JAWS and the 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot: Mark Buehrle

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

At a moment when baseball is so obsessed with velocity, it’s remarkable to remember how recently it was that a pitcher could thrive, year in and year out, despite averaging in the 85-87 mph range with his fastball. Yet thats exactly what Mark Buehrle did over the course of his 16-year career. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, the burly Buehrle was the epitome of the crafty lefty, an ultra-durable workhorse who didn’t dominate but who worked quickly, used a variety of pitches — four-seamer, sinker, cutter, curve, changeup — moving a variety of directions to pound the strike zone, and relied on his fielders to make the plays behind him. From 2001-14, he annually reached the 30-start and 200-inning plateaus, and he barely missed on the latter front in his final season.

August Fagerstrom summed up Buehrle so well in his 2016 appreciation that I can’t resist sharing a good chunk:

The way Buehrle succeeded was unique, of course. He got his ground balls, but he wasn’t the best at getting ground balls. He limited walks, but he wasn’t the best a limiting walks. He generated soft contact, but he wasn’t the best at generating soft contact. Buehrle simply avoided damage with his sub-90 mph fastball by throwing strikes while simultaneously avoiding the middle of the plate:

That’s Buehrle’s entire career during the PITCHf/x era, and it’s something of a remarkable graphic. You see Buehrle living on the first-base edge of the zone, making sure to keep his pitches low, while also being able to spot the same pitch on the opposite side of the zone, for the most part avoiding the heart of the plate. Buehrle’s retained the ability to pitch this way until the end; just last year [2015], he led all of baseball in the percentage of pitches located on the horizontal edges of the plate.

Drafted and developed by the White Sox — practically plucked from obscurity, at that — Buehrle spent 12 of his 16 seasons on the South Side, making four All-Star teams and helping Chicago to three postseason appearances, including its 2005 World Series win, which broke the franchise’s 88-year championship drought. While with the White Sox, he became just the second pitcher in franchise history to throw multiple no-hitters, first doing so in 2007 against the Rangers and then adding a perfect game in 2009 against the Rays. After his time in Chicago, he spent a sour season with the newly-rebranded Miami Marlins, and when that predictably melted down spent three years with the Blue Jays, helping them reach the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

Though Buehrle reached the 200-win plateau in his final season, he was just 36 years old when he hung up his spikes, preventing him from more fully padding his counting stats or framing his case for Cooperstown in the best light. A closer look suggests that beyond the superficial numbers, while he’s the equal or better of several enshrined pitchers according to WAR and JAWS, he’s far off the standards, and doesn’t have the peripheral collection of accomplishments to bolster his candidacy. Like Tim Hudson, he may receive a smattering of support on a ballot that’s hardly crowded, but his candidacy isn’t likely to lack staying power.

2021 BBWAA Candidate: Mark Buehrle
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Mark Buehrle 59.1 35.8 47.4
Avg. HOF SP 73.3 50.0 61.6
214-160 1,870 3.81 117
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Buehrle was born on March 23, 1979 in St. Charles, Missouri, a northwest suburb of St. Louis. He was the youngest son out of the four children of John and Pat Buehrle. His father worked as a paramedic for 15 years, then managed St. Charles’ water systems; he also served as scoutmaster and Little League coach for his boys.

Even as a toddler, Mark impressed people with his arm, dominating bean bag tosses at school picnics. “He was two years old and everyone thought he was a ringer,” John told Sportsnet’s Michael Grange in 2014. “We’d have an arm full of stuffed toys and they’d tell us to go rob someone else.”

When Mark was six or seven, a fellow Little League coach advised his father to get some more expert instruction for his son. At a baseball clinic in St. Louis, former Cardinals pitcher and 1983 Cy Young winner John Denny recognized the young Buehrle’s talent and asked to work with him; the pair worked together until Buehrle was 13 or 14. Even so, he was cut from his freshman and sophomore teams at Francis Howell North High School, though he continued to play summer ball. After a growth spurt and advice from his parents to give it one more shot, he made the varsity team as a junior.

Though lacking in velocity, Buehrle’s ability to throw strikes with consistency led to his being recruited by Jefferson Community College — 45 minutes south of St. Charles — where he received a full scholarship. Offsetting a fastball that maxed out at 88 mph with a cutter, curve, and changeup, Buehrle went 7-0 as a freshman in 1998. The White Sox chose him in the 38th round as a draft-and-follow, meaning that the team retained his rights until a week before the next year’s draft.

White Sox area scout Nathan Durst had liked his initial view of Buehrle, telling The Athletic’s James Fegan recently that what stood out was the lefty’s “Complete lack of fear, and always throwing to the glove regardless of what happened the previous pitch or the previous [at-bat]… The velo is just not there, but he can really pitch. He pours it in the strike zone. Everything works. Arm works, control, spins it, feel for secondaries, but the power just isn’t there.”

After going 8-4 with a 1.45 ERA as a sophomore, Buehrle signed for a $150,000 bonus from the White Sox in May 1999, and quickly moved on to the Low-A Midwest League, where he went 7-4 with a 4.10 ERA and 8.3 strikeouts per nine. Buehrle put in a strong 16-start stint at Double-A Burlington the following year, highlighted by a 2.28 ERA. Less than a week after striking out two and collecting the win for the U.S. Team in the All-Star Futures Game, the 21-year-old southpaw made his major league debut, allowing a run in an inning of garbage time relief against the Brewers on July 16. Three days later he replaced the injured Cal Elrded in the White Sox rotation, and spun seven innings of two-run ball against the Twins in his first start, striking out five and collecting his first win.

Eldred’s elbow injury proved season-ending, but Buehrle made only two more starts, with diminishing returns, before returning to the bullpen. He pitched to a 4.21 ERA and 4.28 FIP in 28 appearances totaling 51.1 innings of mostly low-leverage work for a team that won 95 games and the AL Central. Included on the playoff roster for the Division Series against the Mariners, he made one mop-up appearance, allowing back-to-back singles by Raul Ibanez and Mike Cameron before striking out Alex Rodriguez. The White Sox were swept, however.

The 22-year-old Buehrle made the White Sox rotation out of spring training in 2001, and while he was shaky in the early going, allowing five or more runs in four of his first six starts, he pitched a three-hit shutout against the Tigers, kicking off a streak of 24.2 consecutive scoreless innings, and finished the year 16-8 with a 3.29 ERA (fourth in the league, and good for a 140 ERA+) and 6.0 WAR (third) in 221.1 innings. His string of 14 straight seasons topping 200 frames was underway. The Sox, however, sank to 83 wins. They won only 81 games in 2002, but Buehrle made his first All-Star team, and his 239 innings fell one out short of matching Roy Halladay for the league lead. He could have snared the lead and secured his 20th victory if not for a home run by the Twins’ Bobby Kielty in the eighth inning of his final start on the penultimate day of the season, turning a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit. As it was, he finished 19-12 with a 3.58 ERA (126 ERA+) and 5.0 WAR (eighth in the league).

Judged by ERAs, Buehrle’s 2003 and ’04 seasons (4.14 and 3.89, respectively) weren’t quite up to the standards of his first two as a starter, though he totaled a respectable 6.7 WAR in 475.2 innings, and bought himself some security in the form of a three-year, $18 million extension with a club option for 2007. What’s interesting to note about his up-and-down performances is that by FanGraphs’ version of WAR, his 2001-04 seasons — which featured single-season ERAs that differed from best to worst by 0.85 runs per nine, and WARs that ranged from 2.5 to 6.0 — as virtually identical, with WARs in the 4.0-4.5 range, and FIP- ranging from 87 all the way… to 89; meanwhile, his BABIPs ranged from .242 in 2001 to .296 in ’03. Here it’s important to note that on a career-long basis, B-Ref’s version of WAR works in Buehrle’s favor by rewarding him for out-pitching his peripherals (3.81 ERA, 4.11 FIP) through some combination of contact suppression and sequencing; on the latter front, he often drew comparisons to Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, whose career 3.54 ERA far outdistanced his 3.95 FIP. His 59.1 bWAR (including offense) is about 15% higher than his 51.5 fWAR.

By significantly trimming his home run rate, Buehrle posted career bests in both ERA and FIP (3.12 and 3.42, respectively) in 2005 while heading a rotation that included three other hurlers (Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland and José Contreras) who like him each reached the 32-start/200-inning thresholds. After three straight second-place finishes in the AL Central, including an 83-79 campaign under first-year manager Ozzie Guillin in 2004, the White Sox improved to 99-63 and won the AL Central. Buehrle led the AL with 236.2 innings (he’d done so the year before as well), made his second All-Star team and totaled 4.8 WAR. For the only time in his career, he received mention in the Cy Young voting, though he still finished fifth while Bartolo Colon won.

Buehrle’s postseason performance was uneven, as he sandwiched seven-inning, four-run performances in the Division Series against the defending champion Red Sox and in the World Series against the Astros around a five-hit complete game in the ALCS against the Angels. He got adequate offensive support in all three starts, each of them one-run Game 2 wins by the White Sox; the ALCS win came via a walk-off double by Joe Crede.

Buehrle made a cameo in the 14th inning of Game 3 of the World Series, after the White Sox scored two runs to take a 7-5 lead. With two outs and runners on the corners, he relieved Damaso Marte and induced Adam Everett to pop out to shortstop Juan Uribe, earning a save. The White Sox would finish their four-game sweep — and 11-1 postseason run — the next night, giving them their first championship since 1917.

The extra innings Buehrle threw in the postseason may have caught up to him in 2006. After finishing June with a 9-4 record and 3.22 ERA (but just a 4.53 FIP) — a performance that led to his third All-Star selection — he was torched for a 7.12 ERA the rest of the way while going 3-9; he served up 24 homers in 92.1 innings during that slog, and skipped his final turn but still finished with 204 innings, albeit with a career-worst 4.99 ERA. Despite his dud of a season, the White Sox picked up Buehrle’s $9.5 million option, but his 2007 season didn’t start well; in the second inning of his April 5 outing, he was hit on the left forearm by a Ryan Garko line drive and had to depart. On April 18, however — a chilly night at U.S. Cellular Field, with first-pitch temperatures at 40 degrees — he tossed a no-hitter against the Rangers, with a fifth-inning walk of Sammy Sosa the only blemish.

Though the White Sox went just 72-90, and though Buehrle made just three September starts so that the team could evaluate its younger rotation options, he finished the year with 30 starts, 201 innings, a 3.63 ERA (130 ERA+) and a career-high 6.1 WAR, good for sixth in the league. In July, he signed a four-year, $56 million extension.

With youngsters John Danks and Gavin Floyd coming through in the rotation, and with Buehrle turning in a typical season (15-12, 3.79 ERA, and 4.4 WAR in 218.2 innings) highlighted by a 2.29 ERA in September, the White Sox won an AL Central race that needed a Game 163 tiebreaker, which they won 1-0 via Jim Thome’s seventh-inning homer off the Twins’ Nick Blackburn. Alas, in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Rays, with the White Sox already down one game to nothing, Buehrle allowed five runs in seven innings and took the loss; Tampa Bay won the series in four games.

Buehrle’s top highlight in 2009 — and perhaps the top highlight of his career – would come against those same Rays. On July 23 at U.S. Cellular, he made history by retiring all 27 Tampa Bay hitters in a row for just the 16th perfect game in modern major league history but the first of six within a 37-month span. The most dramatic play of the game came with nobody out in the top of the ninth, when center fielder Dewayne Wise — who had just entered the game as a defensive replacement — climbed the wall to rob Gabe Kapler of a home run.

In his next start, Buehrle threw 5.2 perfect innings before issuing a walk to Alexi Casilla, and then a single to Denard Span. In doing so, he set a major league record by retiring 45 consecutive hitters, surpassing Jim Barr of the 1972 Giants and Bobby Jenks of the 2007 White Sox, his former teammate. The record highlighted what turned out to be Buehrle’s fourth All-Star season, and his first of four straight with a Gold Glove. His 5.3 WAR was good for seventh in the AL, though his 4.46 FIP was the second-highest mark of his career.

Buehrle spent two more years in Chicago, turning in two Buehrle-esque seasons that were similar in terms of wins (13 apiece), FIP (3.90 and 3.98), and WAR (3.8 apiece) but divergent in ERAs (4.28 in 2010, 3.59 in ’11) thanks to varying BABIPs (.313 and .294); in the former, he struck out a career-low 11.0% of batters. The White Sox, who had won 79 games in 2009, rebounded to 88 wins and a second-place AL finish in ’10, but sank back to 79 wins in ’11.

Just before the end of the 2011 season, Guillen stepped down as the manager of the White Sox when they wouldn’t offer him an extension. The move allowed him to become the manager of the now-Miami Marlins, who were in the process of a major makeover as they moved into brand new Marlins Park. That the Sox didn’t offer Buehrle an extension before he reached free agency played into the 32-year-old lefty’s decision about his own future. He never did get a formal offer from the White Sox, while the Nationals pursued him on a three-year deal. Ultimately, he reunited with Guillen via a four-year, $58 million deal that was part of a $191 million December spending binge during which the Marlins also signed José Reyes (six years, $106 million) and Heath Bell (three years, $27 million); reportedly, they also pursued Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols.

Buehrle was as solid as ever in Miami (3.74 ERA, 3.5 WAR including -0.7 for offense via his inept 3-for-67, 29-strikeout showing at the plate), and despite an 8-14 April, the new-look team climbed into a tie for first place in the NL East on June 3… only to plunge into a 3-17 skid and finish 69-93. Guillen got the axe on October 23, and four weeks later, the Marlins traded Buehrle, Reyes, Josh Johnson, and two other players to Toronto in exchange for a seven-player package. The Marlins justified the deal by pointing to their poor attendance (12th in a 16-team league) in their new ballpark, though the fact that the franchise had burned fans with three previous fire sales shouldn’t be underestimated.

The trade presented a problem for Buehrle, in that he could not take his 65-pound pit bull to Ontario, which had prohibited the dogs; rather than leave his pet in someone else’s care or commute from a municipality that did allow pit bulls (as he had done by living in Florida’s Broward County), he chose to leave his whole family — wife Jamie, two small children, and the dog — in St. Louis for the season. His first year north of the border was nothing to write home about (4.15 ERA, 99 ERA+, 2.3 WAR) as the Blue Jays managed just a 74-88 record, but thanks to a career-low 0.67 homers per nine in 2014, he made his fifth and final All-Star team while posting his lowest ERA and FIP since 2005 (3.30 and 3.66, respectively) and helping the Blue Jays improve to 83-79. His 202 innings gave him 14 straight seasons at that plateau, a feat only matched or bettered by seven pitchers since 1901: Warren Spahn (17); Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton (both 15); and Christy Mathewson, Greg Maddux, and Phil Niekro (all 14). Cy Young had 19 straight seasons with at least 200 innings spanning from 1891-1909.

Buehrle ended the 2014 season with 199 wins, and neither he nor his teammates let the suspense build when it came to the milestone. In his season debut on April 10, 2015 in Baltimore, the Blue Jays spotted him a 4-0 lead before he’d even thrown a pitch, and at one point led 9-1; Buehrle had to grind his way through six innings, retiring the side in order just once but allowing only two runs to get the W.

The Blue Jays hadn’t made the playoffs since winning back-to-back World Series in 1992-93, but Buehrle did his best to help end that drought. He carried a 3.31 ERA into mid-August, but posted a 5.56 ERA over his final nine starts while battling shoulder soreness that necessitated a cortisone shot. With the Blue Jays having clinched the AL East title, he threw 6.2 innings while allowing four runs on October 2, the Blue Jays’ 160th game of the season. Two days later, with Buehrle needing two innings to keep his streak of 200-inning seasons alive, and with rumors of his retirement in the air, manager John Gibbons gave him another turn. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get out of the first inning, allowing five hits and a walk while retiring just two batters, and suffering due to a pair of errors behind him. He was charged with eight runs, all unearned.

What’s more, the Blue Jays bypassed Buehrle for a postseason roster spot, as David Price, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, and R.A. Dickey were all throwing better at that point. “It’s tough, it sucks, but I understand the situation,” said Buehrle “I haven’t been throwing great the last month, and we’ve got four guys who have been throwing the [heck] out of the ball. They’re going to take it and run with it. I’ll be ready if something happens.” While those starters’ performances were uneven, Buehrle did not pitch again. The Blue Jays made it as far as Game 6 of the ALCS before being ousted by the Royals.

A free agent again at age 37, he received inquiries from at least 10 teams, while the Toronto Sun’s Bob Elliot reported that he would either sign with the hometown Cardinals or retire. No deal came to pass, and as of February, he had no plans to sign but had not ruled out a comeback. He remained committed to not pitching, and in February 2017, the White Sox announced they would retire his No. 56 jersey, at which point he said that he had more or less decided that the four-year contract he signed with the Marlins would be his last. “I’ve always told people I was a young guy that came into the big leagues unknown,” he said at the time. “Kind of snuck into the big leagues and I wanted to kind of sneak my way out.”

A good deal of what I wrote about Hudson applies to Buehrle as well. Pitchers who win 200 games have become relatively rare; Buehrle is one of just 23 to debut in the majors in 1984 or later and reach that milestone, and the fact that he blew past it while making his last appearance before his 37th birthday invites a closer look, particularly on a ballot where 256-win Andy Pettitte receives enough support to persist as a candidate.

That said, Buehrle doesn’t exactly stand out in this company. He’s 16th in wins, ahead of the recently honored John Smoltz (213) and Halladay (203). He’s tied for 14th  — with Pettitte, naturally — in ERA+ (117), and while the pair are just one point behind Glavine, that’s in about 1,100 fewer innings for both. Buehrle’s dead last in this group in strikeout rate (13.6%), the only 200-win pitcher from the period besides Kenny Rogers who didn’t reach 2,000 strikeouts, and in Buehrle’s case, that’s while ranking 13th in innings.

Beyond the pitching triple crown stuff, Buehrle is one of 12 pitchers in that 200-win group never to win a Cy Young award. His lone fifth-place finish puts him in the company only of Rogers and ahead of Chuck Finley, whose only Cy Young placement was seventh in 1990. His five All-Star appearances and four Gold Gloves makes for a respectable collection of honors, but modest by Hall standards. Gold Gloves won’t get you into Cooperstown, anyway — just ask Jim Kaat, owner of 16 of them; whatever fielding prowess they purportedly represent is already incorporated into a pitcher’s run prevention numbers. Via the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, which gives credit for awards, league leads, postseason performance (at 2-1. 4.11 ERA, not much help for Buehrle) and so on, he scores just 52, well short of a likely Hall of Famer. He’s four points behind Jamie Moyer and Jake Peavy, and two behind Finley.

As for the perfect game and no-hitter, they’re fantastic accomplishments, but by themselves not indicative of Hallworthiness. Of the 21 pitchers to throw a perfect game since 1901, only seven are in the Hall, including only two of the last 14; a perfect game wasn’t enough to get long-lasting lefties Rogers or David Wells there, either. Likewise when it comes to pitchers with multiple no-hitters, while Halladay and Johnson are in, there are plenty who are not, from Johnny Vander Meer to Hideo Nomo, the most recent one to be rejected by Hall voters.

The advanced stats don’t make any stronger a case for Buehrle, who ranked among his league’s top 10 in WAR six times, but in the top five just twice, and never higher than third. Like Hudson, he topped 5.0 WAR just four times. His 59.1 career WAR is 69th among starting pitchers, 14.2 WAR below the standard, and ahead of just 19 of the 65 enshrinees, only six of whom were elected by the BBWAA. Four of those were elected despite short careers (Dizzy Dean, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax, Bob Lemon), but had other things going for them including stellar postseason work and better Hall of Fame Monitor scores, as did the longer-lasting Whitey Ford (whose bWAR is curiously low) and Herb Pennock.

Buehrle’s 35.8 peak WAR ranks just 147th, ahead of just nine enshrinees, three of them elected by the writers (Hunter, Ford, and Don Sutton). His 47.4 JAWS is 14.2 points below the standard, and tied for 89th with Koufax, ahead of only Ford, Dean, Hunter, and Lemon among BBWAA-elected pitchers. He’s six spots behind Hudson, Orel Hershiser and Tommy John, who are tied for 83rd, and Wilbur Wood and Frank Tanana are in the neighborhood, as is Pettitte, who’s 90th at 47.2, but who fares well enough in the voting to remain on the ballot thanks to his central role on five championship-winning teams.

It would be inaccurate to say that there aren’t any pitchers with JAWS similar to or lower than Buehrle in the Hall, but the ones who are there were either exceptional in ways not captured by WAR, or were small-committee choices that haven’t aged particularly well (Eppa Rixey comes to mind). Given that the last of those (Hunter) was elected in 1987, and is the only BBWAA-elected pitcher below the Era Committee-elected Jack Morris in the rankings, it’s fair to suggest that whatever standards by which the pitchers with comparable JAWS to Buehrle were recognized are either inapplicable to his case or outdated.

There’s no shame in that, and in a year where the ballot is comparatively uncrowded, with no first-year candidate a threat to be elected — Torii Hunter is the strongest of the bunch besides Hudson and Buehrle — he might receive enough votes to stick around, or at least not get shut out. I do think he’ll ultimately fall far short of Cooperstown, but he’ll be fondly remembered in Chicago and beyond.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Cave Dameron
3 years ago

In the time it took me to read this, Mark Buehrle threw 200 more innings.

Thank you Jay, very cool!