How Mark Buehrle Is Having One of His Best Seasons Yet

Mark Buehrle is the definition of a crafty lefty. His career high strikeout percentage is 16.2% and he has struck out more than six batters per nine innings just one time in his career. Despite his lacking strikeout skills, Buehrle has still been able to maintain an 84 ERA- and net a nice four-year $58 million contract with the Marlins this past offseason. In his first stint in the National League, Buerhle is posting the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career. Here is how he is doing it.

Buehrle has historically been a change of speeds guy, as he has averaged roughly 50% four or two-seam fastballs in the PITCHf/x era. He has complimented his fastball with a heavily relied upon change up and the occasional curveball and cutter. The plethora of pitches that he can command has allowed Buehrle to succeed with significantly below average velocity for years. This year, Buehrle and the Marlins staff have decided to up the reliance on his change up even more and also increase the usage of his cutter.

He has combined to throw the two pitches in 49.5% of his offerings, with his two fastballs both being used with less frequency than in pat years. The increased usage of the change up, specifically becomes even more magnified with two strikes.

0-2: 54.4% frequency, 5.6% whiff
1-2: 33.7% frequency, 10.9% whiff
2-2: 46.2% frequency, 11.7% whiff
3-2: 55.6% frequency, 20.0% whiff

0-2: 10.7% frequency, 9.1% whiff
1-2: 20.2% frequency, 12.1% whiff
2-2: 16.9% frequency, 4.5% whiff
3-2: 16.0% frequency, 23.1% whiff

With the new approach, Buehrle is netting a 4.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the first time he has been above three since 2005. His walk rate, which has been one of the biggest factors for his success throughout his career, is now at a career low 3.7% with 1.34 walks per nine innings pitched.

Of course, some of this success is due to the transition to the National League, a better home park. and the fact that offense is generally down the past few years compared to what was the norm during Buehrle’s career. Even so, the noted alteration to his repertoire has Buehrle pitching about as well as he ever has in his career, which is very impressive given his age and his history of quality performance.

In looking at his change up usage last season, there is clearly more confidence in the pitch in two strike counts. It appears that Buehrle is going for the strikeout more than he did last year.

0-2: 18.7% frequency, 11.1% whiff
1-2: 25.9% frequency, 15.7% whiff
2-2: 31.0% frequency, 6.1% whiff
3-2: 45.6% frequency, 20.9% whiff

In every two strike count, Buehrle is attacking with his change up more frequently. While the whiff rates are somewhat comparable but still generally up this year, the rate with which the pitch is being thrown on two strikes has been a big difference in his performance so far this year.

This new version of Buehrle is a big positive for the Marlins, who have received lackluster performances from their two other big free agent acquisitions, Jose Reyes and Heath Bell. While the season has not gone as planned, a big year from Buehrle due to an altered approach is good news for the Marlins’ future.

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Ben Duronio writes for Capitol Avenue Club, FanGraphs, and does the Sports Illustrated Power Rankings. Follow Ben on twitter @Ben_Duronio.

20 Responses to “How Mark Buehrle Is Having One of His Best Seasons Yet”

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  1. Omar Little says:

    Another year, another productive season for Mark Buehrle where he flies under the radar.

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  2. JK says:

    Watching Buehrle raise his game every year in interleague and this years results makes you wonder how his career would be looked at if he would have started out there. Pitching to AL lineups in a bandbox didn’t do him any favors. This was a pretty easy thing to see coming when you take a look at his career interleague numbers and peripherals.

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  3. Daniel says:

    I’d like to see a stat for NL pitchers that shows how often they whiff the opposing pitcher. From that you could have an adjusted K/9 stat to distinguish between AL/NL pitchers (factoring interleague play, of course), and you could plot NL Buehrle against AL Buehrle to see how tight the correlation is with his improved K/BB ratio.

    Just in terms of pure counting stats, the NL has to be worth an average of at least +1 K per start, or 25-30 per season (my guess).

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    • ralph says:

      Definitely. One of the first questions that came to mind was how much of his strikeout increase could be attributed to pitcher strikeouts.

      But a league switch is certainly not a guarantee of increased strikeouts. For instance, I was really surprised that in Santana’s first year as a Met, his K-rate went down substantially from where it had been as a Twin — from around 26% to around 21%.

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      • sox2727 says:

        Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but I think generally speaking K rate will increase when you have to face fewer actual professional hitters as you do in the NL.

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      • Adrian says:

        Something that just came to mind, that I haven’t seen talked about as much is; would being in the NL lower your walk rate as well? That could also account for his career best strikeout to walk ratio. Higher strikeout rates and lower walk rates attributed to the fact that he gets to both strikeout and not walk pitchers.

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    • Semi Pro says:

      Buehrle has 10 strikeouts in 34 plate appearances against pitchers. Replace that with a DH, at his career strikeout rate, and he’s gotten about 5 extra strikeouts. So, lets say he would have 68 strikeouts if he didn’t face pitchers. That reduces his strikeout rate to 5.07 from 5.44. Still higher than the last few years. He hasn’t walked a pitcher, but in so few plate appearances, at his career walk rate, that would only add about 1-2 walks, raising his walk rate to 1.43 ish from 1.34. His strikeout to walk ratio would decline, but it would still be much better than his last several years.

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      • MikeS says:

        Using your extrapolation, that improves his K/BB from 3.54 to 4.06 so it explains some of it, but 3.54 is still better than every year except 2005.

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    • BookWorm says:

      I know that pitcher PAs are sometimes removed from things like NL league averages for batting stats, but I’m not sure if pitching stats are similarly “controlled” for PAs by opposing pitchers. It is an interesting idea.

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  4. sox2727 says:

    It still makes me sick to have to see him in that uniform

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  5. payroll says:

    Between his strike throwing proficiency and his 17.2 second pace, Buehrle is the most aggressive pitcher in baseball. He may be catching some NL hitters off guard with that.

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  6. amoc21 says:

    The Marlins are out of it and the White Sox need some help in the rotation. Trade him back to Chicago!

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  7. CJH88 says:

    Buehrle has had such an interesting career. Lets say ZIPS is right and he gets 5 more wins this yeah, and say he accumulates 1.2 more WAR. That would put him at 175 and 49. If he pitches through his 41 year old season (quite possible), that would be 8 more season. Let’s be a little optimistic and say he averages 12 wins and 2 WAR over those 8 years.

    That puts him at 271 wins and 73 WAR. if that is all you say, that is a fringy HOFer Given that he does not rely on power, I am not sure if the regular aging curves will apply. I am sure there is someone much smarter than me will know. 271 wins seems like a big number going forward, given we might not see another 300 game winner. (I know, I know, wins suck, but that is still a nice career WAR) He also has 3 GG, and may get a few more.

    Do I think given the above he would a HOF worthy? No. But those are pretty lofty numbers so who knows what those crazy voters will do.

    Him and Rolen are going to be two interesting cases.

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  8. Jeff says:

    Don’t forget that Fangraphs’ WAR doesn’t take into account Buehrle’s defense, nor his tremendous ability to shut down the running game. Prorating the DRS stat to the beginning of his career, Buehrle’s saved about 90 runs over average in his career. That’s an extra 9 wins, which significantly affects the WAR total.

    I agree his HOF case could be quite interesting.

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