In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article, there’s a now-famous quote from MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr: “You go through The Sporting News for the last 100 years, and you will find two things are always true. You never have enough pitching, and nobody ever made money.”
It turns out there’s another constant that Fehr forgot to mention: Players will strike out more each year than they did the last. The ever-increasing strikeout rate has been baseball’s one inexorable force since the live ball era began in 1920, as this list of the National League’s1 strikeout rate over 10-year intervals shows:
With the exception of a brief and slight decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the strikeout rate has steadily increased since Warren Harding was president. Batters are now about three times more likely to strike out than they were during the Roaring Twenties, and the rate of increase seems to be accelerating: More strikeouts have been added to the game in the last 20 years than in the previous 40.
There are many reasons for this, but the simplest is that pitchers are throwing harder than ever. In 2003, the average fastball in the major leagues registered 89.9 mph; in 2013, that number was 91.7 mph. Pitchers throw harder in shorter stints, and when one breaks down, another hard thrower is ready to take his place. Hitting isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be.
Neither is pitching for those who aren’t strikeout artists. In 1988, Minnesota’s Allan Anderson struck out 83 batters in 202.1 innings … and led the AL with a 2.45 ERA. That same year, John Tudor struck out 87 batters in 197.2 innings with the Cardinals and Dodgers … and managed an even better 2.32 ERA. That doesn’t happen anymore. Of the 100 best pitching seasons since 2000, as ranked by Baseball-Reference.com, the pitcher struck out at least 150 batters in 92 of them. A pitcher who doesn’t throw hard, and doesn’t have a gimmick pitch, and doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, can’t be a successful starter in the major leagues. He might be able to do it once with a lot of luck, but he can’t do it year after year after year.
Unless he’s Mark Buehrle.
Everyone makes mistakes. One of mine is that it took me a long time to appreciate Buehrle, and not just because every time he pitched for the White Sox, I had to listen to Hawk Harrelson sing his praises. I mean, Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round out of some college no one had heard of,2 he almost never hit 90 on the radar gun, and he didn’t strike anyone out. Sure, he reached the major leagues just 14 months after he signed as a draft-and-follow in 1999, but he was never a top prospect. He wasn’t much of a prospect, period. During his first full season in the majors, I fixated on his mere 126 strikeouts in 221 innings far more than on his 16-8 record, 3.29 ERA, or AL-leading 1.066 WHIP. He was a junk-tossing left-hander, and those guys always get figured out eventually.
Only, Buehrle hasn’t gotten figured out, and he’s currently helping fuel the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff hopes. Despite pitching in arguably the AL’s best home run park for hitters for most of his career, he’s produced only one bad season: 2006, the sole year when his ERA+ dropped below 100 and, conveniently if less meaningfully, the only year when he finished with a losing record. He’s been consistently above average without ever being elite. He’s earned a single Cy Young vote just once, in 2005, and the category in which he’s most often led the league is hits allowed, four times.
He’s led the league in hits allowed four times because he throws a lot of innings, and because he gives up a lot of contact. And he gives up a lot of contact because the one thing he does not do is miss bats. After getting called up midseason in 2000, Buehrle struck out 37 batters in 51.1 innings, a ratio a tick higher than the league average at the time. He’s posted a below-average strikeout rate every season since, and has struck out 150 batters just once in his career.
Once upon a time it wasn’t uncommon for a left-handed finesse pitcher to enjoy a long and successful career without striking anyone out. In the 1970s and early 1980s, guys like Jerry Reuss and Jim Kaat were on their way to winning well more than 200 games while striking out barely a batter every other inning. Paul Splittorff, the winningest pitcher in Royals history, struck out 100 batters in a season just twice in his career. Ross Grimsley threw more than 2,000 innings in the majors and struck out just 3.3 batters per nine innings. In 1975, Randy Jones led the NL with a 2.24 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young vote despite striking out just 103 batters in 285 innings. The next year, he threw even more innings (315.1) and struck out even fewer batters (93) … and he won the Cy Young Award.
Of course, it was a lot easier for a left-handed finesse pitcher to succeed without a lot of strikeouts back then because no one posted a lot of strikeouts. Jim Palmer, a right-hander, had a brilliant Hall of Fame career and struck out just 13.7 percent of the batters he faced. Missing bats was optional then, but it isn’t anymore. Except for Buehrle. In 2007, Buehrle was worth 6.1 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, one of the 100 best seasons by a starting pitcher since 2000. He struck out 115 batters that year, the fewest of anyone in the top 100.
A magician never reveals his secrets, so we may never know how Buehrle pulls off his prestige, but we can look for clues in the career of the prototypical Crafty Lefty, Tommy John. Before he transmogrified into a ligament, John was better known for a major league career that spanned 26 seasons. He never threw all that hard and, particularly after his surgery, rarely struck anyone out, but he pitched in the majors until he was 46 and won 288 games.
In his 1984 Baseball Abstract, Bill James described “The Tommy John family of pitchers” as having “5 things in common.” James wrote:
1. They are all left-handed.
2. They are control-type pitchers.
3. They cut off the running game very well.
4. They receive excellent double-play support.
5. They allow moderate to low totals of home runs, lower-than-normal totals for a control pitcher.
This combination of abilities or tendencies enables this family of pitchers to be effective and to win at unusually high levels of hits per game, which then is another defining characteristic of the group.
Points four and five are essentially the same thing. James didn’t have access to ground ball/fly ball data 30 years ago, but he’s basically saying that Tommy John–style pitchers are extreme ground ball pitchers; ground balls lead to double plays and don’t lead to home runs. John himself allowed more than a hit per inning in his career, but many of those runners were wiped out on 6-4-3s.3
Buehrle would fit into the Tommy John family of pitchers perfectly, except for one small detail: He isn’t a ground ball pitcher. His career ground ball rate of 45 percent is just barely higher than league average, and thanks to spending most of his career at U.S. Cellular Field, he has surrendered 333 home runs in 3,009 career innings, a rate of exactly 1.00 per nine innings; John allowed 302 home runs in a career that spanned 4,710 innings. Thanks to all of those home runs in addition to hits surrendered on balls in play, Buehrle has allowed a higher batting average (.272) than John did (.265), even with a higher strikeout rate.
All of those home runs also mean that Buehrle’s slugging average allowed (.419) is substantially higher than John’s (.367). The batting line against Buehrle for his career — .272/.315/.419 — is, like everything else about him, uncharacteristic of an above-average pitcher.
Consider this: Since 1950, 174 pitchers have thrown at least 2,000 innings in the majors while posting a career ERA under 4.00. Buehrle has the highest OPS allowed of them all:
*Because Buehrle has such a low strikeout rate and strikeouts don’t lead to errors, his rate of unearned runs (9.4 percent) is higher than average (about 8 percent over the last decade). But that works out to only an extra one or two runs a year.
To find a pitcher with a better ERA than Buehrle, you have to go all the way down to Dick Ellsworth at 17th, who posted a 3.72 ERA and a .716 OPS allowed. Based on his stuff, and what hitters do to his stuff, Buehrle shouldn’t be nearly as effective as he’s been. The mystery thickens.
The first thing to consider when a pitcher gives up substantially fewer or more runs than expected given batters’ performance against him is whether he pitches better or worse with men on base or in scoring position. Tom Glavine was legendary for changing his approach with men on base, as his splits demonstrate:
No one on base: .256/.304/.384
Men on base: .260/.340/.369
Men in scoring position: .252/.358/.356
With no one on, Glavine would pump strikes to try to keep the bases empty, and if he gave up the occasional solo home run, so be it. But once men reached base, he kept pitches away from the heart of the plate, preferring to put another runner on over allowing a run-scoring hit.4 It certainly worked for him.
Well, here are Buehrle’s career splits:
No one on base: .271/.311/.418
Men on base: .274/.319/.421
Men in scoring position: .270/.325/.426
If anything, Buehrle’s performance appears to get worse with runners on base. While that’s not really the case — those numbers are skewed by the fact that sacrifice flies don’t count against a hitter’s batting average, and by definition a sacrifice fly can occur only when there’s a runner on third base — Buehrle doesn’t pitch significantly better with ducks on the pond, which would have explained why he’s so much stingier with runs than with baserunners.
It’s not hard to find other things that distinguish Buehrle from most pitchers. He works at a faster pace than all of them, getting the ball back from the catcher, throwing the ball, and repeating. He almost never shakes off a catcher’s sign. He doesn’t throw between starts. He rarely works out in the offseason. He’s remarkably consistent in throwing at least six innings every time out. In his most recent start, Buehrle went just five innings against the Rays, and afterward he did everything but fall on his sword:
“I’m frustrated with myself,” he told reporters. “To go five innings, that’s not really called for. I’m upset with it … I put the bullpen in a tough situation. I need to go deeper into games to give us a chance to win.”
Never mind that Buehrle gave up just two runs in those five innings, or that his Blue Jays won the game. In Buehrle’s world, that outing was an extreme outlier, snapping a streak of 13 consecutive games in which he’d pitched six innings or more. Of course, that streak was nothing special: From May 2004 to July 2005, Buehrle went six innings or more in 49 consecutive starts, the longest run by any pitcher since Steve Carlton’s 69-start streak ended in 1982.5
And above all, Buehrle has been incredibly, even freakishly, durable throughout his career. He’s never been on the DL. Since starting the 2001 season in the White Sox rotation, he’s made 30 starts and thrown 200 innings every single year. If he reaches 200 innings this season, he will be just the eighth pitcher ever to do so in 14 consecutive years, joining Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, and Greg Maddux, all Hall of Famers. Buehrle will be just the fifth pitcher — after Young, Mathewson, Spahn, and Perry — to make 30 starts 14 years in a row.
But none of those traits, valuable or unusual though they may be, explains the central conundrum of Buehrle’s career: How can he allow so many hits and walks and homers, and yet so few runs?
After conducting an extensive amount of research, I’ve come up with just two reasons why Buehrle has been consistently more successful than either his stuff or his performance should allow:
1. He fields his position really well.
2. He holds runners really well.
Regarding point no. 1: Buehrle has long been considered one of the best fielding pitchers in the game, and after Kenny Rogers and Mike Mussina retired, Buehrle won four consecutive Gold Gloves from 2009 to 2012. But how much is a Gold Glove–caliber pitcher really worth?
More than most of us probably realize. With the standard caveat that defensive metrics are flawed, it’s worth noting that according to Baseball Info Solutions, Buehrle has been an above-average defender almost every season since it started tracking the data in 2003. Since then, he’s been 46 runs above average with his glove, good for roughly four runs per season. Considering he’s on the field for only about 200 innings a season, that’s phenomenal, and it works out to Buehrle being worth 18 runs above average with his glove over the course of a hypothetical full season.6 To put that in perspective, consider that over his career, Troy Tulowitzki has been about 12 runs above average over a full season.
That’s right: The numbers say that, inning for inning, Buehrle adds more value with his glove than Tulowitzki, or Dustin Pedroia, or Adrian Beltre, or almost anyone else. After learning that, the most reasonable conclusion is that defensive metrics are cuckoo nuts. However, keep in mind that Tulowitzki is being compared to the average shortstop, and the average shortstop is a terrific fielder. Buehrle is being compared to the average pitcher, and let’s be frank: The average pitcher sucks at fielding his position. Most pitchers seem to lose the ability to throw a baseball accurately the moment their foot leaves the rubber. Mere defensive competence is valuable on the mound in a way it never would be elsewhere on the diamond.
Thanks to providing an extra Gold Glove defender whenever he pitches, Buehrle has allowed a below-average batting average on balls in play (.294) during his career, even though he pitched in front of some aging White Sox defenses after they won their world championship in 2005. And his own defense has led to more double plays than expected from a comparable pitcher. He’s turned 48 double plays himself, whereas a typical pitcher in the same number of innings would have turned about 28. Despite not being a ground ball pitcher, Buehrle’s own defense and the fact that fewer strikeouts mean more balls in play have allowed him to induce double plays in 14.3 percent of potential situations,7 compared to the league average of a little less than 11 percent.
And then there’s point no. 2, which is that trying to steal a base against Buehrle is suicide, and he’s been known to nudge a few people over the cliff. In his 15-year career, Buehrle has allowed 58 stolen bases. Total. This year, not a single runner has even bothered to try.
Technically, 24 runners have been caught stealing with Buehrle on the mound, so attempted base stealers are successful about 71 percent of the time, which is about league average. But citing that stat alone ignores Buehrle’s freakish ability to pick off baserunners and deter steal attempts in the first place. He’s picked off a runner 94 times in his career.8 Since World War II — which is about as far back as we have reliable data — here are the career leaders in pickoffs:
While Carlton’s record is safe, he also threw more than 5,200 innings in his career. Inning for inning, Buehrle has the highest pickoff rate in recorded history for anyone with at least 1,600 innings.9
These are little things, but if a pitcher does enough little things well, he can bridge the gap between being an innings-eating, league-average pitcher and a legitimate no. 2 starter. Buehrle picks off six or seven baserunners a year, converts five or six infield singles into outs with his glove, and turns two or three extra double plays. That’s an extra out nearly every other start.
In fact, if we add together the value of Buehrle’s ability to pick off runners before he throws a pitch with his glove work after he throws a pitch — which Baseball Info Solutions does with its Defensive Runs Saved statistic — we find that Buehrle has saved himself 85 runs since 2003 alone. That works out to 34 runs saved over a full defensive season, which means leaving the world of Tulowitzki behind and reaching the planet inhabited by Andrelton Simmons, the best defensive player in the universe. For his career, Simmons has saved an average of 32 runs above average per season.
And that, in essence, is the secret of Buehrle’s success: He’s a thoroughly average pitcher, but thanks to what he does before and after he hurls the ball to home plate, he saves more runs than any defensive player alive inning for inning.
Could it be that simple? Could good defense alone be the difference between being a journeyman innings-eater and assembling the brilliant career that Buehrle has? Well, consider that while Buehrle’s career ERA is 3.79, his FIP — which estimates what his ERA should be based on the number of walks, strikeouts, and homers he’s allowed — is 4.12. As Ben Jedlovec, vice-president at Baseball Info Solutions, put it: “Coincidentally or not, his Defensive Runs Saved over his career closely corresponds with the magnitude of the difference between his FIP and his ERA. In other words, the difference between Buehrle’s career FIP and ERA can be explained by his DRS.”
So yes, it might actually be that simple.
At age 35, Buehrle is better than ever this season. He has a career-best 2.64 ERA and was named to his fifth All-Star Game even as his fastball continues to decline; after coming in about 85 mph as recently as two years ago, his fastball has averaged 83.5 mph this year. Buehrle’s success this season owes a lot to a change in his approach, as he’s throwing his sinker on the inside corner to right-handed hitters more than ever before.
He also won’t continue to pitch this well: Buehrle has a career-low home run rate this season without any change to his ground ball rate, and that’s unlikely to continue. But there’s no evidence of a decline, either. In this, Buehrle also falls into the Tommy John family of pitchers, of whom James wrote, “A lot of them seem to go through their best years in the 30s or even mid-30s.”
With no end in sight to Buehrle’s boring yet consistent and highly effective mound work, it’s fair to at least wonder if we’re watching a future Hall of Famer. I asked Jay Jaffe, Sports Illustrated writer and inventor of the JAWS rating system, widely considered to be the authoritative system for evaluating Hall of Fame merit, and his response was pretty definitive: “Buehrle has been a very good pitcher for a long time, but I don’t see anything close to a Hall of Fame career.” Jaffe compared Buehrle to “guys like David Cone, Dave Stieb, and Bret Saberhagen: good-to-great pitchers with much higher peaks but less staying power, and DOA upon arrival on the BBWAA ballot.”
That seems fair. After all, even Tommy John himself isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Buehrle has one trump card in his pocket, however, and it will garner him very serious Hall of Fame consideration even as it will astound the baseball industry if it happens: He could win 300 games.
Buehrle has 196 career wins at the moment, and likely will break 200 before the end of this season. Thanks to a pitching style that typically ages well and his proven ability to take the ball 30 times a year, amassing 100 more after that is more likely than you’d think.
Buehrle turns 36 next year; from his age-36 season on, John won 117 games. Fourteen other pitchers won 100 games after their age-35 season, and while some of them were all-time greats and others were knuckleball pitchers who lasted forever, it’s worth noting that Jamie Moyer won 165 games (!) after he turned 36. Rogers, another finesse lefty who played Gold Glove defense and had a ridiculous pickoff move, won 92 games after he turned 36.
There are two main impediments to Buehrle winning 100 more games aside from the obvious one that it’s hard to predict any pitcher winning 100 games in the future. The first is that his fastball can’t lose a lot more velocity if he hopes to remain a viable pitcher. Moyer was able to succeed in his later years with a fastball that averaged 81 to 82 mph, which seems to be the lower bound for a non-knuckleball pitcher, no matter how crafty he is.
The second impediment is that it’s not clear Buehrle wants to stick around long enough to get to 300. He’s openly talked about retirement several times, even before he signed his current four-year deal. He’ll have banked more than $135 million by the time his contract expires next season, and he may not be willing to stick it out until he’s 44 or 45 years old.
Still, the mere fact that 300 wins isn’t a completely ridiculous notion is a testament to how Buehrle’s success defies everything we’re taught about pitching. Buehrle is one of the best pitchers in baseball right now with a repertoire that wouldn’t get him drafted if he were 21 years old, let alone 35. I mean, try to imagine the conversation between an area scout and his crosschecker:
Scout: There’s this kid I’m really excited about here. I think we should take a flyer on him. He’s left-handed and throws 83-84.
Crosschecker: Wait, 83-84? A really projectable arm, then?
Scout: No, I doubt he’s going to add any velocity.
Crosschecker: Um, OK, so what’s the hook? He’s not one of those submarine pitchers you’re always trying to get us to draft …
Scout: No, pretty conventional throwing motion, actually.
Crosschecker: So, a lot of deception in his delivery? Tough for hitters to pick up on?
Scout: Not particularly.
Crosschecker: [Pause.] He’s really tall? Gets a lot of downward plane on his pitches?
Scout: Nah. He’s 6-foot-2. He is a little pudgy, though.
Crosschecker: So … uh … why are you excited about him?
Scout: Well, he’s got really good command.
Crosschecker: Like, he never walks a batter, ever?
Scout: Of course he does. But he works the corners of the plate well.
Crosschecker: And … ?
Scout: He holds runners unbelievably well.
Crosschecker: He holds. Runners. Well.
Scout: And he fields his position incredibly well.
Crosschecker: Fields. His position. Well.
Scout: Yep. So, what do you think?
Crosschecker: I just want to make sure I have my facts straight. So he throws 83 to 84?
Scout: Well, that’s his four-seamer. He throws his cutter around 80.
Scout: So, should we put him up on the draft board?
Crosschecker: Um, yeah, let me talk to the scouting director first. Hey, didn’t you tell me you worked construction before you got into scouting?
Scout: Yeah, why do you ask?
Well, that pitcher is now the ace of a team that’s fighting for the AL East title. The Blue Jays have put their hopes of ending a 21-year playoff drought on a pitcher who wouldn’t be the hardest thrower on most good high school teams. More amazingly, they were smart to do so. In a world filled with guys who throw 99 mph and miss bats like someone sprayed wood repellent on the ball, Buehrle continues to show there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Slow and steady really can still win the race, and there’s no one slower or steadier than Buehrle.