The Last* of Mark Buehrle

It’s over. Maybe.

Mark Buehrle has told reporters this offseason that he is “not planning on playing next season but is not ready to officially announce retirement,” which is a sort of confusing follow-up to the rumors we heard in October that the 36-year-old veteran starter was planning to retire. If Buehrle does wind up pitching in 2016, it sounds like the only team that could lure him back are his hometown St. Louis Cardinals. If Buehrle winds up retiring, it will mark the end of a remarkable and fascinating career.

Buehrle’s no Hall of Famer. But he’s close. Closer than you might think. He’ll be on the ballot in five or six years, and he’ll get a handful of votes. By our WAR here on the site, which underrates Buehrle by using FIP, Buehrle ranks 40th all-time among starting pitchers in the expansion era. By RA9-WAR, the Preferred Buehrle Method of Evaluation, he jumps up to 30th, with a WAR of 61 that places him right on the verge of the generally accepted Hall of Fame consideration threshold.

And if you think of Buehrle simply as a “compiler,” you’d be mistaken. Buehrle had the peak. When Buehrle entered the league in 2000, his contemporaries included Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who were turning in some of the most dominant single-season pitching performances baseball has ever seen. Buehrle didn’t have any of the strikeouts or any of the dominant peripherals, but believe it or not, he was right there, just a few steps behind the Pedros and Units and Schillings of his time. Buehrle put up 26 WAR between 2001-05, making him the seventh-most valuable pitcher during that half decade, just a win or so per season behind the true greats. Buehrle’s peak ranks 67th among all pitchers in the expansion era, just ahead of Fernando Valenzuela and just behind David Cone.

But to simply state the WAR figures does a disservice to Buehrle, who is truly one of a kind. In an age where pitchers are hurt more than ever, Buehrle’s never been on the disabled list. He fell five outs short of throwing at least 200 innings for what would have been an unthinkable 15th consecutive season. During that time, Buehrle logged 3,232 innings. That’s 300 more than second place, 500 more than third place, 1,000 more than 18th place.

And of course, he’s done it all with laughably mediocre stuff — a fastball that hasn’t averaged even 87 mph in nearly a decade, and a career strikeout rate that barely cracked 5 K/9. During Buehrle’s 15-year career, 395 different pitchers have thrown at least 500 total innings. Of those 395, just 83 have struck out fewer than 15% of their batters faced, which highlights how hard it is to stick around, especially in today’s game, without any whiffs.

Even among that group, Buehrle stands out from the rest. See if you can guess which data point is his:

Buehrle_1_

Buehrle’s got more than double the WAR of any of his low-strikeout peers, truly separating himself as the modern master of the contact pitcher.

He was remarkably consistent, not only in his ability to take the ball every fifth day, but in his performance, too:

Buehrle_2_

Only once did Buehrle have a strikeout rate higher than league average — 2004, a five-win season with a K%+ of 101 — yet he was always at least league average pitcher — often much better — and was always something of an outlier.

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:

newplot(2)

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, he led all of baseball in the percentage of pitches located on the horizontal edges of the plate.

We haven’t even gotten to the most extreme Buehrle-isms. Buehrle was known (and loved by sportswriters) for working considerably quicker than any pitcher of his time. Not only did Buehrle throw a pitch every 16 seconds, but he did even more to shorten the time of his games by getting tons of double plays and having the most efficient pickoff move of all time:

When Sammy Sosa reached base against Buehrle on April 18, 2007 — the only batter to do so during Buehrle’s no-hitter that day — he promptly picked Sosa off first. And not only do Buehrle’s 100 total career pickoffs rank second all-time, but nobody’s pulled them off at a higher rate:

Career Pickoff Rates
Rk Player PO IP PO/IP
1 Mark Buehrle 100 3283.1 0.0305
2 Andy Pettitte 98 3316.0 0.0296
3 Jamey Wright 59 2036.2 0.0290
4 Steve Carlton 146 5217.2 0.0280
5 Mark Langston 78 2962.2 0.0263
6 Jeff Fassero 51 2033.2 0.0251
7 Greg Swindell 55 2233.1 0.0246
8 Jack Sanford 50 2049.1 0.0244
9 Kenny Rogers 79 3302.2 0.0239
10 Wilbur Wood 64 2684.0 0.0238
min. 2000 IP

Due in part to Buehrle’s ability to hold base runners on first, he never allowed any steals. In 16 major league seasons, just 59 runners successfully stole a base against Buehrle, with 81 being thrown out. The 59 steals in 3,283 innings is the third-lowest rate of steals against a pitcher in baseball history (again, minimum 2,000 innings), with only Terry Mulholland and Fritz Peterson posting more impressive figures than Buehrle.

And, oh yeah, he could field his position pretty well, too, if the four Gold Gloves and eye-popping Defensive Runs Saved totals didn’t make that clear enough:

The freakish durability, the pinpoint command to both sides of the plate, the pickoffs, the controlling of the run game, the double plays, the Gold Glove defense. Put it all together, and it starts to become clear how a lefty drafted in the 38th round out of Jefferson College with a sub-90s fastball can go join Jim Bunning, Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Addie Joss, Sandy Koufax and Cy Young as the only pitchers in baseball history to throw both a no-hitter and a perfect game, how that same lefty out of Jefferson College with the sub-90s fastball can help win a World Series while becoming one of the best pitchers in White Sox history and putting together a borderline Hall of Fame career.

It would be a treat to see Buehrle continue pitching. After all, he’s still doing Buehrle things. He’s still not missing any starts, he’s still posting better than league average ERAs, he’s still getting an absurd percentage of called strikeouts and fielding his position well and picking runners off and, just last year, for the first time in his career, he didn’t allow a single stolen base. But if Buehrle wants to hang it up, then that’s his choice, and if that’s the case, then shout out to Mark Buehrle. Shout to Mark Buehrle for having an impressive and endlessly interesting career, and shout out to Mark Buehrle for teaching us so much more about a game that, despite how often we watch it and play and think and write and read about it, we’ll never truly understand.

We hoped you liked reading The Last* of Mark Buehrle by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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jruby
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jruby

I choose to read the title of this post as “The Lasterisk of Mark Buehrle”. It makes less sense but is more fun to say.