The mrkupe Prospect Smackdown: Clay Buchholz vs. Joba Chamberlain
Background and Intangibles:
Buchholz: Clay Buchholz was drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2005 draft, 42nd overall, out of Angelina (Texas) Junior College. A two-way player in college, he could have been an early-round selection as a tools-laden outfielder if not for his upside on the mound. As a pitcher, he was viewed as a somewhat raw prospect but with extremely high potential; on talent alone he was a first round caliber player. He likely would've gone considerably higher if not for serious makeup concerns. He had been arrested for stealing computers from his high school and then selling them, and his draft stock took a significant hit after this information circulated. The Red Sox thought it was a one-time lapse in judgment and so far, this appears to be the case. Buchholz looked impressive in his 2006 debut in full season ball, showing remarkable improvement as the year progressed and excelling in a short promotion to High A ball. Sent to Double A to begin this season, he has continued to develop at an extraordinary rate, dominating his competition and securing his place in any discussion of the best pitching prospects to come along in the last few years. A promotion to Triple A has not proved to be much of an obstacle, and a trip to the majors is likely only a matter of time. Other than the legal problem, Buchholz has been a model citizen, and scouts love his baseball-related makeup. He works hard to improve every part of his game, and he has the poise and cool demeanor that teams expect out of an ace pitcher.
Chamberlain: Joba Chamberlain was drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2006 draft, 41st overall, out of the University of Nebraska. A transfer from Division II ball after his freshman year, he rose to prominence during his outstanding sophomore season. With a combination of power stuff and plus control, he became the ace of the Nebraska staff and played a crucial role in the team's success during the 2005 College World Series. However, his 2006 collegiate season left something to be desired. Knee problems and a bout with triceps tendonitis forced him to miss some starts, and he did not perform to expectations when he finally did take the mound. Chamberlain's velocity had dropped off considerably, and while scouts thought the stuff would likely rebound given some time, they were increasingly concerned about his conditioning and his durability. He was extremely out of shape, and even when healthy he had often had trouble with maintaining his velocity late into games. He likely would have been a top 10-12 selection if he had been healthy, but teams at the top were reluctant to use a high pick on a significant injury risk. The Yankees bit and then promptly shut him down for the summer, although they did choose to send him to the Hawaiian Baseball League in the fall. He quickly re-established himself as a top prospect with a dominant performance there, having showed that his stuff and his command had returned to their previous levels. Sent to High A to begin the 2007 season, he proved to be too advanced for the competition there, with similar results in stints at Double A and Triple A. Moved to the bullpen for the remainder of the season to reduce his innings count, he is now pitching effectively in relief for the Yankees. There seems to be little doubt that his real future lies at the top of a major league rotation, though, and he should become a fixture there as early as next season. While scouts have been critical in the past of Chamberlain's work ethic with regard to keeping himself in shape, the Yankees have worked hard with him on this with good results. A difficult childhood and fatherhood at age 20 has helped to make him remarkably mature for his age, and on the mound he is a tremendously focused competitor who excels under pressure.
Advantage: Both pitchers were considered to be very good draft prospects, although Chamberlain would've rated slightly above Buchholz were they eligible in the same year. Chamberlain also had the benefit of a brighter spotlight, partially owing to the renown of the Nebraska program, but also the result of his performance in the College World Series. Both players carry some baggage with them, Buchholz with his arrest and Chamberlain with conditioning/injury concerns, but neither has allowed these questions to hinder their ability to perform at an elite level. Both of them have remarkable mound presence beyond their years. It's a close call, but I think Chamberlain comes out ahead here due to his better pedigree and his track record on big stages.
Physicality, Health, and Tools:
Buchholz: Buchholz was born on August 14, 1984. Listed at 6-3 and 190 pounds, he is a left-handed batter and right-handed thrower. He throws five pitches: a 4 seam fastball, 2 seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup. His 4 seam fastball generally works from 93-95 MPH, although he has shown the capability to push it into the 97-98 MPH range at times. He'll use it to get strikeouts, but needs to refine his command of the pitch in order to make it a weapon he can use in any count. His 2 seam fastball is a little slower, working 91-94 MPH but with more movement. While his command of it is better than what he offers with the 4 seamer, it is still somewhat lacking in this respect at times, although scouts project it to be an above-average pitch.. Buchholz's curveball is his most reliable and effective offering, a true 12-6 breaker that he throws in any count with outstanding command; it grades out as a 70 or perhaps a 75 on the 20-80 scale. His slider rates as an above-average pitch with plus potential, although he has thrown it less frequently as his curveball has improved. He throws a solid changeup that also shows plus potential, and while he'll need to improve the overall consistency of the pitch against more advanced batters, it is already well ahead of what most pitchers at his stage of development can offer. Buchholz is an exceptional athlete who was once clocked at 4.32 seconds in the 40 yard dash; typically players with his sort of profile are found at shortstop or center field rather than on the mound. Other than a minor oblique strain that ended his 2005 short-season campaign early, he has a clean bill of health. He has good mechanics and repeats his delivery, and while some have suggested that he may be a bit too slight at his current weight to withstand the rigors that come with pitching in a rotation over the course of a major league season, this isn't much to worry about when talking about a 22-23 year old pitcher. Buchholz profiles as a pitcher who should be extremely durable, with a low risk of injury as long as his workload is carefully managed in the early stages of his career.
Chamberlain: Chamberlain was born on September 23, 1985. Listed at 6-3 and 225 pounds, he is a right-handed batter and thrower. He throws four pitches: a 4 seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup. His fastball is outstanding, typically being clocked in the 94-97 MPH range with good movement, but at times reaching into the upper 90s. What separates Chamberlain's fastball from many flame-throwers, though, is his advanced command of the pitch. Not only is he not afraid to throw his heater over the plate, but he can throw it consistently for strikes to put himself in favorable situations. He has worked on refining his curveball this season, and it is now an above-average offering that he uses as a change of pace. His slider is his best secondary pitch, a 70-75 pitch on the 20-80 scale that he can run up to 87-88 MPH with sharp break. He shows plus command of the slider, which helps to make it a consistently effective weapon against left-handed batters. His changeup currently lags behind his other three pitches, but it rates as average at this point with some potential to improve. He has largely scrapped the changeup while working in relief thus far, preferring to employ his curveball as his primary off-speed pitch. Chamberlain is not very athletic at all, and he will need to work hard throughout his career to stay in good shape. He did not take his conditioning very seriously while in college, and excess weight on his frame contributed to a nagging knee injury. In addition, during his junior season he was afflicted with triceps tendonitis, which dragged his fastball down into the high 80s. As a pro he has been much more careful about staying in shape, and his knee problems have cleared up for now. As for the tendonitis, it too seems be a thing of the past, although such an ailment could re-appear at any time, especially if his conditioning slips. Given his history, about the best one can say about Chamberlain's health at this point is that there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Nonetheless, he certainly does carry an elevated risk of injury, even relative to the already high risk carried by pitching prospects in general.
Advantage: Chamberlain has a clearly superior fastball, coming out ahead in both velocity and command. The Chamberlain slider and Buchholz curveball are basically even in comparison. Buchholz's slider might be a little better than Chamberlain's curveball, but it's close. Buchholz does have a better changeup than Chamberlain, and he uses it more often. Buchholz has very, very good athleticism, Chamberlain has very little. Finally, Buchholz has virtually no injury history, while Chamberlain has a couple of large elephants in the closet. I'd rate them pretty much even in terms of overall repertoires at this point, with Chamberlain's fastball negating the advantage of Buchholz's better assortment of secondary pitches. The kicker is that Buchholz not only has a cleaner injury history (and thus a better chance of putting his stuff to use), but he also profiles as a much lower injury risk. Advantage goes to Buchholz.
Performance and Polish:
Buchholz: Buchholz has posted a 2.32 ERA in the minor leagues over 3 seasons, with a 70/340 BB/K ratio over 272.3 innings. This season, he has posted a 1.77 ERA over 86.7 innings at Double A, with a 3.26 ERA over 30.3 innings at Triple A. His cumulative record in the minors stands at 19-8, 8-3 during the 2007 season. Buchholz has a remarkable degree of polish given that he has only been focusing exclusively on pitching for two and a half seasons. He has a deep repertoire of quality pitches which he mixes very well. He also shows very good control, especially for a pitcher who strikes out as many batters as he does. He already handles left-handed batters quite well, and he has the potential to improve on this as he refines his changeup. There are two small caveats, however. The first is that he will need to improve his fastball command to succeed over the long-term against top level competition, although to his credit he has acknowledged this himself. The second is that while he does induce more groundballs than fly balls, he has been somewhat prone to the home run at times for a pitcher who has otherwise largely dominated minor league competition. This probably owes more to his inexperience against advanced batters than anything negative about his approach, and he has shown the ability to adjust in the past - all he really needs here is to stay healthy and maintain his composure so that he can learn from his mistakes. It should be noted that the concerns here are mostly nitpicking; Buchholz is quite polished and succeeding against very good competition, and his flaws are largely the byproduct of an inexperienced pitcher who has been aggressively promoted.
Chamberlain: Chamberlain has posted a 2.45 ERA in the minor leagues in 2007, with a 27/135 BB/K ratio over 88.3 innings. He put up ERAs of 2.03 over 40 innings in High A, 3.35 over 40.3 innings in Double A, and an even 0.00 over 8 innings in Triple A before being promoted to the majors, where he has a 0.00 ERA over 4 innings. His record in the minor leagues stands at 9-2. Chamberlain receives a lot of praise for his polish, and rightfully so. He is already very adept at pitching off of his fastball to set up his secondary pitches. He tends to favor his slider among his secondary pitches, but he is capable of using it to attack batters in many different ways, and he doesn't neglect the use of his curveball and changeup. He could stand to improve the changeup a bit, as there is certainly room for growth there, but this will likely come with time as he gains experience against major league lefties. As it is, his outstanding slider command already allows him the ability to succeed against and even dominate left-handed batters. He has exhibited very good control, even against upper levels of competition, a promising sign for an aggressively promoted power arm. He is a groundball pitcher who does not give up many home runs, due in large part to his command of his breaking pitches. Overall, there just isn't much to complain about here, as Chamberlain is capable of doing about as much as you can ask for out of any pitcher a year removed from college.
Advantage: Tough call here. Both pitchers are very polished and have enjoyed tremendous success, especially given their levels of experience and aggressive rates of promotion through the minors. Buchholz has a slightly better developed overall arsenal of pitches, but Chamberlain's superior fastball command gives him a better approach against advanced batters at the moment. Buchholz is a little more homer-prone, but it's nothing excessive, and he should be fine once he gets acclimated to higher levels of competition and improves his fastball command. Both have their individual strengths when it comes to polish, and it's just about even when you put everything together. You might want to give Joba a slight edge in the performance category due to his Triple A and MLB success, but it's an exceptionally small sample size and Buchholz has been very successful at Triple A himself. I couldn't in good conscience say that Buchholz has been any less the pitcher than Chamberlain has been this year. We've got an even on polish and an even on performance, so this category ends in a tie.
Buchholz: Buchholz has room to add weight onto his frame, but he already throws plenty hard and is almost 23, a little past the point where most pitchers would see a bump in their velocity. He projects as a No. 1 pitcher, a staff ace who has the potential to win multiple Cy Young Awards over the course of a very long career. A healthy Chris Carpenter makes for a reasonable current major league comparable, as they're both guys who combine a good 2 seam fastball with a deep repertoire of quality secondary pitches and good command. Note that Carpenter's significant injury history has had a dramatic effect on his career, preventing him from maturing into an ace until he was 29. Buchholz has a chance to pitch at that level much earlier in his career, and he should have the durability to maintain his peak performance for a lengthy period of time. He also bears a lot of similarities to John Lackey, although Buchholz is way ahead of where Lackey was developmentally at the same point in their careers. There simply aren't too many pitchers who make for good comparables to Buchholz, though . . .he has a rare blend of stuff, control, intelligence, and athletic ability that puts him in elite company as far as pure upside goes.
Chamberlain: Chamberlain is about as filled out as you'd want to see out of a pitcher and then some, but then again he has all the raw stuff he'll ever need. He projects as a No. 1 pitcher, the definition of an intimidating ace that teams dread to face in decisive playoff games, and a guy who should contend for Cy Young Awards. Bartolo Colon is a popular comparable for Chamberlain, and it makes sense given Colon's perennial see-sawing between Cy Young contender and DL ornament due to his chronic weight/injury woes. Still, Chamberlain seems to be very serious about staying in shape . . .if Chamberlain's career upside is a healthy, better Bartolo Colon, then he has the potential to be one of the better pitchers of the next decade and perhaps beyond. He'll likely also draw comparisons to a right-handed C.C. Sabathia based on stuff and body type.
Advantage: It's a no lose situation here, as you're looking at two pitchers who have the potential to be frontline starters for playoff caliber teams. I think Buchholz will most likely enjoy a longer career than Chamberlain, but it's not like this is going to diminish the productivity of Chamberlain's career in any way. You also have to like Chamberlain's penchant for rising to the opportunity in high pressure situations . . .this is a guy who, if healthy, is likely going to be the sort of pitcher that teams dream of having on the mound for their side in Game 7 of the World Series. It's hard for me to call this one as anything but even, they're both really, really good.
Summary: Chamberlain wins in background and intangibles, with his better pedigree giving him the edge over Buchholz there. Buchholz gets one back on Chamberlain in the physicality and tools department, thanks to his avoidance of significant injuries and athleticism that should keep things that way. They've both done nothing but perform at an astonishing level as pros, and there's no reason to believe that either one of them will be incapable of doing so in the future, so we've got a tie there. They both project as top of the line starting pitchers who should win plenty of games and possibly some hardware along the way, so there's still no ground being given. In other words . . .it is a dead heat. In fairness to all of you, I'll note that I would take Buchholz. The lack of injury history does play an important role for me, and his weaknesses are almost entirely tied to his lack of experience. His rate of learning is nothing short of incredible, which is downright scary for a prospect of his talent. That said, there are great reasons for taking Chamberlain over Buchholz, with his outstanding fastball and his exceptional makeup being foremost in my mind. It is a very, very real possibility that Chamberlain ends up having a better career. You really cannot go wrong with either of these prospects, and it should be fun to see how it all plays out on the field in the years to come.
Who would you take?
Clay Buchholz (402 votes)
Joba Chamberlain (321 votes)
723 total votes