Boston’s 2006 minor league pitcher of the year, Clay Buchholz was taken with a supplemental pick after the first round of the 2005 draft as compensation for the loss of Pedro Martinez to free agency.

Buchholz, a 22-year-old right-hander, spent most of the 2006 season at Low-A Greenville, where he went 9-4, 2.62, allowing just 78 hits in 103 innings while striking out 117. The 6’3″ native of Lumberton, Texas also made four starts for high-A Wilmington, including a dominating performance in the playoffs in which he allowed one run in six innings while fanning 10. Kevin Goldstein recently named Buchholz the top prospect in the Red Sox organization.

Buchholz features four solid pitches, and is expected to start the 2007 season with either Boston’s new high-A affiliate in Lancaster, or in Double-A Portland. David Laurila sat down with Buchholz for BP to talk about his plus curveball, perfecting his arm angle and the importance of confidence on the mound.

David Laurila: You were hitting 95-97 (mph) on the radar gun during the playoffs after sitting between 90-93 most of the season. How do you explain the increased velocity?

CB: I’m sure that part of it was the adrenaline rush of pitching in a playoff run, but I’ve thrown that hard before–I threw that hard in college. One thing is that the deeper I get into games, the harder I throw. I’ve tended to sit around 91 for the first three or four innings, and then after my arm loosens up my velocity increases. I definitely felt smooth and fluid during the playoffs.

DL: You throw a fastball, curve, slider and change-up, and scouts have mixed opinions on what your best offering is. What do you consider your best pitch? Your second-best?

CB: My fastball. That’s the one I can always go to for strikes. Until I have equally good command of the other three, my fastball is my go-to pitch. As for my second best, that kind of fluctuated. After the All-Star break, I’d say it was my change-up. Earlier in the season it was probably my curve.

DL: How would you describe the mechanics of your curveball?

CB: The curve is all about mechanics. Extension is really important–you don’t want to drop your arm. It’s like spinner bait if you do. But if I extend well, I get a good sharp downward bite.

DL: How do you grip your curveball?

CB: I grip my curve pretty much like a two-seam fastball with my fingers together. I’ve tried messing with the grips a little, both a horseshoe and a reverse horseshoe, and I’ve even tried spiking it, but those didn’t feel as comfortable to me. You have to go with what feels best.

DL: While your curve is rated as being the best in the Red Sox system, it has been reported that you sometimes “fall in love with it.” What are your thoughts on that?

CB: It’s a pitch I like to work with, but I think that opinion probably came mostly from one game. Early in the season I pulled an oblique, which caused me to miss four starts, and for the rest of that game I threw a lot of curves because it hurt when I threw fastballs. It was hard to get whip action at the end of my delivery, so I went with a lot of breaking pitches instead.

DL: The same scouting report said that you sometimes try too hard to get strikeouts. Do you feel there’s any truth to that?

CB: Not so much. I mean, you hear guys say that you can’t get a strikeout on the first pitch and that you want to get ahead. And that’s true; strike one is important. So maybe sometimes I’m a little too aggressive on the first pitch, but I’m not really out there thinking about pitching to contact or getting swings and misses. In my head, what I’m thinking is, “make a good pitch.” Hitters get paid to hit the baseball, and if you don’t make good pitches that’s what they’re going to do.

DL: You threw from two different arm angles when you were drafted, but the Red Sox organization has you sticking with just one. Tell us about that.

CB: It was in spring training last year that they said they didn’t want me dropping down. They wanted me to perfect my delivery from just the one arm angle, and I understand that. This isn’t college ball anymore; it’s pro ball. There’s probably still a subtle difference in my arm angle at times, though. You can’t really pick it up with the naked eye, but on video you might see a grid or two of difference.

DL: You’ll start the season in either High-A Lancaster, which is in a very hitter-friendly league, or in Portland, which is Double-A. How are you approaching the challenges that each one would offer?

CB: Pitching anywhere…your approach has to be the same. We actually just had a group discussion with Curt Schilling, and he said that strike one is everyone’s best pitch. Good fastball command early in the count is big, which is something I worked on a lot last year. Kip [minor league pitching coach Bob Kipper] really stressed that to me when we were working sides.

DL: Confidence on the mound is important. Do you ever lack it?

CB: I had one start last year, in West Virginia, where I got shelled pretty hard. I had good velocity, but was up in the zone. When you’re 93 down the middle, thigh-high, guys hit that. Like I said earlier, hitters get paid to do a job, and they’re going to hit mistakes. So I guess my confidence was down a little that day. You start thinking that maybe it’s not your day, and that was a mental flaw for me that game.

DL: How do you get your confidence back?

CB: That’s a transformation I’ve tried to make… something I want to get better at. You need to stay focused, because it takes more than physical ability if you want to pitch in the big leagues. The mental part of the game is definitely important.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Interviews from Red Sox Nation which was published in 2006 by Maple Street Press. He can be reached here.

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