Friday, May 3, 2013

Buchholz on Trial

Normally when someone follows up an accusation with “I can’t prove anything, I can’t prove anything,” it’s a sign that they should not be taken too seriously. Yet those charges hurled by former pitcher Jack Morris, the five-time All Star and partner of former minor league journeyman reliever Dirk Hayhurst in the Toronto Blue Jays’ broadcast booth, that Clay Buchholz is doctoring his pitches has gained significant traction.

Buchholz has gotten off to a scorching start, 6-0 in his first six starts thanks to a 1.01 ERA and 2.28 FIP. As recently as yesterday, his increased command was being cited for his excellent start, but Hayhurst and Morris have declared that it is not precision underlying his improvement, but baseball’s own pastime itself – cheating.

Here is the tweet that launched a thousand words:

 Let me just say that I am a Hayhurst fan – a Red Sox fan first and foremost, but a Hayhurst fan all the same. I read “Bullpen Gospels” and it is one of my favorite books. It says so in my profile. He is funny, witty and can write pretty damn well. I have every intention of reading “Out of My League,” in which Hayhurst details just how to doctor a pitch, “like Buchholz can load up baseballs,” he tweeted unabashedly.

Hayhurst is convinced that Buchholz truly is doctoring his pitches – evidence be damned! Morris backed up his partner’s allegations, telling ESPN the following:

I found out because the guys on the video camera showed it to me right after the game, I didn't see it during the game. They showed it to me and said, “What do you think of this?” and I said, “Well, he's throwing a spitter.“ ‘Cause that's what it is.

Buchholz denies it, of course. Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe noted that nobody has checked any ball in Buchholz’s six starts this season.

The indictment stems from video the two radio announcers watched from the May 1st matchup between the AL East rivals that shows Buchholz with a “glistening” left forearm, rubbing two fingers from his right hand on it.

The idea behind a “spitter” or spitball is that a foreign substance is being applied to the ball to increase its movements. So, if Buchholz is throwing a spitball, there should be a marked difference in the breaks of his pitches. Luckily, that information is now readily available at sites like Here are a couple charts those wizards put together:

And here are the numbers by year:
Fourseam (FA)

H: -3.49
V: 12.10
H: -5.67
V: 10.75
H: -6.43
V: 9.25
H: -6.05
V: 10.51
H: -3.42
V: 6.48
H: -4.25
V: 10.18
H: -3.43
V: 11.04
Sinker (SI)

H: -8.11
V: 7.49
H: -7.93
V: 8.07
V: 7.27
H: -6.00
V: 7.95
H: -6.46
V: 8.23
Cutter (FC)

H: 1.13
V: 6.06
H: 0.32
V: 5.80
H: 1.69
V: 7.23
H: 3.27
V: 6.66
Curveball (CU)

H: 3.80
V: -9.51
H: 5.83
V: -8.69
H: 4.68
V:  -9.50
H: 5.58
V: -8.38
H: 7.44
V: -9.01
H: 9.82
V: -6.78
H: 9.90
V: -7.00
Changeup (CH)

H: -1.14
V: 7.47
H: -0.84
V: 6.14
H: -2.56
V: 6.43
H: -3.15
V: 7.04
H: -2.11
V: 5.37
H: -1.36
V: 5.78
H: -0.89
V: 6.25
(“H” is horizontal movement, “V” is vertical movement. Numbers provided by PITCHf/x, which calculates the difference between a pitch’s location as it crosses the plate and where it is caught by the catcher.)

Most of the numbers appear quite similar to those in 2012, when Buchholz finished with his worst ERA since 2008 at 4.56. The small differences can be reasonably attributed to a small sample size. The movement does show significant vacillation from one year to the next on nearly every pitch, especially the four-seamer (what the hell happened in 2011?!). Based on this numbers, Buchholz’s movement is not that much different than any other year to immediately arouse suspicions of cheating.

The control argument seems to hold some more weight, as outlined in the afore-linked article. Jack Moore writes, “By keeping the fastballs on the corners, something he did proficiently Wednesday night, he’ll turn what used to be balls in play into called strikes or foul balls. He has thrown the fastback for a strike but not in play 51.8 percent of the time this year, six points higher than last season.”

One of the most striking statistical differences between this season and last for Buchholz is his home run to fly ball ratio. It is a very low 3.1%. For his career, that number is 10.5% and was as high as 15.7% in 2009. Expect that number to regress to the mean eventually.

As for the substance on his arm, my guess is a mixture of rosin, sweat and water. The rules clearly state rosin is not to be applied to a pitcher’s glove or uniform – the arm is a gray area, not specifically mentioned in the rulebook. Why do I think it is just rosin? Because of this picture right here, taken during the bottom of the first inning of that Blue Jays game:

The “glistening” effect could just be a reflection of the dome’s lights. The lights are harsher inside than outside. I can’t prove anything, and neither can Jack Morris or Dirk Hayhurst.

UPDATE: When asked about the accusations, David Ortiz said, "Who cares? Everybody puts shit on the ball everywhere in this fucking league. You think I care when a guy is throwing like this? I don't care. That's a sorry ass excuse."

Unlike Jerry Remy and John Farrell, Ortiz isn't disregarding the charges. Hm, maybe there is something going on here. Cheating or not, there is no way Buchholz can keep his performance up for the whole season. I expect his numbers to decline - and soon - but more due to natural regression than cutting down on the "slick'em."

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