Buehrle defies velocity myth


* Blue Jays LHP Mark Buehrle . ….

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By Andrew Hendriks

Baseball can learn a lot from Mark Buehrle.

In a era where team management, pundits and fans alike often salivate over the idea of young, hard-throwing starters such as Nathan Eovaldi, Gerrit Cole and Yordano Ventura, Buehrle, who’s essentially taken the ball every fifth day for the past 14 seasons, has been equally as effective despite featuring an arsenal of pitches that generally lacks in the velocity department.

Using a distinct ability to attack hitters with varying speeds and fastball control, Buehrle is, by definition, a pitcher.

Breaking in as a 21-year-old reliever with the Chicago White Sox back in 2000, the Missouri-born southpaw has been using a steady blend of strategy, efficiency and pin-point control to compliment a mid-80’s fastball that, over time, has proven to be all too enticing for opposing hitters to resist.

By no means is the five time All-Star what you would call a maximum effort pitcher. In fact, his smooth, reliable delivery has helped him avoid the disabled list for what has become a remarkable stretch of time since signing with Chicago in the 38th round of the 1998 MLB amateur draft.

Over time, consistency has become his trademark. Regardless of the situation, be it pitching in the American League, National League or making the majority of his starts inside the hitter-friendly confines of Rogers Center, it’s safe to say that with Buehrle, you generally know what you’re going to get.

Durability: After inducing weak ground ball off the bat of Shane Victorino for the Red Sox first out of the game on Sept. 21st, 2013, Buehrle hit the 200 innings pitched plateau, becoming the latest Blue Jays pitcher to log as many frames and first since Ricky Romero fired 225 in 2011. To his credit, the 5-3 ground out represented the 13th consecutive season in which Buehrle recorded at least 200 innings of work in a single season.

Strikes: Having walked no more than 61 batters in a single season since becoming a full time starter in 2001, the obvious fact is that the 6’2 hurler is not a fan of issuing the free pass. To put thing’s into perspective, the only other MLB pitcher to have thrown over 200 innings while walking as few in as long of a streak (13 consecutive seasons) was a fire-balling right-hander named Denton TrueYoung. Denton, who was commonly referred to as Cy, was able to achieve said accomplishment between the years of 1897-1909.

Damage Control: Look. If you do the majority of your work within the strike-zone, your more susceptible to give up a fair share of base hits. Case in point, David Price of the Detroit Tigers. Like Buehrle, Price, a fellow lefty, opts to challenge hitters rather than trying to be too cute with his secondary pitches. More often than not, this tactic results in opposing hitters having the ability to cheat on the fastball knowing that when Price falls behind, he’s likely to be aggressive within the strike zone . In ’14, both Price and Buehrle rank amongst the league leaders in base hit’s allowed. However that said, they also share a current ERA that hovers around the 3.30 mark, a credit to their ability to limit the damage when pitching out of the stretch with runners on base.

Pace: In contrast to his fastball velocity, Buehrle prefers to work at a blazing pace when taking the mound every fifth day. Averaging somewhere around 17 seconds between pitches, the former Marlin likes to keep both his defense and the opposing hitters on their toes as he ranks first with regards to the fastest working pitchers in the American League. Heading into his second to last start of the season, Buehrle has yet to allow a stolen base on the season. A statistic that is no doubt bolstered by his ability to work fast on the hill, keeping opposing base-runners at bay with his quick pace and delivery to home plate.

Returning to the American League as part of a blockbuster trade with Miami in November of 2012, one could argue that Buehrle’s career with the Blue Jays got off to a bumpy start. Having allowed 56 earned runs over his first 17 games through the end of June  last season,  questions began to surface regarding the lefty’s ability to be effective in the hard hitting AL East.

Proving his critics wrong, the 34 year old was able to make an adjustment mid-season, shaving 66 points off his ERA,  finishing the campaign with a respectable 4.15 marker.  When all was said and done, the veteran hurler had racked up an overall win/loss record of 12-10 in just under 204 innings of work, proving to be one of Toronto’s most reliable starters down the stretch.

Looking to build off 2013’s second half success, the veteran hurler got off to a fast start during grapefruit league play this February. Having allowed only 5 runs all spring, Buehrle proceeded to carry that success down the 580 to St Petersburg, where the 36 year-old kicked off his ’14 season by blanking the Rays over eight and two thirds innings of work.

By June, the second year Blue Jay had become the first pitcher in the majors to record 10 wins, posting an impressive ERA of 2.10 over his first 12 starts of the year.  For his efforts, the dominant first half numbers earned Buehrle yet another All-Star game nod.

Save for a six run, three inning performance vs the New York Yankees on July 25th, Buehrle didn’t pitch all that poorly between June 7th and July 25th however, his 0 and six record over that stretch would suggest otherwise. That said, pitchers W/L records are just about as subjective as the RBI statistic, and, in the opinion of many, not to be used as a form of measure regarding a pitchers overall success (ie: Felix Hernandez‘ 2010 season in which the Mariners hurler took home AL Cy Young honors despite posting an overall record of 13/12 on the season).

In his last start, Buehrle, filling in for Marcus Stroman who was bumped in the rotation to allow an extra day’s rest for the rookie right-hander, turned in yet another gritty performance vs. the Rays, picking up a no decision for his six inning, 96 pitch effort. Had it not been for some bad luck, centralizing around a ball lost in the sun over right field, we could have easily been talking about his 13th win of the year.

Heading into what is likely his penultimate start of the 2014 season, once again Buehrle has his sights set on the 20- inning plateau.

Currently sitting just 12 frames shy of the mark (no pun intended),  Buehrle will have to tame the Yankees for at least six innings if he wants to provide himself with a solid shot of reaching the 14 year milestone come seasons end.

However, holding the Yankees at bay is quite the tall order given the history between Buehrle and the Bombers over the past 15 years.

Coming into Friday’s showdown in the Bronx, Buehrle has amassed an overall ERA of 8.07 in his four starts vs the Bombers this season. What’s more is the fact that in eight career starts at Yankee Stadium II, he’s pitched a grand total of 44 and two thirds innings, averaging somewhere around five innings a start.

In fact, of the 20 career starts Buehrle has made vs the Yankees, he’s won only one of them while getting roughed up to the tune of 78 earned runs in just under 115 innings of work, a cumulative ERA of 6.14… his highest total vs any major league club.

Perhaps Buehrle’s lack of success vs the Yanks is due to the fact that New York constantly stockpiles their club with proven (free agent) veterans. Ballplayers who know how to make the adjustment when faced with the prospect squaring up a pitcher who’s greatest strength is his ability to simply allow his opponents to get themselves out, rolling over on pitches that they should have attempted to drive the other way (ie: the swing happy Chicago Cubs).

But that’s just a theory…

This is a fact: With a strong performance on Friday, Buehrle not only has the chance to inch closer to the 200 innings mark once again, but with a win, the grizzled veteran would secure the 199th victory of his career. One closer to reaching number 200, becoming only the 113th pitcher in the history of the majors to achieve such a (subjective) feat.

With 198 wins, a World Series championship and the author of two no hitters (including a perfect game)? Impressive stuff from a guy who, as a sophomore, was cut from his high school baseball squad due to the fact that he couldn’t light up a radar gun.

At the end of the day, the focus will remain on the young, hard throwing arms like Matt Harvey and Garret Richards of the world. But with both common pitch velocity and Tommy John surgeries on the rise, perhaps there’s something to be said about a soft tossing, never injured veteran who relies on the art of mixing speeds and pitching to contact in order to carve his name into baseball’s record books.

– Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter @77hendriks

Scott Harrigan
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