Just How Good is Mark Buehrle?
Last night was typical of the dilemma Buehrle presents. In 6.1 innings, Buehrle gave up only one run. Anyway, you cut it, that's a good outing. But he gave up 10 hits and struck out only three. Even Buehrle admits that those kinds of numbers usually don't add up to six-plus innings and only one run. But that's how Buehrle has lived in the majors: too many hits and too fews strikeouts, and yet very few runs allowed.
Readers know I was critical of the recent extension for Buehrle. Yes, the Sox got him for $30 million less than market value, but that's just because the market had him overvalued by $50 million. Buehrle doesn't miss a lot of bats. He has good command, and he gets hitters to put the ball in play on the pitch he wants them to hit. It forces ground balls and pop ups. But when a guy like that ages even a little, loses just the tiniest bit off his stuff, hitters turn those pitches into line drives and home runs. Guys like Buehrle have steep declines. Some have countered this argument by pointing to the extended decline phase of Greg Maddux's career. The comparison is flawed. Buehrle's best seasons have been comparable to Maddux's decline phase. Even if the two really were similar, what does that mean Buehrle's decline phase would look like?
And they're not that similar. In his career, Buehrle has struck out around five batters per nine innings. Maddux struck out six or seven hitters per nine innings at his peak. During his long slow decline, he's come down to Buehrle's strikeout ratio, but for his career he's still a full K per nine better. Buehrle really is comparable to Old Maddux (distinguished like Old Elvis from Young Maddux).
General perception aside, however, do pitchers like Buehrle really fade fast? According to PECOTA, Beuhrle looks a lot like two guys who briefly pitched for the Sox: Jerry Reuss and Jim Kaat. Let's take Kaat, who is PECOTA's closest comparable, and a really strong one at that. After turning 28 during 1967, Kaat went on to win 14 or more games another five times, including winning more than 20 for the Sox in '74 and '75. Reuss also won 14 or more games three times after turning 28, and picked up another 13 wins for the Sox in 1988, when he was 39. So far so good. As you continue down the list of Buehrle's comparables there are some more ominous comparisons. For example, number three on the list is another Sox hurler, Jim Abbott, who was pretty much washed up by the time he was 28. So, Buehrle's future is a gamble, but it is certainly one with some upside.
And, whatever Buehrle's future holds, unlike Abbott, he is definitely not washed up at 28. In fact, by some measures, he's having his best season of his career. His 2.98 ERA is the lowest of his career, and he has his second lowest walks and hits per nine innings. Only in 2001, his first full season in the bigs, did he allow fewer base runners per nine overall. Only the team's anemic offense and shoddy bullpen have kept Buehrle's win total down, and name out of the Cy Young discussion.
That's right, Buehrle is fifth in the majors, and third in the AL, in VORP among pitchers. I was shocked when I looked that up and saw how high he ranked. In the AL, only Dan Haren and Johan Santana have higher VORPs. Yes, those are the two guys everyone is talking about for Cy Young. Nor is it luck. Buehrle's batting average on balls in play is actually higher than Haren's or Santana's. But how exactly he is as effective as those two is a mystery. Haren strikes out nearly two more batters per nine than Buehrle, gives up two fewer hits per nine, allows fewer home runs, but somehow Buehrle has been almost exactly as effective as Haren overall. Santana also gives up fewer hits than Buehrle, and he strikes out more than four more batters per nine. Buehrle shouldn't even be in this guy's league, but he is.
Yesterday, as I marvelled once again at the fact that Buehrle was struggling to get anyone out, and yet no one could score on him, I began to become more optimistic about the next few seasons of Mark Buehrle. Maybe this guy just has a way of maximizing the utility of the skills he has. Statistics explain big picture developments, but there are always individual outliers who don't fit the model. Buehrle seems to be one of those guys. His peripherals suggest an ERA almost a run higher than his is. How does he do it? Maybe it's smoke and mirrors, but then Buehrle is one of the greatest and most consistent illusionists in all of baseball. Would I have bet $56 million dollars on Buehrle keeping this illusion going? No, but Buehrle's fooled me before.