The Blue Jays could conceivably use an opener in 2019. Might new addition Clay Buchholz factor into that decision?
Ever since the Blue Jays named Charlie Montoyo as their manager, many began to wonder if Montoyo, who’d coached with the Tampa Bay Rays for over 15 years, would bring some of his former team’s progressive and bold baseball strategies with him north of the border.
Under manager Kevin Cash (who, interestingly enough, played parts of three seasons with the Blue Jays during his career as a catcher), the Rays implemented the now (in)famous opener strategy.
Though the league (and its fans) are rather divided as to whether or not the opener is “good” for baseball, many analysts, executives, and writers alike believe that, regardless of whether it pleases the fans, the opener will likely stay and, if nurtured correctly, continue to evolve as a genuine strategy.
Turn now to the Toronto Blue Jays, a team that, to put it lightly, has been rather behind when it comes to progressive strategic decisions. While the team has been using analytics effectively since Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro took hold of the franchise, the organization could be a little more open to strategic experiments.
Now the question becomes, “do the Blue Jays have a pitcher who can be an opener”? In a word, yes.
New signings Bud Norris (career 3.83 xFIP) and John Axford (3.58 xFIP) could serve as effective openers. Both pitchers can spot their fastballs effectively and, if conditioned and trained correctly, could pitch very smooth first innings to open up a ballgame.
Ryan Tepera (4.24 xFIP), might also get some looks in that department if Montoyo and company have faith in him as a genuine, high leverage reliever.
Okay, so it’s been established that, if they want to, the Blue Jays can use an opener and be successful in doing so. They have the arms that are capable of doing it, and it could very well become a part of their strategy.
But who will follow the opener? Who will pitch innings two through nine?
Enter Clay Buchholz. A longtime Boston Red Sox starting pitcher, who is perhaps famous for terrorizing the Blue Jays in their own building (2.63 career ERA in 106 innings at Rogers Centre), Buchholz might be the perfect arm to come out of the pen to pitch three, four, or even five innings in “relief” of an opener.
Opposing hitters have faced Buchholz for the first time in a game as a reliever 94 times. Of those 94 times, hitters have slashed a meagre .193/.277/.301 and have managed just 16 hits.
Expanding to larger sample sizes, Buchholz has faced hitters for the first time in a game (regardless of situation, relief/starter designation, etc…) a total of 1850 times, or roughly 616.2 innings.
Over those hypothetically formulated 616.2 frames, Buchholz has an ERA of 2.55 and has only allowed 416 hits (.252 average) and 163 walks (2.381 BB/9).
Facing Buchholz for the first time in a game, opposing hitters have also ground into 49 double plays (roughly one GIDP for every 38 at-bats).
On average in 2018, the best team in this department, the Minnesota Twins, grounded into 0.55 double plays per game, meaning it would take them 1.8 games (or 59.4 at-bats) to ground into one double play, on average.
Though this might be a rather obscure set of circumstances, Buchholz has induced 15% more double plays the first time through the order than the average MLB team.
Granted, Buchholz has a career 47.2% ground ball percentage, 3.2% higher than the current major-league average, per Fangraphs, but he still demonstrates an ability to get ground balls when it matters most, especially within the context of an opener.
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Buchholz’s respectable spin rates and his relatively low career FIP and xFIP numbers (3.86 and 4.00, respectively) make him a competent candidate even without speaking in contextual terms.
Of course, none of this matters if the Blue Jays don’t actually use an opener in games. So, it’s important to compare Buchholz to the aforementioned three opener candidates that the team could use in 2019.
Norris, Tepera and Axford all have average fastball velocities over 95 mph, while Buchholz’s heater usually sits in the 91-92 mph range. Buchholz has a circle change, which none of the other three utilize.
Buchholz also simply offers a different look on the mound. His explosive, compact delivery rivals the more traditional windup of Axford, while his tall stature differs from the shorter Bud Norris.
While the latter physical traits might be a slight stretch, it’s evident that Buchholz will offer AL East hitters a different look from the rest of the arms in the Blue Jays bullpen. This, of course, all depends on whether Buchholz joins the bullpen instead of making the starting rotation.
Regardless, Clay Buchholz should be an interesting name to watch as the Blue Jays brain trust moves around pieces of the organizational puzzle to find the right mix in 2019. If used correctly, Buchholz could be an underated offseason pickup that could net them some decent prospects in a mid-season trade.