The Unusually Effective Mark Buehrle

CHICAGO, IL: Starting pitcher Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox delivers the ball against the Toronto Blue Jays at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Mark Buehrle has been a good and durable starting pitcher for a long time, and he hasn't done what he's done the way you'd normally expect.

With CC Sabathia having opted against opting out of his contract with the Yankees, they say this winter's pool of available free agent starting pitchers is a thin one. Nobody's quite sure just yet what's going to happen with Yu Darvish, meaning we're left with guys like C.J. Wilson, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson. There's Javier Vazquez, but he might retire. There's Hiroki Kuroda, but he's presumably either re-signing with the Dodgers or returning to Japan.

There's not a lot at the top, but among the guys at the top, Buehrle has already generated oodles of attention. According to Ken Rosenthal, he's being pursued heavily by the Marlins, and also by the Rangers, Red Sox, Yankees, and God knows who else. Buehrle would be popular in any market, but in this market, he's a rock star.

Which some might find a little troubling. There's a thing about Buehrle. Buehrle broke into the majors in 2000. Since 2000, here are the starting pitchers who have posted the most similar strikeout rates to Buehrle's:

It's not a godawful peer group, but it's not like that's the popular table in the starting pitcher cafeteria. Those are pitchers who haven't had a lot of extended runs of success, in large part because they struggled to put batters away.

So Mark Buehrle isn't a strikeout pitcher. Never has been. Strikeouts are important for pitchers. And yet, since 2000, here are the starting pitchers who have posted the most similar ERAs to Buehrle's:

Boy did that get a lot better. Each of those pitchers has been good, and occasionally great. Mark Buehrle has been good, and occasionally great.

And if you're uncomfortable going all the way back to 2000, since those initial years don't matter anymore, let's focus on just the most recent three seasons. The most similar strikeout rates to Buehrle's:

And the most similar ERAs to Buehrle's:

The same pattern holds. Buehrle has been effective - effective and, incidentally, impressively durable - despite generating perilously few strikeouts. Buehrle's strikeout rate over the past three seasons is actually even lower than it was before.

That might make you nervous, if you're a fan of a team in pursuit. Fans everywhere know that pitchers typically need strikeouts, and many have come to distrust pitchers who allow contact. Mark Buehrle allows contact. It's part of his game. There's a certain fear that, even though Buehrle has been preventing runs for so long, he might be approaching a dangerous area.

So it's worth briefly examining what has allowed Buehrle to sustain his success, even without the whiffs. The first thing, and the most obvious thing, is that he's by and large avoided the free pass. He's always avoided the free pass, but since 2009, he's issued an unintentional walk or a HBP to roughly one batter out of every 19, giving him the same rate as Hiroki Kuroda and Doug Fister. Buehrle seldom puts a guy on base himself.

But another thing, and a more hidden thing, is Buehrle's defense. To be honest with you, Buehrle's defense is the whole reason I'm writing this article. Remember this?

That play was kind of a fluke, but it was also not a fluke. We've been programmed to ignore the Gold Glove awards, and for good reason, but Buehrle has won three consecutive Gold Gloves as a pitcher, and he hasn't been some random selection. He's been deserving. Buehrle is a fantastic defensive pitcher, and he's always been a fantastic defensive pitcher.

FanGraphs allows us to track advanced defensive stats back to 2002. That captures most of Buehrle's career. The stat we're going to look at here is Defensive Runs Saved, because it's what we have available. Here's where Buehrle ranks in Defensive Runs Saved, overall, since 2002:

  • #1

And here's where he ranks in Defensive Runs Saved per 200 innings, since 2002:

Absolutely outstanding. DRS is by no means a perfect statistic, and no one would claim that it is, but it offers compelling evidence that Mark Buehrle is the best defensive pitcher in the game today.

DRS for pitchers has two components. One is simple plays made. Buehrle has turned more grounders and bunts into outs than the average pitcher has. But the other component is controlling the running game. This is where Buehrle really shines. Over his 12-year career, Buehrle has allowed just 49 steals, with 68 runners getting caught. Buehrle hasn't allowed more than eight steals in any season. He hasn't allowed more than six since 2005.

Pitcher defense is not hugely important. There's a reason few people ever talk about it. Games are seldom won or lost by how well a pitcher fields his position, or controls the runners. But it makes a difference, and with Buehrle, it's made a bigger difference than it has with anyone else. Buehrle's defense has been a major part of his success.

And so it's been a major reason why he's thrived without generating many strikeouts. Let that be of some reassurance going forward. It's easy to look at Buehrle's strikeout rate and figure he's a risky investment. And he will be somewhat risky, given that he turns 33 next March. But Buehrle's been doing his thing for so long that by now he should have earned your trust. He doesn't do it in the usual way, but Mark Buehrle makes it work.

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