Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz is in the midst of a Cy Young-caliber season with a 7-0 record, 1.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 10 starts.
But maybe his most impressive accomplishment thus far: He has hurled 72.2 innings and pitched 7.0 or more innings in nine of his 10 starts.
Buchholz has been an innings eater for a Red Sox team that has needed it. But can he continue to be? Can he reach the all-important 200-inning mark?
The most he ever has pitched in a season was last year when he hurled 189.1 innings and made 29 starts.
Buchholz is tall (6-3) but skinny (190 pounds). Some call his frame “fragile.” Some say it is inevitable the 28-year-old will make at least one trip to the disabled list. After all, DL stints have interrupted each of his past three seasons.
Buchholz must pitch 200 or more innings before being considered an ace. More importantly though, he must at least get into the vicinity of 200 this year or else the Red Sox bullpen will burn out because of the way some of the other starters have struggled to go deep.
Both Buchholz and Jon Lester need to be workhorses because Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront and John Lackey have been inconsistent.
Dempster has pitched into the seventh in just three of his first 10 starts and has pitched 5.0 or fewer innings in half his starts. Doubront has made it into the seventh inning in only two of seven starts and has pitched 5.0 innings of fewer in four starts.
Lackey made it into the seventh in just one of his first six starts entering Friday and pitched 5.0 innings or fewer in three of those outings.
Dempster has reached 200 innings in four of his past five seasons so the Red Sox hope he will begin to work deeper soon.
The 200-inning barrier
Starters around the league feel a sense of accomplishment when reaching 200 innings.
“I think as a starter, sometimes (innings pitched) is one of the few things you can control,” said former Red Sox hurler Justin Masterson who has pitched more than 200 innings each of the past two seasons as the Indians’ ace.
“When you let the ball out of your hand, you can’t really control what happens. You can hope, but you can’t really control it. You want to be healthy and you want to make every start and bridge that 200-inning gap. And when you’ve done that, it may not have been perfect, but at least you’ve done something significant.”
All the league’s top pitchers give their teams 200 innings consistently. Tigers ace Justin Verlander and Yankees ace CC Sabathia have done it the past six straight years. Mariners ace Felix Hernandez has done it five straight years.
“Even if you’ve given up four, five, six runs, you were still getting five, six, seven innings, which again is big,” Masterson said. “It’s big for the bullpen.”
What’s the secret?
What’s the secret to avoiding the DL and reaching 200 innings each year?
Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Mark Buehrle is a good pitcher to ask.
Buehrle has pitched more than 200 innings the last 12 consecutive years.
Buehrle joked that one reason he has been able to do it is because his fastball only reaches the high 80s. The lefty’s heater has averaged just 86.1 mph the past 12 years, according to fangraphs.com.
“I think if you throw 95 or 85, you’re still putting your arm in a position that it’s not used to,” he said, adding his fluid delivery may help. “I don’t know. I think I’ve just been blessed with good health. I do what I need to do in between starts.”
That said, Buehrle has had some different workout programs during his 12 years.
When he signed with the Miami Marlins last year, the staff told him to keep doing what he had been doing because he has been so successful.
“I said, ‘I’ve always just done what the team wants me to do. So you tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’” Buehrle said.
Bucking the trend
What’s been so impressive about Buchholz through 10 starts is that whenever he hasn’t had his best command, he still has been able to pitch deep into games.
“When any starter is throwing the ball well and getting deep into games, good things are going to happen,” Buchholz said after his win Wednesday. “You’re going to take your lumps and bumps in the road. But it’s been fun. Hopefully, we’ll just keep on striding.”
Buchholz is on pace to pitch 243.2 innings this year. That probably won’t happen.
If he can reach 200 innings, setup men such as Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa will get their needed rest.