Mark Buehrle’s Perfect Imperfect Game

The fastest pitch Mark Buehrle threw Wednesday was just shy of 84 miles per hour. For Buehrle, in early April, that’s not out of the ordinary, and he’s long been a guy who’s managed to make it work in the low- to mid-80s. What was a little more out of the ordinary was everything else. Armed with his usual stuff, Buehrle struck out 11 of 30 Tampa Bay batters. He was a fastball away from completing a shutout, and Buehrle himself was taken by surprise by what he was able to do.

Only one other time in his extraordinary career has Buehrle’s strikeout total reached double digits. He whiffed a dozen Mariners all the way back in April 2005, in a game that lasted all of 99 minutes. So, this was Buehrle’s second-highest strikeout total ever. Yet he generated just a dozen swings and misses. That’s a high number, but not as high as the strikeouts would suggest. In 28 career starts, Buehrle has missed more than 12 bats. In another 14, he’s missed exactly 12 bats. Buehrle was unusually unhittable without being unusually unhittable, and the reason for that is the very reason for Buehrle’s continued success in the bigs.

Pitching coaches will say to anyone who’ll listen that the name of the game isn’t velocity. In a sense, they’re blowing smoke — velocity is hugely important. In a sense, they’re also right on — no pitch is worth anything if you can’t command it, no matter how fast it flies. Good pitching is about a blend of velocity, command, movement, and unpredictability. If you have more of the first one, you need less of the other three. If you have less of the first one, you need more of the other three. Mark Buehrle has built a career out of the other three, and on Wednesday his game was a perfection of the model.

Just for a little background, Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti have done work here exploring pitchers pitching to the edges. Unsurprisingly, Buehrle has been an above-average edge pitcher for as long as we have data, a few percentage points above the league mean. And here’s what Buehrle did to the Rays when he got to two strikes:

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There’s absolutely nothing middle-middle. That elevated pitch in the middle of the zone was Buehrle’s last pitch of the game, and Ben Zobrist smacked it for a single. Prior to that, the execution was nearly flawless, and look at those called strikes. That’s eight called strikeouts, in one start, and all eight of those pitches were right on or just beyond a lateral edge.

And that’s exactly where Buehrle wanted those pitches to be. Let’s explore, one by one. Desmond Jennings led off and struck out looking on four pitches. After getting ahead 0-and-2, Buehrle went in on Jennings with a cutter. Then he threw a fastball to a similar spot and let it run toward the edge.

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Dioner Navarro‘s target barely had to move.

In the second, Sean Rodriguez struck out looking in a full count. Buehrle started with three consecutive fastballs away. Then he came back with three consecutive changeups away. The last was at the belt.

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Dioner Navarro’s target barely had to move.

In the fourth, it was Zobrist’s turn to strike out looking. In a 2-and-2 count, Buehrle ran another fastball over the inner edge.

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Dioner Navarro’s target barely had to move. Zobrist’s reaction is hitters against Buehrle in a nutshell.

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The very next batter was Evan Longoria. Buehrle got ahead 1-and-2, and then Longoria laid off a low curve. Buehrle tried to freeze him with a fastball away:

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That didn’t work, so Buehrle ran another inside fastball toward the edge:

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Dioner Navarro’s target barely had to move.

No Rays struck out looking in the fifth. No Rays struck out looking in the sixth, either. And then no Rays struck out looking in the seventh. But the eighth inning saw Buehrle strike out the side, all looking, and then the ninth began with another called strikeout, making it four in a row and giving Buehrle eight for the game. Last year, in the American League, under 24% of strikeouts were called. Under 5% of plate appearances ended with a called strikeout. Buehrle ended four consecutive plate appearances with called strikeouts. It wasn’t that the Rays were being too passive in the box — it’s that Buehrle was finding those perfect spots where swings wouldn’t do much good anyway. Hitters don’t want to cover the whole zone; they want to cover the hittable parts of the zone. If you can live in the less-hittable parts of the zone, you can thrive, and that’s how Buehrle wound up with one of the best games of his career.

Oh, and, Rodriguez started off the eighth by going down on three pitches. Buehrle went away with an 0-and-2 fastball:

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Dioner Navarro’s target barely had to move.

Brandon Guyer pinch-hit and went down on six pitches. A 1-and-2 fastball missed just off the outer edge, so Buehrle went in with the same pitch. The only pitch Guyer had seen in was a curve.

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Dioner Navarro’s target barely had to move.

Yunel Escobar went away on five pitches. He didn’t swing once. Buehrle missed away with a 1-and-2 fastball, so he came back with the same fastball, only an inch or two or three closer to the plate:

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Dioner Navarro’s target barely had to move.

At last, Jennings led off the ninth with a called strikeout on six pitches. Buehrle immediately got ahead with two offspeed strikes. A fastball missed away, then Jennings took a low curve. Jennings subsequently fouled a low fastball, so Buehrle struck Jennings out with basically the same pitch he struck him out with in the first:

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Same reaction by Jennings. Same result for Buehrle. Dioner Navarro’s target barely had to move. One of the things we’ve learned or confirmed from pitch-framing research is that pitchers are more likely to get calls if they don’t make their catchers move very much. A command pitcher is easier to frame than a wild pitcher, compounding the difference in strike rates they’d already end up with. Buehrle benefited from a slightly generous strike zone, but he always has, because he’s always commanded the corners and edges pretty well. Wednesday, he commanded them even better than he’s used to, and in a role reversal, it was the Rays who got to retreat to the clubhouse and think about the big strike zone they had to fight against.

Said Buehrle after the fact:

“Usually I come out and strike out two in the first inning and that’s it,” Buehrle said. “… I don’t know. You get 33 starts a year, 11 of them you’re going to feel like this, where you feel like the catcher puts up his glove and you’re going to hit it there. Then 11 of them you’re going to feel OK and 11 of them you ain’t going to know where the ball’s going. Today was one of the 11 putting the ball where I wanted to. Location-wise, movement, everything was there. One of those days.”

For Mark Buehrle, it was one of the good days. And in the end, for Mark Buehrle, it was one of the best days. 81 on the edge is better than 101 in the middle, and as much as good velocity gives a pitcher a greater margin of error, margin of error doesn’t matter if you don’t make any errors in the first place.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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