Toronto Blue Jays starter Mark Buehrle is in the midst of a dominant season, on the path to representing the American League as the All-Star Game starter in July and leading the league in wins on a team attempting to make a worst-to-first leap.
After a dominant performance—8 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 3 SO, 1 BB—over the Kansas City Royals on June 1, Buehrle now owns 10 personal victories for the season. That marks 14 consecutive seasons of double-digit victories for the former White Sox and Marlins lefty, a distinction bettered by only 26 pitchers in the history of the game, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
In a sense, pitcher wins and Buehrle's fast-moving, slow-pitching style are a throwback to the day of some of the pitchers ahead of him on that list. When Eddie Plank and Early Wynn were in their primes, velocity and peripheral stats didn't matter. Before baseball's thinking revolution, results trumped all.
For the 35-year-old Buehrle, the statistics and results are overwhelming. Velocity, however, isn't. Despite an average fastball speed of 83.4 mph, per FanGraphs, Toronto's ace continues to mow down hitters in impressive fashion.
If you've watched any of Buehrle's 441 starts since 2000, the radar gun results shouldn't come as a surprise. Throughout his long, consistent career, Buehrle's average fastball has come in at 85.6 mph, suggesting a transformation from power pitcher to finesse lefty hasn't come close to occurring in Toronto.
Instead, better results are accompanying the same process due to three distinct reasons: defense behind him, the presence of an unheralded veteran catcher and a stark change in where fly balls are landing.
Let's start with defense.
Among all qualified starting pitchers this season, only six—Kevin Correia, Bronson Arroyo, Kyle Gibson, Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Young and Eric Stults—have a lower strikeout rate than Buehrle's current mark of 5.1 K/9. Without the ability to miss bats, Buehrle must rely on defense behind him to make plays in the field and turn batted balls into outs.
Due to excellent individual defenders like infielders Brett Lawrie and Jose Reyes and outfielder Jose Bautista, that's occurred.
Part of the reason for solid play is the pace in which the veteran works on the mound. Unlike some starters who labor on the hill, Buehrle is notorious for working quickly and keeping his fielders engaged in the game. His teammates can attest to how much that helps, per Jamie Ross of MLB.com.
"It's not luck," Bautista said. "It's not a surprise that every time he pitches there's good defensive plays made, and it's because he keeps everyone engaged in the game, because he works quick. It's been awesome to play behind him this year."
Furthermore, Buehrle has long been considered one of the best and most consistent fielding pitchers in the game. Through 12 starts in 2014, Baseball Info Solutions has already credited him with six DRS (defensive runs saved), putting his career total at 87.
To put that in perspective, simply adding six earned runs to Buehrle's ledger for the season would boost his ERA from 2.10 to 2.77. For a pitcher who induces contact at a high rate, defense is vital to start-by-start success.
As statistics like FIP (fielding independent pitching), BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and DRS become more mainstream among baseball fans, the role of defense—regardless of the type of pitcher on the mound—is clear.
The role of the catcher in pitching success, however, has always been difficult to quantify. While stars like Johnny Bench, Ivan Rodriguez and Yadier Molina transcended the position, gunned down runners and aided pitchers on a nightly basis, separating average from slightly above-average catchers has never been easy for baseball fans.
For Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro, that debate is put on hold when it comes to his impact on Buehrle in 2014. Through all 12 of Buehrle's starts, Navarro has been behind the dish. During games, it's easy to see the trust the veteran southpaw has in his backstop. Part of the reason for Buehrle's quick work is belief in the sequence and signs Navarro is suggesting.
Prior to teaming up with Navarro, 21 backstops had caught for Buehrle since 2000. Not one pairing produced an ERA mark better than 3.24. While 12 starts is a small sample size compared to the 160-plus games Buehrle worked with former teammate A.J. Pierzynski in Chicago, the ERA distinction from Navarro and every other battery mate since 2000 is stark.
Finally—and perhaps most vitally—is the dip in Buehrle's home run rate this season. Working quickly and getting comfortable with a personal catcher can help a pitcher succeed, but home runs are bound to leave the park against a finesse pitcher who allows contact in most at-bats.
As the following chart shows, around 10 percent of fly balls against Buehrle have landed for home runs over the last 15 years. While some of that has certainly been due to hitters parks like U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago and Rogers Centre in Toronto, the rest is on the pitcher.
|Numbers Don't Lie: Buehrle's Year-by-Year HR/FB Rates|
Now, almost inexplicably, Buehrle's HR/FB percentage is down to a minuscule 2.4 percent. When batted balls are hit to the outfield, they are rarely landing for quick and easy runs, thus limiting the damage teams can do to Buehrle. The idea of hammering the Toronto lefty for big innings has become very difficult, even if he's not striking out the side.
At some point in the near future, Buehrle's success on fly balls will likely reverse course and home runs will pepper the seats at Rogers Centre. If the crafty lefty can limit walks and watch his defense turn other batted balls into outs, home runs won't change the course of what looks to be a career year for the veteran.
With the annual first-year player draft around the corner, expect teams to focus on high-upside arms with big velocity. In a game dominated by pitching, power arms are coveted. While that strategy is sound, recent and future draftees may be able to watch an 83-mph fastball cross the plate at the start of the 2014 All-Star Game in Minnesota in July.
After nearly 3,000 career innings, Buehrle continues to defy the odds, mow down hitters without velocity and rack up victories.