When Mark Buehrle takes the mound tonight, against the Tigers, he may or may not throw an indoor sinker to a right-handed hitter, which he recently did for the first time in several years. He might also throw a cut changeup, although it would be by accident rather than by design. Both pitches could come from either side of the rubber, as could the game’s best pickoff move, which Buehrle admits may reasonably be defined as a balk. The crafty lefty may also throw his third career no-hitter, or second perfect game, and he would do so following a simpler approach than you might imagine.
David Laurila: What is your approach on the mound?
Mark Buerhle: I just get the sign from the catcher and try to make the best pitch I can, to the best location. I’ve never been a guy who studies film or goes over scouting reports. I go with my catcher, and Coop [pitching coach Don Cooper] usually sits down with us and goes over the game plan beforehand. For the most part, I figure that the less that’s on my mind when I’m out there — if I’m not thinking about, and worrying about, what to throw to guys — the better off I’m going to be.
I have four pitches that I have confidence in, and I’ll throw almost all of them in any count, in any situation. I feel that if I make a quality pitch, sometimes it’s going to be a hit, but a lot of times I’m going to get an out. Who’s to say…if I’m thinking of throwing a fastball to a certain guy, and A.J. [Pierzynski] calls for a changeup, why am I right over him? I just take it as, “Hey, whichever pitch you throw down, I’ll try to throw it to the best location, the best spot, and see what happens.”
DL: You’ve worked with A.J. for a long time. What if it’s a catcher you don’t know very well?
MB: Well, the first time I ever threw to [Ramon] Castro, we threw a perfect game together. It was the first time he caught me, so pretty much…I’m sure there have been one or two guys that, at the very beginning of my career, didn’t know me as well and I might have said, “This is what I throw and in certain situations I might shake off.” But I think I’ve shaken off A.J. once this year, and it was probably the only time in four years that I’ve done that.
DL: A lot of fans watch you succeed with less-than-overpowering stuff and see you as a future pitching coach. Are you?
MB: I don’t think so. A lot of people say, “You’re going to coach after you get done playing,” but I don’t think I can, because I’m not a good teacher. I can’t look at somebody and say, “You need to stay tall,” or “You’re doing this wrong.” Guys come up and ask how I do certain stuff, and I say, ”Look, here is how I hold it, and I try to throw it to a spot; I try to get the most movement on it and throw it to that spot.” Luckily, I’ve had good mechanics that I haven’t had to mess around with too much. Like I said, I just throw the ball.
DL: Do you ever try to miss bats, or do you essentially pitch to contact?
MB: I like to get strikeouts and get guys to swing and miss, but I’m obviously more about pitching to contact. I don’t throw hard enough to throw the ball by guys, so I just use movement and location. I pitch to get outs. Obviously, if you make a good quality pitch and they put it into play in the first couple of pitches, that’s good. That keeps your pitch count down and you can go longer into games. At the same time, if you’re around the strike zone, they might put the ball into play and get more hits off of you.
If you look at the numbers, I’ve always been among the league leaders in hits allowed. I’m always getting tons of guys on base. Because I’m always in the strike zone, it seems like teams that are more aggressive give me a harder time. I’m trying to get ahead in the count and they’re out there attacking early.
DL: What are you attacking hitters with?
MB: Fastball, curveball, slider, change, and I throw most everything to everybody on both sides of the plate. You call it, I’ll throw it. The other day I threw a sinker indoor to a righty, which is probably the first one I’ve thrown in five years. I threw it and it worked. I struck out [Jose] Bautista on it. I could have shaken it off, but knowing that it worked, before the next game I might tell A.J, ‘Hey, that indoor sinker worked pretty good to a righty, so if you find the right situation, let’s use it.”
DL: Have you talked to A.J. about it yet?
MB: After the game, he kind of joked around with me a bit, like, “Hey, we have a new toy to play with.” I threw it, and it was a good pitch, but I wouldn’t say that I’m going to become a Greg Maddux and start going out there throwing sinkers to both sides of the plate.
DL: How precise are you about finger placement, and finger pressure, on your pitches?
MB: I do the same thing all the time, but I don’t think about it. It’s just the way I hold the ball. Sometimes I’ll throw a sinker or a cutter that’s real good and moves a lot, and the next one isn’t as good. Maybe that’s because of finger pressure, or something else, but I just figure it was one of those that I didn’t throw quality enough.
DL: Do you normally know if it will be a quality pitch as soon as it leaves your hand?
MB: Not necessarily. There are times when you feel like you’ve made a good pitch; it could cut and move, it could sink. Sometimes I’ll throw a changeup…95 percent of my changeups will sink down and away, but every once in awhile it will cut. It will be like a cut changeup, and I wish I could throw it when I wanted to, but I can’t, because I don’t know what I do differently. That could happen once a game. They’re all sinking down and away, and all of a sudden one will cut and I’ll be like, “Huh” and A.J. will be like, “What the heck?” I’ll have no clue what I did, it just happened.
DL: Why do you work at a fast tempo?
MB: It’s natural. No one ever told me, when I was younger, “Hey, the quicker you work, the better off you’ll be,” but I don’t see a reason you should be out there walking around the mound. There are pitchers who take forever between pitches and make the game so much longer.
When you work fast and hear your teammates saying how much they like playing behind you, because you get the ball and throw it, obviously it makes you feel good. I don’t go out there like, “Hey, I’ve got to work quick,” but I do pretty much just get the ball and get right back on the mound.
DL: Are your feet always on the same place on the rubber?
MB: No, it rotates. Mid-game, it could shift. One time I tried the third base side for righties and the first base side for lefties. I was having a problem getting lefties out, so we said, ‘Let’s move to that side of the mound and see if it gives you a better angle.” A couple of games ago, I was right around the middle and I was throwing a lot of sinkers that were off the plate, and A.J. kind of just did, like, “Refocus your location.” I just scooted toward the third base side, thinking that if the ball is moving that much off the plate, and if I move over that much, maybe it will be on the plate.
Right now I’m on the third base side, but in the next game, if something isn’t working, I could be back in the middle or on the other side. It’s whatever feels comfortable on that given day. Like I said, I had problems getting lefties out from the one side of the rubber, so I moved over about eight inches. When I’m throwing sliders, maybe it will look like it’s coming at them a little more.
DL: Do individual umpires have any impact on you?
MB: Not really. On the first game of a series, like if I’m throwing the second or third day, I’ll look at what umpire I’m going to have. There are some where you might say, “This guy is going to be a little bit more of a pitcher’s umpire than a hitter’s umpire,” but nowadays with the QuesTek, and them getting graded, they’re pretty much the same.
DL: Is there anything unique about your between-starts routine?
MB: Well, I don’t really do bullpens. I’ve probably done fewer than 10 bullpens in the last three or four years. I just play catch — touch and feel. That’s about it. I like to save my bullets.
I still try to play long toss to strengthen my arm up — I get out as far as I can with it — but other than that, as far as a full-fledged bullpen, I won’t do it. A guy might sit down out here on flat ground, and I’ll throw some pitches and work on some movement. I feel that I can get enough work in doing that.
DL: A Mark Buehrle interview wouldn’t be complete without addressing your pickoff move and overall defensive abilities. Why do you excel in that aspect of your game?
MB: I take pride in fielding my position and always have. I think that comes from when I was a little kid and used to play roller hockey. I played street roller hockey with my buddies and I always used to get back into the goal to try to stop something. I’ve always said that I’m going to get hurt one of these times, but when the ball comes my way it’s just reaction to throw anything and everything at it to try to knock it down. I take pride in fielding my position, because it helps me out and it helps my team out. I feel that guys maybe don’t need to play up the middle quite as much while I’m out there.
As for my pickoff move, J.R. Perdew taught it to me when I was in A ball and I’ve just kept practicing it and going from there. To be honest, what’s kind of funny is that I don’t feel it’s that good. Base runners will be talking to one of our guys and saying, “Hey, I’m not going anywhere; I can’t figure this guy out,” so I’m obviously doing something right, but as far as me, I don‘t think it‘s all that good.
I pick a lot of guys off, but I don’t know what I really do differently than other lefthanders. I have a good move and a bad move that I throw over with, and I guess I just save the good one for the right situations.
DL: I assume you know the rulebook definition of a balk?
MB: The wording of it, I think, is that you’re trying to deceive the runner. I’m obviously trying to pick him off, otherwise I’d tell him, “Hey, I’m going to throw over right now” or “I’m going to throw home,” so I guess that I am trying to deceive him. Every time I pick over, by the wording of the rule, it’s a balk, because I’m trying to deceive the runner.
It’s almost the same with a check swing. By rule, a swing is when a hitter attempts to swing the bat. When he jerks, he’s going to attempt to swing the bat. Is there a rule that says the bat has to cross in front of home plate? It’s like the balk rule, it’s all about intent.
You’re trying to deceive the guy, so you should almost get called for a balk every time. I used to think there was a 45-degree line, because that’s what you’re taught when you come up, but if you talk to umpires they’ll say there is no such thing as a 45-degree line. You simply have to show them that you’re going to first and not trying to deceive them by appearing to go home.
DL: Any final thoughts about pitching?
MB: Not really, because like I said, I just get the ball and throw it. I’m not saying that I don’t know what I’m doing — I have to give myself some credit — but I’ve always been a guy who gets it and throws it to a spot. Then I hope for the best.