It’s the second of August, the Boxing Day of baseball. The buyers have bought, the sellers have sold, the fans have gnashed and fist-pumped. The players have been given their hugs and their plane tickets, published their thank yous on Twitter and the local paper, the various power rankings have been revisited and renumbered. Names have been tested, sounded out the way preteen girls don the last names of teenage heartthrobs. The games continue, even grow in importance, but there’s a psychological lull, like a racetrack straightaway.
That’s not for lack of activity. Plenty of players enjoy the inconvenience of relocation well into late summer; last year alone featured such recognizable names as Mike Napoli, Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd and Fernando Rodney. The script is well-worn: contenders, uncovering new weaknesses in August or reconsidering their untrustworthy role players, acquire expensive flotsam floating through waivers, while also-rans pick up secondary prospects to daydream on. The phase doesn’t pack the same punch as July, but occasionally a player will provide a significant upgrade, as with Napoli in Texas and Addison Reed with the Mets.
That’s why one of the most interesting trade targets this August is a man who is already on a contending team, and who happens to be one of the worst players in baseball this year. That man is Clay Buchholz.
Enigmatic at the best of times, the man once described in the BP Annual as a shrug emoji has suffered through a disastrous 2016 season, posting near-career highs in all the stats you’d like to see low, and the opposite for the opposite. After 13 starts and nine relief appearances, he’s been below replacement level by every imaginable pitching metric, including one measuring the cries of infants faced toward a TV screen, all despite an uncharacteristic bout of good health. His repertoire, from an anecdotal and numerical measure, is unaltered from previous years; most of his mistakes appear to be of the mental variety, with too many center-cut pitches leading to far, far too many home runs. Pedro Martinez recently wondered whether he missed his old friends Jon Lester and John Lackey; and while missing John Lackey is something we’re unable to imagine, let alone quantify, the theory is exactly as likely as all others thus presented.
Given these facts, one might come away thinking that Clay Buchholz is a less than desirable trade target. For most teams, this is true! If he had any current value, Boston wouldn’t be trading him, let alone considering casting him off altogether. And his one-year, $13 million option for 2017 doesn’t make for a strong foundation to a rebuilding club. But there are teams that, like Buchholz himself, can’t exist in either the present or future tense, neither in a rebuild or a playoff run nor in a rebuilding phase. Teams like the Pirates, Yankees, Mariners and Tigers have little choice but to shrug their shoulders and try again next year, and it’s this scenario in which our flawed hero has a chance of providing value.
A chance, mind you. Melvin Upton, useful player and fiscal anchor, cost the Blue Jays Hansel Rodriguez, an interesting live arm years away from the majors, and cost the Padres most of Upton’s remaining salary. Despite the price of pitching these days, it’s not hard to imagine that a broken Buchholz would cost significantly less; one could envision the Red Sox covering a majority of his 2017 salary, at the cost of one of those live arms that every system has, except maybe the Angels. He essentially becomes the expensive, older equivalent of a prospect: a giant, gilded live arm, one that you have to watch succeed or fail in real time. The question is exactly what kind of risk you’re paying for in 2017.
Anecdotally speaking, we can break down the odds this way: In the modern (1988-) era, there have been 16 non-Buchholz pitchers to put up a season at least as bad as his: > 80 IP, < 75 ERA+. Of those 16, seven basically never pitched again. This list includes some names at least on Buchholz’s level of prominence, figures like Andy Hawkins, Jim Abbott, Matt Garza. Five continued to have careers, generally in relief, but were never the same: this is the Terry Mulholland category. And finally, four of the 16 had at least one pretty good year left in them:
- Kyle Lohse (next season: 3.1 WARP)
- Mark Hendrickson (really) (2.3 WARP)
- Mark Gardner (1.7 WARP)
- Cal Eldred (1.7 WARP)
This is less a scientific study than an illustration that nothing is more enigmatic than the starting pitcher. Pitchers are unreliable and frustrating and absolutely necessary, and even a 25 percent chance at a decent one is worth time and consideration. The percentages are your own to set, in your heart, but if you buy a 25 percent chance at an average starter, a 25 percent chance of a 0.5-1 win reliever, and a 50 percent of forgetting that he ever played for your team, that’s worth about $6 million on the open market.
Whether this appeals to you, as a random person who will never actually make this decision yourself, depends on your own level of risk aversion. Most people don’t like paying a bunch of money knowing there’s a good chance they get nothing back. Other people love scratch tickets, because the slightest chance of getting ahead makes them happy. Teams, especially in the offseason, like to have plans in place, guys with distinct roles and distinct timetables. Buchholz doesn’t offer that; he offers chaos. He always has, really.
Trades in baseball are created and evaluated by imbalances. They can be perceived imbalances in talent, as with every club who “steals” Hector Olivera; more commonly they are imbalances based on present versus future value. Money can be a factor, as can positional demands. A theoretical Buchholz trade is less about any of these than it is about a completely different, underrated imbalance: variance. Red Sox manager John Farrell has declared that he is perfectly comfortable employing our hero in late-inning situations. It’s nice to see a general show confidence in his soldiers, but as October approaches, it’s not difficult to envision a scenario in which Buchholz is one of Boston’s twelve most talented pitchers, but not one of its twelve most reliable.
It may or may not be enough to drive Buchholz to unemployment, as seemed likely mere weeks ago. But the Red Sox have a full month to watch their 25th man pitch the sixth and seventh, and decide whether it’s worth the heartache to continue. If not, that suffering could be available for another team if they’re willing to pay just enough for the privilege.
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