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Buchholz brings old-school arsenal to Blue Jays rotation

Buchholz brings old-school arsenal to Blue Jays rotation
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If Clay Buchholz proved anything in his successful Blue Jays debut on Saturday, it’s that pitching savvy and lower velocities remain relevant in this day and age of strikeouts, 100-m.p.h. pitchers and spin rates.

Buchholz worked six innings in Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Rays, surviving with stuff ranging from 76 to 88 m.p.h. while many eyes were on Tampa’s reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and his filthy fastball — which touches 96 — and strike-to-ball breaking pitches.

The contrast suggests Buchholz was fortunate to last six innings. But the new Jay is a different pitcher than he was with the Red Sox from 2007-15, when he thrived with mid-90s heat and devastating breaking pitches. He’s learned to refine his approach with less velocity, in part because of a series of injuries over the years — elbow, back, stomach and esophagus.

“I look at a lot of different things now,” Buchholz said Sunday, before the Jays closed out their series with the Tampa Bay Rays at the Rogers Centre. “I look at pitching to hitters, to the weakness of the hitter. I used to — when I was throwing 94 to 96 — rip the fastball, just throw it, and then add the curveball, the changeup, here or there.

“Now it’s the best pitch for the situation, going after hitters’ tendencies and what they aren’t hitting well in that particular situation. Try and read the swing a bit more … I can’t be in the middle of the plate. I try to stay off the plate, find spots and pitch to them. I’m better at that than I used to be.”

Buchholz also reflects an old-school approach where pitchers in previous decades would use less than 100 per cent effort to throw certain pitches at certain quadrants of the strike zone.

For example, lefty Jim Kaat, who pitched for five teams between 1959 and 1983, once told his catcher not to bother putting down any signs because he was going to throw his fastball to a certain spot until hitters figured it out.

That approach led to more complete games and fewer injuries than in today’s game, where pitchers are often trained to throw with maximum effort at 95 m.p.h. or more. They also use analytics and machines that measure spin rates, such as Rapsodo, as well as instructors who specialize in increasing velocity. All of this has combined to produce record strikeouts totals in the majors over the past two seasons.

Buchholz adds that he pays attention to analytics, but has never used spin-rate technology or data. Instead, he’s one of a shrinking number of starters who prefer to use an arsenal of six or seven different pitches to keep hitters off balance.

“I’ve always thrown the same pitches, but I’m making them different,” Buchholz said. “Like my cutter. I throw it, but I’m making it a slider whenever I fell like I need to, making it break more, throwing it slower or throwing it harder.

“So, I’m using all of my pitches, but I’m making them two pitches apiece. I can take velocity off or I can add some to it, and that manipulates the way the ball moves. That’s something I mess with and try to get a grasp on, and the whole thing is getting better at it.”
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