Trying to Figure Out Mark Buehrle

If there’s one truism in baseball that rings more true than all the others, it is probably that pitchers are just remarkably inconsistent. Even putting injuries aside, you have things like Ryan Vogelsong coming out of nowhere to solidify the Giants rotation or Javier Vazquez just randomly vacillating between one of the league’s best pitchers and serving as a batting practice machine. No matter whether you look at ERA or xFIP, the reality is that predicting how a given pitcher will do going forward is challenging.

So, it’s understandable why Mark Buehrle is such an attractive free agent this winter. He’s thrown 200+ innings in every season since 2001 and he’s produced remarkably similar results in each year since coming to the big leagues. Here are his ERA- for each year of his career:

2001: 73
2002: 78
2003: 89
2004: 82
2005: 70
2006: 105
2007: 78
2008: 84
2009: 83
2010: 100
2011: 85

His career average ERA- is 84, and he’s hit that mark almost on the nose in three of the last four years. With only a couple of seasons where he gave up runs at an average rate, he rarely varies from his overall norms. His 2005 and 2006 seasons were essentially outliers to both sides, but beyond that two year stretch, he’s been just a solidly above average starting pitcher with hardly any variation.

Of course, looking at his underlying metrics paints a somewhat different story. His career FIP- is 92, quite a bit worse than his career ERA-, and shows that he’s consistently posted lower ERAs than we would have expected based on his walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate. It’s even more extreme when you look at xFIP-, where his career mark is 97. That’s a substantial gap, especially considering Buehrle has thrown nearly 2,500 innings in his career.

There are other pitchers who have sustained similar gaps between their ERAs and their FIP/xFIPs over the last 10 years in significant numbers of innings; Jered Weaver, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Tim Wakefield, Johan Santana, Jarrod Washburn, and Carlos Zambrano have all outperformed their peripherals for most of their careers. However, for most of these guys, the answer as to why is pretty simple – they’ve sustained low BABIP and/or low HR/FB rates, the main variables that aren’t measured in FIP (in the case of BABIP) or xFIP (which doesn’t include either). These guys have excelled in the areas that most pitchers have not been able to, and so their positive results are simply the byproduct of their skills not being captured entirely by the model.

However, Buehrle doesn’t really fit into that same mold. His career BABIP is .291, just barely lower than the league average of .294 since the start of the 2002 season. He’s not really a guy who prevents hits on balls in play in any kind of real significant way. Likewise, his 9.8% HR/FB rate is just slightly lower than the 10.3% average over the same time frame. While he’s been marginally better at these things than a normal starting pitcher, the magnitudes are very small, and don’t put him in the same category of guys like Weaver or Cain. In reality, his BABIP and HR/FB rates explain hardly any of the difference between his ERA and his FIP or xFIP.

So, if he’s not preventing hits and he’s not preventing home runs, then he must be stranding a ton of baserunners, right? Roy Oswalt, for instance, has kept his ERA down by posting a 76.1% LOB% over the last decade, the fourth highest mark in baseball for pitchers with at least 1,000 innings since 2002. And, after all, Buehrle is very good at holding on runners, so it would make sense that he’d strand more than his fair share on base.

Except, this doesn’t really fit with the numbers either, as his career LOB% is 72.3%, a rather pedestrian mark that is just slightly above the league average. In fact, if we use the formula that Dave Studemund provided to predict LOB% from a pitcher’s xFIP – 86%-(.033*xFIP) – than we can see Buehrle’s expected LOB% (72.1%) is almost exactly in line with his actual mark. Buehrle is stranding basically the right amount of runners given his actual walk rates, strikeout rates, and ground-ball rates.

So, uhh, what’s left? He’s not preventing hits. He’s not preventing home runs. He’s not stranding runners. How is Mark Buehrle keeping so many runs off the board?

The answer might be that he’s not, and a real part of the explanation for Buehrle’s gap between his ERA and his FIP/xFIP is actually a bias in how ERA is calculated. As you know, Buehrle is a ground-ball pitcher, and pitchers who put their infielders to work see a larger share of their balls in play result in errors. Errors result in unearned runs, and unearned runs don’t count against a pitcher’s ERA.

In fact, if we look at Buehrle’s career, 10.1% of all the runs Buehrle has allowed have been labeled as unearned. For starting pitchers since 2002 with 1,000+ innings pitched, that’s the ninth highest ratio of unearned runs in baseball. Some of the pitchers ahead of him include Brandon Webb, Felix Hernandez, and Derek Lowe, which illustrates the point of how ground-ball pitchers tend to have ERAs that are driven down because many of the runs they actually do allow are counted as unearned.

For that group of starters, only 7.8% of their total runs allowed were unearned, and if we adjust Buehrle’s earned-run total to reflect that average, he’d have been charged with an additional 26 runs, raising his career ERA from 3.83 to 3.92. That doesn’t bring his ERA completely in line with his FIP or xFIP, but it cuts the gap by 29%, and shows that a significant part of the perceived gap between Buehrle’s results and his peripherals is really just due to the earned run bias that runs in favor of ground-ball pitchers.

This doesn’t invalidate Buehrle as a good pitcher, as his durability and consistency are still intact, and even if you judge him by something like FIP-, he still comes out as one of the better pitchers in the league. However, it’s perhaps a different type of good pitcher than you might think by just looking at ERA.

If we sort all starting pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched since 2000, Buehrle’s 3.83 ERA puts him as a peer of Ben Sheets (3.79), Zack Greinke (3.82), Josh Beckett (3.84), and Andy Pettitte (3.86). If you ignore the subjective earned runs tag and sort by runs allowed per nine innings, however, Buehrle’s 4.26 RA/9 makes him a peer of Al Leiter (4.23), Barry Zito (4.24), Randy Wolf (4.29), and Jarrod Washburn (4.29).

There’s nothing wrong with the second group of pitchers, but I think we’d all agree that they aren’t as good as the first group. If a team thinks they’re getting more of the former than the latter, they may very well end up disappointed.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

39 Responses to “Trying to Figure Out Mark Buehrle”

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  1. Nick44 says:

    Any home/road splits in % of unearned runs? The home team scorer effect?

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  2. Blue Jays Fan says:

    Good point. Papa Grande (David Murphy is Murphys Law)

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  3. Jack Nugent says:

    Isn’t the league average GB% ~48%? Correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m not exactly sure that’s right, but Buehrle’s career GB% is 45.9%, and he’s been getting ground balls at slightly lower rates in each of the past three seasons…

    Overall point of the article is obviously still valid, but is it right to call Buehrle a ground ball pitcher?

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  4. JD says:

    Two other reasons that weren’t mentioned here: Buehrle doesn’t walk guys and he picks off a lot of guys/limits the running game because of his pickoff move.

    I’d love to see first-to-third against Buehrle vs. other pitchers (Even other similar pitchers). Consider: A reasonably fast runner is on first, but because he’s worried about getting picked off, he gets a bad secondary lead and has to hold up at second on a base hit. The next guy hits into a double play, guy after that makes some other out. That runner is stranded on third when normally he would’ve scored on the double play.

    There’s plenty of permutations here, and I have no idea how many runs Buehrle is saving by the threat of his pickoff move (not to mention the more quantifiable number of runs when you consider actual pickoff outs). Guys don’t steal off him, and I’d bet guys take fewer extra bases, too.

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    • Woodrum's UZR Article says:

      i think the walks thing is covered with all the mentions of FIP… but you make a very interesting point about holding runners close to the bag.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Also, the BABIP factor is dismissed too quickly. Especially for an enormous sample, a .291 BABIP is low for a groundball pitcher. And BABIP has much more of an effect for Buehrle than it does for most pitchers, because he induces so many balls-in-play.

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    • Jilly says:

      I think controlling the running game is the big one. Zambrano too is another one that gets a lot of pickoffs and allows very few steals. And I haven’t watched the other guys mentioned enough but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re good defensively as well. I think pitcher defense is something that doesn’t get accounted for that at least on the margins can have pretty significant effects on ERA.

      I think it’s pretty reasonable to think that an elite defensive pitcher pitcher could save an extra 5-7 runs per season above average. And five runs over 200 innings is .23 points of ERA, seven is .32. Buehrle’s career FIP-ERA is .3. Definitely something to think about.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      This would theoretically show up in strand rate, though. If Buehrle is putting an average amount of baserunners on but keeping them from scoring, his LOB% should be among the highest in the league. It’s not.

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      • Hank says:

        Dave – I thought LOB% does not factor in runners getting on via error?

        If Buerhle is indeed seeing a greater # of errors behind, his LOB% is actually understating his strand capability (as the runners reaching via error are not being accounted for)…

        So if Buerhle is maintaining a league average or slightly above average LOB% despite these hidden extra runners, it might actually mean his PO/CS/holding runners closer skill is actually helping and simply offsetting these unaccounted for runners.

        The other thing is there is also a generic HR factor in the LOB calculation.not sure which way that’s cutting for Buehrle…

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      • MikeS says:

        As a big Buehrle fan I have been thinking about this alot lately for some reason and I think the way he controls the running game must enter into it somehow.

        Buehrle had 6 pickoffs last year so that’s two free innings. Not alot. That can;t be the whole story. He also only had 3SB in 10 attempts – even with AJ behind the plate for much of the year. So that’s 2.1 more free innings (up to 1/2 a game now) and a whole lot of runners who stayed at first. I don’t know the ins and outs of strand rate but it is certainly easier for a pitcher to strand a runner at 1st than at 2nd or 3rd. I see what you are saying and that should show up in a better strand rate. I don’t know why it doesn’t.

        Another non standard thing he does to his benefit is play defense. He had 9 DRS last year. Isn’t that nearly 1 full defensive WAR? That would be impressive for any fielder playing only 32 games. I know that should show up in these stats too because it doesn’t matter who makes the play but it is another thing that he brings to the table that most pitchers don’t.

        He’s simply unique these days and he works fast. In my opinion, he’s one of the most fun guys to watch pitch in person because he does all those little things well.

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  5. JK says:

    This can also be partly attributed to secondary skills. Buehrle helps himself by making plays in the field that a lot of other pitchers don’t make, come backers that get by a lot of pitchers are outs or the start of DP’s with Buehrle on the mound. Guys who use the bunt for hit as a weapon vs. guys who can’t get off the mound might think twice about using it vs. Buehrle.

    The other is that the running game is a non starter vs. Buehrle. Guys simply don’t steal. While Gavin Floyd teamed up with Pierzynski to allow 23 of 25 successful attempts, Buehlre allowed 3 steals all season, with 7 guys caught or picked off. What might be harder to measure with the metrics is how his move impacts base runners. What I mean is that guys are so paranoid about being fooled by his move they usually stick about two feet away from the bag since they can’t tell if he is going home or over to first. As a result, they have awful jumps, which may lead to more DPs and outs at 2B since the fielders can get the runner on account of their horrible leads from first.

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  6. Chris from Bothell says:

    ERA shouldn’t factor into it in the first place, though, right? I thought FIP was a major component of pitcher’s WAR but ERA isn’t. So his FIP feeds into his WAR, and thus $WAR, and thus what he should be paid per win he’s adding…

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      WAR for starting pitchers is simply a combination of FIP and innings, with a park/league adjustment. So, yeah, his ERA is irrelevant to that.

      But this article isn’t about WAR. It doesn’t even mention WAR. The question at hand is why Buehrle’s ERA is always much better than his peripherals. Over such a large sample, it’s more than randomness.

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      • Chris from Bothell says:

        But at the very end, he notes, “… if a team is going to pay for Buehrle’s services, they should adjust their expectations of value down slightly from what ERA says he is worth.”

        Which seems odd, since I thought one could use WAR & $/WAR to figure out fair market value, and that was pretty much that.

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  7. FJL says:

    If you use Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved for the years they are available (starting in 2003), Buehrle has saved 62 runs from his own ledger. His ERA between 2003-2011 is 3.907, his FIP is 4.148, and his xFIP is 4.236. If you assume all runs Buehrle saved during this period would have been earned, and then pretend he saved none of these runs, but broke even in the DRS metric, thus allowing 62 more ER over this period, his ERA would have been 4.191, smack in the middle of his FIP and xFIP. Even if you assume that of Buehrle’s 62 DRS, 10.1% would have been unearned (his career rate), he still saved 56 earned runs. If these 56 runs were added to his ER totals over this time period, his ERA would have been 4.163, again between his FIP and xFIP. Am I forgetting something or would this go a long ways towards explaining his success?

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    • kinnerful says:

      DRS should manifest itself through a low BABIP, but his BABIP isn’t particularly low.

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      • FJL says:

        More than half his DRS (36/62) came from the baserunning control component, rSB. Also BABIP would be more heavily weighted by the runs saved/caused by the other fielders on the team than the pitcher on the mound (how many times does a pitcher make a play in the field compared to other fielders?)

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      • JG says:

        It isn’t low for someone like Weaver, but it is low for someone who has groundball tendencies like Buehrle.

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  8. Eminor3rd says:

    What about double plays? Does he get a lot of those?

    The reason the Fielding Bible guys love him is because he completely ruins the running game. I think he allowed something like 3 or 4 steals all of last year. Perhaps he gets a lot of guys on first base, keeps them there, and then gets double plays. That wouldn’t necessarily show up in LOB%, would it?

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  9. Steve says:

    A higher % of the hits Buerhle gives up are singles compared to the average MLB pitcher. Over his career, he’s at 68.8% singles, 19.2% 2B, 1.5% 3B, and 10.5% HR.

    The MLB average for singles was 67.2% in 2011, 67.1% in 2010, and 66.2% in 2009. Doubles are basically at 20.0% and about 2.1% for 3B.

    HRs ranged from 11.6% in 2009 to 10.8% in 2011.

    I’m not sure FIP or xBABIP takes into account the distribution of non-HR hits, but this has to help his ERA relative to the average.

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    • JG says:

      Hard to say that isn’t significant when I’m looking at his career numbers vs. league average for the past three seasons, but… I doubt that’s statistically significant.

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  10. t ball says:

    So a team with a good defense has a better shot at getting value out of the contract I suppose.

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  11. slash12 says:

    A good bullpen is another factor..having good pitchers come in to mop up any messes he might have left over the years.

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  12. Shane Heathers says:

    Very in depth article. Great job putting it together. All great points. His career Babip might be lower then it is if the White Sox had put better defensive players behind him over the course of his career. Jose Valentin, Juan Uribe, Royce Clayton. Without closely looking at the stats I would make the assumption that those White Sox teams have been consistenely below average defensively. He also plays half his games in a decent homerun park so his HR/FB might be a bit better then it looks at first glance.

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  13. PepeShady says:

    Outstanding stuff, Dave. Extremely relevant to hotstove league. Thanks.

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  14. Tom says:

    Couple of problems with the unearned run theory and him being a groundball pitcher and getting a bias.

    1) Shouldn’t his BABIP be lower than normal if hits are being classified as errors?
    2) Presumably this unearned run bias would not be specific to Buerhle, but to all heavy groundball pitchers?

    It would seem if one was to throw out this hypothesis, it would be worth checking the BABIP and ERA-FIP delta of other groundball pitchers (and I suspect that there is not a correlation).

    Several other problems:
    1)If the premise is to be believed… it still is only 30% of the delta, which obviously means there’s another 70% unaccounted for. So even if theory is dead on it is missing the major cause of the gap (which is still an unknown)

    2) The RA/9 comparisons include some pitchers with significant NL time… is that really a fair comparison? How would that list look with a league adjustment? (there’s also potentially a significant park effect with some of those guys too)

    Seems like a lot of handwaving for what amounts to a 0.09 ERA difference, especially when the FIP/ERA gap is 0.30

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    • Nathaniel Dawson says:

      Tom,

      1) The reason you see GB pitchers with typically higher BABIP and runners reaching on errors is really two symptoms of the same root cause: groundballs are harder to field for outs than fly balls are (at least those that stay in the park). No matter whether the scorer sees those as hits or errors, in general, GB pitchers give up more of them.

      2) Yes, there is an unearned run bias for groundball pitchers. Most typically give up more errors, leading to a higher number of unearned runs. R/9 is a better metric to use, as it removes this bias.

      You’ll more often see a positive delta in ERA-FIP for groundball pitchers than for flyball pitchers, and the flipside of that as well — more of a negative delta for flyballers. That’s only a very generalized statement, as it’s far from 100%. It’s only a slight trend that you see when looking at a large sampling of pitchers. Look at the above pitchers that Dave lists. Most of them are well known as heavy flyball pitchers, some of the most flyball-happy over the last decade. I’d have to look around for links, but this isn’t something new — this tendency been noted for quite a while. Googling should turn up something for you fairly easily.

      That’s what makes Buehrle so mysterious: it would be one thing if he were a flyball pitcher, and you could explain most of the negative delta with that. Being a groundball pitcher with that career-long difference is pretty unusual. He’s either been the consistent recipient of a lot of luck, or he’s doing something to prevent runs that pitching metrics have difficulty capturing.

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  15. Chris says:

    Great article.

    After following baseball for so long, it’s rare to learn something new about.

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  16. NEPP says:

    Like Jamie Moyer, Mark Buehrle defines “crafty”.

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