Over a quarter of the 2014 season is in the books and the sample sizes are creeping toward a representative level. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been taking somewhat deeper looks at some of this season’s more noteworthy players and performances to date. “Noteworthy” doesn’t always mean “best”, though it does in most cases. Today, we’ll take a look at the first quarter performance of Mark Buehrle, who notched his ninth win of the season on Tuesday night. Exactly what is going on here? Has Buehrle found another gear late in his career, ascending to a new level of performance? Or is he simply Mark Buehrle, guy who takes the ball every fifth day, walks no one, pitches to contact, fields his position, and keeps his club in the ballgame, with no bells and whistles?
If it seems that Buehrle has been around forever, well, he kind of has. He was an old-school draft-and-follow selection by the White Sox in the 38th round of the 1998 draft. The Sox held his rights as he played his sophomore season at two-year Jefferson College in Missouri, and then signed him prior to the 1999 draft. This type of arrangement is no longer possible under the current draft rules. The minor leagues didn’t hold him for long, as he lasted all of little over a calendar year and 217 1/3 IP, posting a 159/33 K/BB before graduating to the big leagues in July of 2000. He pitched mostly in relief for the Chisox that season, but has made 437 consecutive starts over the 13-plus seasons since.
Buehrle was one of the AL’s best starters for roughly the first half of his career, averaging about seven innings per start, walking no one, and allowing about a hit per inning. From 2006 on, his average innings per start dropped to about 6.5, but he has managed to continue his streak of consecutive 200-inning seasons to 13, with a 14th a near certainty this year if he can remain healthy. His ERA+ has been worse than league average exactly once, he has led the league in innings twice, and has compiled an ERA+ of 140 or better twice (both before 2006), though he has exceeded 122 just once since. He hasn’t been a true Cy Young contender, or a pure #1 at any point in his career, but he has been incredibly consistent and reliable.
Til this year. If they gave out the AL Cy Young Award tomorrow, he’d probably win it. He’s got those nine wins already, plus a shiny 2.33 ERA for a team that is currently leading its division. About that team……three weeks ago, I wrote an article detailing the general mediocrity of the American League, and in it, I ranked the Toronto Blue Jays 10th and last among a group that excluded the Tigers, A’s and Angels on the high end and the Astros on Twins on the low end. I also ranked the Boston Red Sox #1 among that group. I still feel pretty good about everything I wrote about the other nine clubs, including the Red Sox, who I still think have a surge in them. I underestimated the Blue Jays, however. Their lineup is deep and productive, and their starting pitching, which I targeted as the reason for a potential downturn, has been better lately. They won’t stay this hot, but they are clearly not the worst team in that group.
Is Buehrle doing anything different that has caused him to reach a previously unattained level of excellence? Or is this simply his best case scenario come to life, a small sample that is screaming out for regression? Let’s take a look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for some hints. Keep in mind that the sample sizes remain small, so most of the contextual information incorporated below is from the 2013 season. No matter – we’re not searching for exactitude here, just looking for some indicators.
|FREQ – 2014|
|PROD – 2014|
|Buehrle||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
First, let’s take a look at the frequency table. Obviously, Buehrle is, and always has been a low K/low BB pitcher. His K rate percentile rank of 7 is pretty much in line with recent career norms, though his BB rate percentile rank of 31 is actually quite high for him. Interestingly, he has yielded a very high line drive rate thus far in 2014 – his 99 percentile rank indicates that his rate would have been the very highest among 2013 AL ERA qualifiers. His fly ball percentile rank of 17 is quite low for him, as he had actually allowed a higher than MLB average fly ball rate in 2012 and 2013. There is nothing spectacular about this profile. All in all, not the outcome frequencies we would expect from a 9-1, 2.33, pitcher.
The second table lists the production from and hints at the authority of the batted balls allowed by Buehrle. The actual production allowed for each BIP type is listed in the “AVG” and “SLG” columns, and is converted into run values, compared to MLB average and scaled to 100 in the “REL PRD” column. Estimates of context, i.e., ballpark, team defense, simple regression and luck are applied in the “ADJ PRD” column in an attempt to isolate his true talent. For the purposes of this exercise, HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation, and SH and SF are counted as outs. Again – this is relatively small sample, with much subjectivity in the contextual adjustments, so let’s not get caught up in absolute precision here.
The most eyecatching item in the second table is the amazingly low amount of damage done on fly balls against Buehrle so far this season. He has allowed a .211 AVG-.404 SLG, compared to the MLB average of .283-.739, for a REL PRD figure of 39, which would have ranked first in the majors in 2013, just ahead of Matt Harvey (40) and Clayton Kershaw (42). This is simply unsustainable for Buehrle, who has never numbered management of fly ball contact among his chief strengths. He has allowed only two HR in 73 1/3 IP to date, but has allowed fewer than 20 HR in a season exactly once in the last 13 years. This will regress at least somewhat, though his ADJ PRD figure of 65 would have ranked fourth among MLB ERA qualifiers in 2013.
Buehrle has also allowed very little damage on grounders so far this season (84 REL PRD), despite very unimposing hard/soft grounder rates. This too is a prime candidate for regression. Overall, Buehrle has allowed a .302 AVG-.421 SLG on all BIP this season, giving him a REL PRD – or unadjusted contact score – of 78, which is quite exceptional. Once adjusted for context, however, his adjusted contact score is 100, exactly league average. Add backs the low number of K’s, which hurts him, and the low number of BB’s, which helps, and you have an overall ADJ PRD of 107. Yes, his actual ERA of 2.33 is way out of sync with his calculated ERA of 3.91, which weeds out sequencing, and his “tru” ERA of 4.06, which adjusts for context.
When you strike out no one, you need to be an elite contact manager to be a truly elite pitcher. Mark Buehrle has been a solid contact manager in the past, but at this stage in his career is just an adequate one. One can easily do a simple “contact score” – the equivalent of the REL PRD figure in the table – calculation for any pitcher. Simply remove the K and BB, and convert the overall OBP and SLG allowed on BIP by a pitcher to run values, and compare it to the overall league figures. 100 is average. The league leader is usually in the 70’s or better, and the laggards are in the 110’s or a little higher. Sure, in a given year park factors or luck in general might throw a pitcher’s unadjusted contact score off, but over time, the contact managers manage contact well.
An average ERA qualifier’s contact score would be about 97, a little better than the overall league average. Buehrle’s career mark is 93.3, which is good, but not elite. Take away his rookie year peak of 71, however, and he is just a bit above average, with 87 his next best mark. Every year, there are a handful of pitchers whose REL PRD and ADJ PRD differ by more than a nominal amount. Those pitchers either play in an extreme environment or had significantly good or bad luck. Luck is on Buehrle’s side thus far in 2014.
As a frame of reference, let’s look at the same data for Buehrle’s 2013 season.
|FREQ – 2013|
|PROD – 2013|
|Buehrle||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
You’ll note that 2013 Buehrle ironically allowed a much lower line drive rate, in a much less successful season. You’ll also notice that he allowed a great deal more damage in the air, with his .313 AVG-.749 SLG translating to a 109 REL PRD and 98 ADJ PRD once adjusted for context. He allowed a relatively high level of production on grounders, much more in line with the authority of grounders allowed. His REL PRD and ADJ PRD on all BIP were both 104, and those figures both crept slightly upward to 106 when the K and BB were added back. Buehrle’s 2013 actual, calculated and “tru” ERAs all fell in line quite nicely, at 4.15, 4.11 and 4.11, respectively. In fact, look at the 2014 and 2013 actual, calculated and “tru” ERAs, and only one number stands out – his 2.33 actual ERA thus far in 2014. That number is the aberration, not the rule. At this point in his career, Buehrle is an innings-eater that keeps his club in the ballgame. Period. That’s no insult, by the way, as a slam-dunk, year-in, year-out 200-inning guys are harder to find than you might think.
Mark Buehrle is a darned good pitcher, one I’d love to have on my club. You know exactly what you’re getting, and he takes the ball every time without fail. That said, at this stage in his career, he is not an elite pitcher. To be an elite pitcher with such limited bat-missing ability – his current 6.1% swing-and miss rate matches his career low, and is currently fifth lowest among AL ERA qualifiers – one must possess elite contact management skills. Buehrle’s contact management skills at this stage of his career are average. There are two major blips on his 2014 profile that will regress as the season unfolds. First, his line drive rate will come down, and that actually helps him. Two, he will allow much more damage on fly balls, and that will hurt him.
You can’t take away his first 11 starts, however. He has overachieved thus far, and regression doesn’t mean he’ll underperform by a similar amount going forward – it means that he’ll pitch more like the “real” Mark Buehrle going forward. He has a very real chance of posting his first 20-win season, and his actual ERA will likely remain better than his peripherals would suggest once the final numbers are in. This could well be his late-career Bob Welch season, one that looks a lot better than it actually was. In the big picture, he has carried the ball for his club during a two-month period in which they desperately needed him to do so. He has done it in front of an ordinary defense, in a ballpark that has been very hitter-friendly to date. If the bottom of the Jays’ rotation continues to stabilize, they might not need Buehrle to pitch over his head the rest of the way. The real Mark Buehrle just might suffice.
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