Mark Buehrle and the Value of Working Quickly

My regard for Mark Buehrle is growing.

We often don’t fully appreciate people or things while we still have access to them. Buehrle quietly slipped into retirement prior to last season after a remarkable career during which he struck out batters at well below league-average rates, possessed a sub-90 mph fastball for much of his career, and yet accumulated 52 WAR and a 215-160 record over 18 seasons in the majors.

His success was curious, though he was not without his gifts. He could paint corners as well as any starter in baseball. Consider his 2015 fastball location via Baseball Savant:

That’s excellent, but it pales in comparison to Buehrle’s signature skill — namely, the pace at which he worked.

With the mounting concern regarding pace of play from the commissioner’s office, with so much being made of the subject in the media, with pace itself slowing after progress made in 2015, has anyone checked in with the this century’s quickest-working pitcher to get his thoughts on pitch clocks, pace and of a pitcher’s process?

During the period for which pitcher-pace numbers are available, Buehrle is the Barry Bonds of that metric, posting the best seven seasons among qualified starters on record. In the PITCHf/x era of pace measurement, Buehrle led qualified pitchers in pace seven out of eight possible seasons, finishing second in 2013 to teammate R.A. Dickey when his pace slowed to an 18.1-second crawl.

Single-Season Pace Leaders in PITCHf/x Era
Season Name IP K/9 BB/9 WAR Pace
2011 Mark Buehrle 205.1 4.8 2.0 3.3 15.9
2015 Mark Buehrle 198.2 4.1 1.5 2.1 15.9
2009 Mark Buehrle 213.1 4.4 1.9 3.0 16.1
2010 Mark Buehrle 210.1 4.2 2.1 3.8 16.4
2008 Mark Buehrle 218.2 5.8 2.1 4.2 16.7
2012 Mark Buehrle 202.1 5.6 1.8 1.5 17.2
2014 Mark Buehrle 202.0 5.3 2.1 3.1 17.3
2009 Joe Blanton 195.1 7.5 2.7 2.2 17.4
2008 Joe Blanton 197.2 5.1 3.0 1.9 17.4
2008 Ben Sheets 198.1 7.2 2.1 4.7 17.5
2015 Wade Miley 193.2 6.8 3.0 2.7 17.5
2010 John Danks 213.0 6.9 3.0 4.4 17.6
2010 Joe Blanton 175.2 6.9 2.2 1.7 17.6
2012 R.A. Dickey 233.2 8.9 2.1 5.0 17.7
2010 Clayton Richard 201.2 6.8 3.5 2.4 17.8
2009 John Lannan 206.1 3.9 3.0 1.4 17.8
2010 Doug Fister 171.0 4.9 1.7 2.9 17.8
2011 John Danks 170.1 7.1 2.4 3.0 17.8
2016 Wade Miley 166.0 7.4 2.7 1.5 17.8
2012 Matt Harrison 213.1 5.6 2.5 3.2 17.9

Last season, among pitchers who record at least 60 innings, 25 required 25 seconds or more between pitches.

Why did Buehrle work so quickly? For a variety of reasons.

For starters, he was not overly analytical. According to a Globe and Mail feature on the anti-analytics lefty, Buehrle was excused from the club’s data-heavy advance meetings, which are held in every MLB clubhouse prior to each series:

(The meeting) is heavy on analytics: the pitches that batters like to hit, the ones they don’t, what area of the strike zone to avoid to keep the ball in the park. All the data is printed out in a detailed document, usually three to four pages long, and distributed to the starters; relievers are given an abridged edition. There’s even a video component to see firsthand the recent hits and misses of the opposing batters. Buehrle, as usual, was nowhere to be found, having been given a hall pass by Walker ….

“I remember when I was starting out in Chicago with the White Sox and Don Cooper, the pitching coach, would try to go over the scouting reports with me,” Buehrle said. “I’d tell him, ‘Coop, I’m not getting anything out of this, I’m not even paying attention.’ I don’t know, maybe I have ADD. I don’t pay attention to it and I don’t really want to. It’s just more crap in your mind and I just think it can only lead to more second-guessing.”

But it’s that second-guessing that is perhaps key. He rarely shook off his catchers. He acquired the sign and began his delivery.

Said his former catcher with the Blue Jays, Dioner Navarro, to the Globe and Mail: “There’s a joke we share, he just doesn’t want to get blamed for anything bad that happens. If he gives up a home run he wants me to take all the blame. That’s okay, I’m fine with it.”

It’s not as if Buehrle could work quickly because he had a limited pitch arsenal. Rather, Buehrle threw four pitches over the course of his career with greater than 10% frequency: a fastball (49.2%), cutter (15.8%), curveball (10.2%) and change (19.8%). He could locate pitches seemingly at will. So Buehrle had as many variables to consider as nearly any pitcher in the game.

But Buehrle was seemingly not concerned with trying to make the perfect pitch; he was concerned with making merely a good one. And perhaps this is where his pace and approach can be instructive.

Baseball is not chess. But the interplay between pitcher and batter is often described as a chess match. I thought about this a little while reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise in a chapter on the great chess masters:

“Great chess players like Kasparov do not delude themselves into thinking they can calculate all these possibilities. This is what separates elite players from amateurs. In his famous study of chess players, the Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groom found that amateur players, when presented with a chess problem, often frustrated themselves by looking for the perfect move, rendering themselves incapable of making any move at all.

Chess masters, by contrast, are looking for a good move – and certainly if at all possible the best move in a given position – but they are more forecasting how the move might favorably dispose their position then trying to enumerate every possibility. It is “pure fantasy,” the American grandmaster Reuben Fine wrote. “To assume that human chess players have calculated every position to complete twenty or thirty moves in advance.”

Herbert Simon also explored de Groot in his book Models of Thought, a portion of which I was able to access thanks to the internet:

In his search for differences between masters and weaker players, de Groot was unable to find any gross differences in the statistics of their thought processes: the number of moves considered, search heuristics, depth of search, and so on. Masters search through about the same number of possibilities as weaker players-perhaps even fewer, almost certainly not more-but they are very good at coming up with the “right” moves for further consideration, whereas weaker players spend considerable time analyzing the consequences of bad moves.

Maybe too many pitchers are over-thinking it.

We think about the pitcher dramatically leaning in for the sign, rotating the ball in his pitching hand as he considers his various pitch grips, shaking off the catcher not once, not twice, but three times before coming to a set position. Well, perhaps that pitcher has it all wrong. Perhaps Buerhle had it right.

There’s a lot to learn about pitch sequencing, I suspect, and the chess match between pitcher-batter. Maybe there’s a lot of value to extract, perhaps there is little. But beyond Buerhle’s quick pace perhaps helping keep him in rhythm and aiding to his command and control, perhaps by working quickly, by not trying to find perfect sequences and pitches, he was more often able to choose good ones. Perhaps by worrying less about what he was throwing, he was better able to focus on the execution of that pitch in that moment. Perhaps pace also kept the fielders behind him better engaged. Perhaps it explains, in part, his uncanny ability to locate on corners. Perhaps pace is a value-adding skill.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

The comment from Navarro probably deserves more attention, too. Presumably, the catchers are still doing their homework. (And perhaps more, since they can’t count on their pitcher to have done any.) If they’re doing it right, then this process is still happening – it’s just that it’s unidirectional, rather than a dialectic between pitcher and catcher. Whether Buehrle is reading scouting reports or not, what matters with respect to pace is that he never shakes a sign, right?

5 years ago
Reply to  Neil

This, along with his “maybe I have ADD” quote. I feel like Buehrle wasn’t necessarily anti-analytics, he just didn’t like how it was presented (or that it was presented at all). He had an innate trust with his catchers, regardless of if they were doing their homework on the hitters.

5 years ago
Reply to  Neil

I mean there’s really no reason that both the pitcher and the catcher need to prepare.