Clay Buchholz, remade and re-energized, joins Phillies rotation

Phillies’ pitchers Aaron Nola (left) checks his phone as Clay Buchholz (right) talks with a reporter in the team's clubhouse during spring training in Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2017.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — He kicked his left leg high enough that his kneecap was level with the S in RED SOX on his chest, and it was a style that suited Clay Buchholz. It produced a no-hitter in his second big-league start, followed by two all-star nominations, six postseason starts and a $57 million contract. It generated labels of “ace” and, later, constant irritation among Boston fans.

Halfway through last season, Clay Buchholz was stale. He was without a role, even after almost 10 years of service at Fenway Park. He was on Boston’s roster last July but pitched twice in a 19-day span — once in a game the Red Sox lost by 19 and another they won by 11. So the lanky righthander with a Texan drawl sat at a computer, dissected video of pitchers with and without leg kicks and analyzed advanced metrics that showed how his arm slot had progressively fallen.

That is, in part, why Buchholz, 32, stood in the middle of the Phillies’ clubhouse at Spectrum Field surrounded Tuesday morning by cameras and reporters before the first formal workout. He remade himself in the final two months of 2016, enough to convince the rebuilding Phillies to wager $13.5 million on Buchholz extending that success.

“It energizes anybody,” Buchholz said. “There are expectations that are brought back to you. That sense of complacency, being in one spot for an extended period of time, that’s gone.”

After his exile, Buchholz stopped the leg kick. He pitched exclusively from the stretch. He altered his release point, which had lowered over a three-year span because of shoulder pain, to its former over-the-top spot without pain. He bounced between the bullpen and rotation, posted a 3.22 ERA with 40 strikeouts and 18 walks in 58 2/3 innings, and recovered enough standing to start Game 3 of the American League division series.

Without his late-season improvement in Boston, he would not have landed in Philadelphia with a secure rotation spot. Brian Bannister, a former pitcher who has ascended to a vice president title in the Red Sox organization, guided Buchholz’s repairs.

Buchholz had a 1.74 ERA in 2013, his best season, and a 4.56 mark in the subsequent two seasons. A lower arm slot affected the movement of his pitches; the ones that used to bite downward began to backfire. They floated horizontally, and they were hit hard.

“I was trying to find somewhere where it didn’t hurt,” Buchholz said. “It becomes second nature at some point.”

Bannister, who has emerged as something of a pitching whisperer by combining his playing experience with an affinity for data that is presented in a digestible way, connected the dots for Buchholz. Once Bannister explained it, Buchholz’s reaction was: “What the \[expletive\]? You let me struggle for two months and you couldn’t tell me that?”

He laughed.

“It’s really crazy,” Buchholz said. “I sat down at his computers and it’s unbelievable. I had no idea the numbers went into it that deep. They really do.”

The changes required Buchholz to buy in, and he did. There was no other choice.

“When you combine hard, fast data to some of the thoughts that a pitcher is encountering on the mound, it’s more of an objective view,” Boston manager John Farrell told the Providence Journal last summer. That was Bannister’s contribution.

But it extended beyond the arm slot; Buchholz embraced a trend across Major League Baseball — the elimination of the traditional windup. His leg kick was a trademark. Now, he plans to stick with the quicker stretch mechanics. He raises his left foot a few inches above the mound dirt.

“He just simplified his delivery,” said catcher Bryan Holaday, who is in Phillies camp and caught Buchholz a few times last August with Boston. “It made him a little more consistent. He built confidence off of that. He started throwing the ball really well toward the end of the year.”

Buchholz understood how atypical it is for one player to spend his entire career with one team. He expected to depart at some point. The phone call came last December, right before he boarded a plane for vacation.

“Celebrated two different ways, I guess,” Buchholz said.

New surroundings could benefit Buchholz, but expectations are lower. He encountered frequent health issues in Boston; he has thrown more than 175 innings in a season just once. But the Phillies are looking for three quality months. That would be enough to flip Buchholz to a contender at the trade deadline.

“You always want to be wanted,” Buchholz said. “I think somebody would be lying if they said they didn’t care if they were wanted or not. When there’s that sense that you’re wanted around the clubhouse, around the organization, that makes you push and work a little bit harder and try to be better.”

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