstar in the minors, going 7-2 with a 2.36 mark in 99 innings.
He just needed to translate that to the majors.
In 2010, it looked like he finally arrived. Making 28 starts for Boston, Buchholz went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA and 187 ERA+. In 173 2/3 innings, he surrendered only 9 home runs. He was an All-Star. He earned Cy Young support. He was the first Sox pitcher to have a full season ERA that low or ERA+ that high since Pedro Martinez, and was just the third since 1944 to accomplish the feat. Babe Ruth did it. So did Cy Young and Smoky Joe Wood.
Buchholz was back, baby.
Or not. In 2011, he made just 14 starts and had a 3.48 ERA; his number in April was 5.33. In 2012, he was 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA. That year, he carried an ERA over nine into early May and a mark of 6.58 into June.
Superstardom was put on hold.
Briefly, once again, it seemed. Beginning 2013 with a 1.01 ERA through May 1, the resurgent hurler was 9-0 with a mark of 1.71 through June 8 … just to suffer a neck strain and miss the rest of the month, July, August, and early September. He returned to make four starts to finish the year and didn’t skip a beat—he lost just one game, on September 21, and was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA and 237 ERA+ in 16 games on the season.
The only other Red Sox starting pitcher with an ERA+ over 230 in a season of 15 games or more was Pedro Martinez, who did it in 1999 and 2000. Excluding Negro leaguers, it has only happened 13 times in the history of the game. The club includes Walter Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, Greg Maddux, Bob Gibson and Christy Mathewson.
Buchholz was back, baby. For real this time.
And again … or not. He was 8-11 with a 5.34 mark in 2014 and that began his spiral into mediocrity. From 2014 to 2017, he was 23-29 with a 4.73 ERA in 430 1/3 innings. On December 20, 2016, Boston gave up on him and traded him to the Phillies for a minor leaguer of no consequence, Josh Tobias.
After a poor two game stint with Philadelphia in 2017, he was given his walking papers after the season and joined the Royals, who ditched him in May 2018 before he could play a game. The Diamondbacks picked him up less than a week later, put him in their rotation and — oh yeah! Clay Buchholz was back, baby!
In 16 starts with them, he was 7-2 with a 2.01 ERA and 209 ERA+. Sure, it was a stunted campaign, but it was an unbelievable one—besides Buchholz, no Diamondbacks starter who played at least half a season has ever posted an ERA that low or an ERA+ that high. Not Randy Johnson. Not Curt Schilling.
You know what happened next. He was granted free agency the following season. The Blue Jays signed him. He went 2-5 with a 6.56 ERA in 12 starts.
There would be no next time. Buchholz rode his last rodeo in Toronto to conclude an underwhelming career. He finished with six seasons with ERAs over 4.50 and three of 6 or higher.
For half his career, or thereabouts, he was awful.
For a third of it, however, he was legendary. Between his 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2018 seasons, Buchholz tossed 403 innings and surrendered just 92 runs for a 2.05 ERA. He was 39-11, a winning percentage of .780. His lowest ERA+ was 187.
Here is a list of nine illustrious baseball names: Pedro Martinez, Walter Johnson, Satchel Paige, Randy Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Bill Foster, Lefty Grove. Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, or Hall of Fame-quality players all.
What do they have in common? They’re the only other starting pitchers with four or more seasons with an ERA+ of 180 or greater.
Buchholz is number ten.
Remove those Hall of Fame-level years from his ledger, and his career numbers look like this:
51 wins, 58 losses, 4.81 ERA.
Buchholz might be the best worst pitcher ever.