So much of what we do is try to separate the signal from the noise. That is, a lot of what we do is investigate whether what we’re looking at, statistically, is real. We’re always chasing evaluations of a player’s true talent because we want to know what that player’s going to do. We want to know how his team is going to do because we think we want to know the future. As a group, we’re not horrible, but we’re not very good. There are biases that we have, there are things we don’t know and there’s the matter of players being humans and humans being all change-y. So often, we end up having to throw up our hands and say, “Welp.” Firm conclusions are hard to come by because firm conclusions are almost impossible to reach.
The greatest problem and the greatest solution is sample size. The rule of thumb is the smaller the sample of data, the greater the error bars around the actual signal. It follows, then, that the greater the sample of data, the smaller the error, assuming the players aren’t changing too much. If you observe one characteristic in one year, then that’s meaningful. If you observe it in three or four or five years, then that’s a lot more meaningful. You’ve got signal that drowns out the noise. Which brings us to Mark Buehrle and the Blue Jays.
The thing Buehrle’s best known for is being a major-league pitcher. As a pitcher, one of the things he’s best known for is working quickly. This leads to the application of any number of adjectives — characteristics projected onto Buehrle by onlookers — but no matter the reason and no matter the thinking, it’s always been true for as long as we’ve been able to measure it: Buehrle’s maintained a fast tempo. For a long time, nobody worked as quickly as Buehrle. And this is a positive for fans and teammates.
I’ve written about this before. We keep track of pace, or the average number of seconds between each pitch, as tracked by PITCHf/x. This is an area where Buehrle has stood out. His ranks in the league, by year:
- 2007: 1st (fastest worker)
- 2008: 1st
- 2009: 1st
- 2010: 1st
- 2011: 1st
- 2012: 1st
That counts as a gigantic sample size. There’s hardly any noise there — just the undeniable reality that Buehrle kept pitching without stepping off or wiping his brow. Truth be told, pace is one of those stats where you don’t need a big sample size because so much of it is under the pitcher’s control. But Buehrle worked up at least a six-year streak. Who’s to say how things were before the PITCHf/x era? I could make a guess. Buehrle debuted in July of 2000.
When I wrote about this in April, though, I noted that Buehrle could face a challenge from new teammate R.A. Dickey. Dickey finished second behind Buehrle in pace in 2012, and then the Blue Jays acquired them both. Odds were that Buehrle would remain ahead, but this looked to be something to monitor. I’ve monitored off and on, and I thought this was an appropriate time to issue this update:
Dickey’s in the lead. Or Buehrle’s not in first. However you want to put it, Mark Buehrle, so far this year, has not been baseball’s fastest-working pitcher. He’s second. Here’s the current leaderboard:
- R.A. Dickey, 17.6 seconds
- Mark Buehrle, 18.3
- A.J. Griffin, 18.5
- Justin Masterson, 18.7
- Bruce Chen, 18.8
To put this a different, more visual way:
The difference is small: It’s less than a second, and that’s something you’d hardly notice. Read this sentence from start to finish. There, that took you about as long as the difference between the two average paces. But there is still a difference between Buehrle and first instead of Buehrle and second. Which means an extended statistical streak is in jeopardy.
Interestingly, this isn’t because Dickey has really gotten faster. His pace a year ago was 17.7. Buehrle has slowed down. Two years ago, with the White Sox, he clocked in at 15.9. Then, with the Marlins, he was at 17.2. Now, again, he’s up more than a second, throwing again to new catchers. And to think, it’s Dickey who’s been the one fighting injury problems. Dickey’s back hasn’t slowed him down, as he’s looked for the sign for the knuckleball, then gone ahead and thrown the knuckleball. It makes perfect sense why Dickey would be a quick worker, but it’s odd to see Buehrle slip.
Dickey’s slowest game pace this year is 19.9 seconds. Buehrle’s already had six starts at at least 20 seconds. Three of those were in June; one was in July. But…. You might’ve known there’d be a but.
The way it is now isn’t necessarily the way it’ll be when the season’s over. I’ll provide for you a pace trend table:
The difference was more than two full seconds in June, but since then, Buehrle’s been the quicker worker. And there are about two months left — two months to erase a difference of seven-tenths of one second. As of this writing, R.A. Dickey is winning the Pace Race, but Mark Buehrle still has a sprint in his legs. Already, Buehrle has delivered 122 pitches in 10 seconds or less; Dickey, just 64. Buehrle has it in him to speed up. Buehrle has it in him to win this.
With David Appelman’s help, I looked up the three fastest pitches these guys have thrown so far this season. Fast in terms of pace, not velocity. Buehrle threw all three, with eight seconds having elapsed since the previous pitch. Some .gifs of those three pitches:
The bottom two came in the same inning of the same game, on July 30. Buehrle, three times, has gone just eight seconds between pitches. Thirty-five times, he’s gone nine seconds between pitches. We find Dickey at zero and 13. Buehrle’s fastest tempo is faster than Dickey’s fastest tempo, and it’s for that reason I don’t think this race is over. Buehrle’s already demonstrated he can beat Dickey’s pace over an extended stretch, and there’s a whole lot of time left.
Allow me to summarize for you the significance of this:
Yeah, so, ultimately it’s just pace. Whatever. The Blue Jays were supposed to be thinking about the playoffs — not how quickly their pitchers can pitch to opponents. In terms of on-field performance, this doesn’t matter. But, statistically, there’s something to be said for potentially snapping a long-running streak. Buehrle’s being bested at what Buehle’s done best, and that’s not something one would’ve expected. Just imagine if Buehrle loses this and he doesn’t win a Gold Glove. Who could believe in any streak anymore? There’s been comfort in the Buehrle consistency. Change is unwelcomed.
To put this differently: R.A. Dickey is on pace for a kind of statistical win. Given the Blue Jays’ place in the standings, would it be that much less relevant than his others?
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