The Old Mark Buehrle’s New Trick

Dave observed the other day on Twitter that, over the past calendar year, Mark Buehrle has been one of the better and more valuable starting pitchers in baseball. A lot of that has had to do with home-run suppression, and if you read FanGraphs often, you know how we generally feel about home-run suppression, but the larger point is that, after getting off to a rough start in Toronto, Buehrle turned things around and continues to get batters out to this day. His strikeouts right now are basically the same as ever, and every game batters against Buehrle return to their dugouts shaking their heads. He is what he has been, allowing him to feel ageless.

Consider everything about Buehrle and you might assume that he’s pitching like he always has. Why mess with what’s been working? Buehrle’s always been a little bit deceptive and a little bit finesse, and it’s not like you very often see a pitcher in his mid-30s make an approach adjustment. But if you dig beneath the 2014 Mark Buehrle surface, you notice something you can’t un-notice. Of his 31 strikeouts, 20 have been called. This is unusual, and this has an explanation.

Of those 20 called strikeouts, 19 have come against right-handed batters. Let’s take a look at the Mark Buehrle timeline of called strikeouts against righties during the PITCHf/x era:

2008: 29 called strikeouts against RHB
2009: 22
2010: 22
2011: 30
2012: 26
2013: 32
2014: 19 (already)

Right now, Buehrle’s on pace to shatter at least his recent high. Better than two-thirds of his strikeouts of righties have been called, and at one point eight consecutive right-handed strikeouts were called. Or, if you prefer, 12 of 13. Buehrle got out to an incredible start, confusing the hell out of the Rays on April 2, and he hasn’t kept up that pace, but the numbers now are the numbers now, and this isn’t typically Mark Buehrle’s game, as much as it feels like it is.

Over Buehrle’s career, before this season, 29% of his strikeouts were called, which is only a little above league average. He’s presently at 65%. Last year’s high, among qualified pitchers, was 48%, shared by C.J. Wilson and Lucas Harrell. Vance Worley was at 57% in 2012. Bartolo Colon was at 56% in 2011, with Worley at 55%. To find something in the 60s, you go back to 2003, when John Burkett finished at 63% and Rick Reed finished at 62%. In the strike-shortened 1995, John Doherty finished at 70%. He’s the only qualified pitcher since 1988 to beat Buehrle’s current rate.

The key, to go back to it, is what Buehrle’s done against righties. Courtesy of Baseball Savant, here are the 19 called third strikes against right-handed hitters in 2014:

buehrle2strikesrhb2014

A few on the outside. One down the gut. A big clump around the inside edge. That’s by design, and this is a reflection of a new thing that Mark Buehrle is doing with tremendous frequency.

The thing about Buehrle is the diversity of movement he can generate. Most obviously, he has a changeup and a curveball, but he also has a cut fastball, a straighter fastball, and a running fastball. Brooks Baseball classifies those as a cutter, a four-seamer, and a sinker, and we’ll stick with those labels. The big change has to do with Buehrle’s sinker, and I had to check this a bunch of times to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake. The difference is enormous.

Here are Mark Buehrle’s rates of two-strike sinkers to right-handed batters during the PITCHf/x era:

2008: 7% sinkers to righties with two strikes
2009: 3%
2010: 6%
2011: 3%
2012: 6%
2013: 8%
2014: 41%

What used to be an almost forgotten pitch has become a favorite weapon. Previously, Buehrle’s sinker accounted for about 6% of his strikeouts of righties. This year, that’s up to 61%, as Buehrle has caught hitters unprepared for his sinker’s location and movement.

It’s astonishing, the way Buehrle has put the pitch to use. Against righties this year, with zero strikes, Buehrle has thrown one of 92 sinkers over the inner edge, or beyond. With one strike, he’s thrown one of 26 sinkers inside. With two strikes, he’s thrown 43 of 57 sinkers inside. He’s set hitters up by working them away, and then with two strikes, Buehrle has tried to run the sinker back over the plate, finding the front door.

Before, Buehrle didn’t use the sinker very much with two strikes against righties. When he did, he threw 36% of them inside. So far this year he’s more than doubled that rate while throwing the pitch far more often overall. Trying to get strikeouts with front-door running fastballs isn’t unique to Buehrle — this is kind of the Johnny Cueto game plan, and Bartolo Colon’s, too — but Buehrle hasn’t done this much in the past, and that’s what makes this interesting. Now 35, Buehrle throws the same pitches as ever, for the most part, but he’s learned to use them differently and perhaps stave off a decline that otherwise might’ve already arrived.

To this point, the story of Mark Buehrle’s 2014 has been his sinker. He’s used it differently from how he has in the past, and it’s allowed him to post similar numbers to his track record. Because so much of what we do is basically about trying to predict the future, the question is how long this approach can last, before opponents begin to adjust and look for the sinker inside. We tend to be more skeptical of called strikeouts than swinging strikeouts, since swinging strikeouts seem to be more sustainable. I get the feeling Buehrle won’t be able to keep up his current rates all season long. But, he’s gotten by for this long, so maybe he shouldn’t be doubted. And if hitters do pick up on this, there’s nothing stopping Buehrle from making another kind of change to stay one step ahead. I mean, he’s done it before. That’s what this whole thing is about. Eventually, Mark Buehrle will be finished, but that day’ll probably come long after it by all rights ought to.




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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.


29 Responses to “The Old Mark Buehrle’s New Trick”

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  1. grant says:

    Brilliant strategy, brilliant article.

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  2. shawn says:

    Mark Buehrle’s games are so fun to watch. He looks like an old school junkballer, but the junk he throws turns each start into pure gold. He reminds me a lot of tom glavine as glavine got into his mid to late 30’s. He works the edges with great command and control without giving in, getting a few calls from umps that others might not and taking advantage of hitter’s overagressiveness.

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    • Mike says:

      Not to mention he’s good at everything outside of throwing pitches. He’s excellent at fielding his position, he has a great pickoff move, and he works FAST. (Plus there was that time he homered in Milwaukee.)

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  3. DD says:

    Not an accident that you mention Worley’s 2012, as this is EXACTLY what he did as a RHP against lefties that year. Obviously they either figured him out or he became less effective in execution since.

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  4. Matt says:

    Interesting point was made in an article by Shi Dividi (I think) who talked to Mark. Said that he doesn’t do any scouting if his batters. Just leaves it to his catcher Navarro and throws whatever he calls. I wonder if that is a big cause of the change.

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    • Very good possibility

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    • GG says:

      Was going to suggest the same thing. While I’m sure they talk about it, Buehrle doesn’t even attend pre-game meetings. Leaving it to Navarro and Pete Walker. It’s the amazingly successful “nod and throw” game plan.

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    • EC says:

      It’s probably been mentioned here somewhere before, but I believe that was the article where Buehrle said he hasn’t shaken off a sign since 2003…if there has been a change to his approach, it certainly appears that Navarro deserves a significant amount of the credit (even if Buehrle may have given him some guidelines or preferences between starts)…

      oh, and it needs to be stated what an excellent article this is…

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      • Ballfan says:

        he has shaken off Navarro this year. Just recently.
        The situation was, 2 out no one on…I don’t know what Navarro called but Mark shook him off. I guess Navarro was pissed. Buehrle wanted to throw fastball down the middle, steal a strike, as likely the batter would be taking. Buehrle was right…..anyways, it is rare, absolutely, but it happens.

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  5. Mike says:

    Sounds like he has discovered the old Greg Maddux trick. Two-seamer, Sinker, what ever you want to call it, using a pitch with arm side run against an opposite handed batter. Throw it inside and let it run back to catch the inside corner for a called strike three. Maddux used this trick for years and it seams like hitters never caught on.

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    • Feeding the Abscess says:

      Have to have pinpoint command to throw that pitch against opposite handed hitters, though. Sinkers have either the worst or second worst (slider is the other really bad one) platoon splits of all pitches. If you miss, it’s sailing right over the plate.

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      • Mike says:

        No, its not a strategy you want to attempt without good control. Particularly in the case of this approach as one of the best places to locate the pitch is about belt high and just nicking the strike-zone with the late movement. It will freeze the batter if not causing them to jump back. So many memories of Maddux pulling this off and watching left-handed hitters flinching back only to have the umpire punch them out. But yeah, if you miss in, you are looking at a belt-high meatball.

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  6. AF says:

    Not that it defeats the point of the article, but he seems to be getting a lot of calls as well.

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    • siggian says:

      This should not be unexpected. As a control pitcher, Buehrle should be able to hit the catcher’s target consistently. This in turn makes it easier for the catcher to frame it nice and subtlety for the umpire if the pitch is on the edge.

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  7. RichW says:

    I find this curious. Buehrle claims he just throws what the catcher calls. He doesn’t attend the common pitcher catcher pre-game meeting on hitters. Given that, is this a result of Dioner Navarro and/or the pitching coach picking up on something early this season and using Buehrle’s ability to throw exactly what is called?

    Considering Buehrle’s success, why do we not see more young pitchers with less than the best stuff working like him?

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    • Jason B says:

      “Young pitchers with less than the best stuff” aptly describes lotsa Jays’ pitchers. I hope they find similar levels of success in working with him. It’s been a loooooooooong postseason drought.

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    • siggian says:

      Well, Buehrle has complete confidence in his command of all of his pitches. That is, he knows he can throw any pitch exactly where the catcher wants it. From Buehrle’s POV, it doesn’t matter what the catcher calls, he can execute it.

      Most other pitchers don’t have that command, and they know it. Some pitchers will want to throw to spots they know they can hit and will shake off the catcher until they get the pitch they want. Other pitchers will try to execute the called for pitch but won’t always get the result they were after.

      Finally, the other key to Buehrle is that he varies the speed on all of his pitches so that even if the hitter knows the location, there’s a good chance he just misses on the timing and ends up with a foul ball or weak grounder.

      I’m sure that if Buehrle’s formula was easy to do, many other soft tossing pitchers would be following it as well. It clearly isn’t an easy thing to master because the league would have plenty of soft-tossing pitchers and, while there are a number of them spread around the league, there aren’t that many either.

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    • Graham says:

      Well we have seen a big improvement in Hutchison this year

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  8. Derek says:

    Since Buehrle’s been known to not one to call his own game and leave it to the catcher/bench, is this change more on Navarro’s game calling than previous receivers?

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  9. Mr Scout says:

    Sleeper for 300 wins

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    • Jason B says:

      Waaaay outside shot, but his win totals have been very remarkably consistent since 2001 – never fewer than 10 or more than 19.

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  10. Jay says:

    Amazing pitcher. It’s difficult to notice two seamers on televison for LHP because the camera is on the wrong side. I wouldn’t have figured this new sinker was the reason without reading this.

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  11. Ballfan says:

    I think he had a bit of a rough transition to the Jays – thought he was a Marlin and all. Once he adjusted, the results followed. I am pretty sure Mark is very happy playing in T.O.. Even though there is a pitbull law…

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  12. Malon says:

    Is he still not calling his pitches? Is this Navarro’s doing or Buehrle’s?

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  13. JimH says:

    That’s some good framing

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    • bdhudson says:

      Definitely, but it’s also a lot easier to frame a guy who rarely misses his spots

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      • Kevin says:

        and Navarro has never graded out as a particularly good pitch framer in the past, and not this year either. pretty solid proof of the pitcher having as much of an effect on framing as the catcher.

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  14. saint says:

    yeah except that being a ~4 xfip pitcher 10 years ago was a lot better than being a 4 xfip pitcher now

    lol fangraphs, you guys don’t even try anymore

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  15. saint says:

    should have just titled the article This guy has a low era over a tiny sample size and we have to write some article fellating him for pageviews because we are giant whores

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