Smoke, Mirrors and Mark Buehrle

Buehrle is something of a wizard. He's just not a very good wizard per se. - Elsa

Mark Buehrle hasn't been great this year, but he has been unique.

Mark Buehrle has struggled immensely in his brief tenure as a Blue Jay. Although it’s almost impossible that he’s as bad as he's been so far, you won't find many Jays fans optimistic about his future. His numbers are way down in almost every meaningful category and he hasn't given many signs of coming out of this funk. Buehrle is aging, his velocity is slightly down and he’s moved to the A.L. East so some of this was predictable, to an extent. Blue Jays fans likely expected him to regress slightly from his 2012 season with the Marlins, but probably not to this degree. This article is not about what has gone wrong for Buehrle but rather the mind-bending way in which Buehrle has been effective over the years, and to a lesser extent, so far this year.

The narrative is that Buehrle is effective because he pounds the strike zone, fields his position well and logs big innings. You can find those terms, in almost exactly those words, in any scouting report of the 33 year old. The problem is that this narrative is extraordinarily misleading. The thing is that Mark Buehrle doesn’t really throw strikes at all.
The first reaction to a statement like that is probably denial. Buehrle has posted above average walk rates throughout his career for an excellent career total of 2.04 BB/9 or a 5.5% walk rate. However, simply not walking people does not equate to pounding the zone. What’s Buehrle has done that is so rare is avoid walking batters while putting an incredibly low rate of his pitches in the strike zone. Here is a chart showing Buehrle’s walk rate and the percentage of his pitches in the zone since 2002:
Year
Zone%
BB%
2002
57.2%
6.2%
2003
52.4%
6.2%
2004
53.9%
5%
2005
58.8%
4.1%
2006
52.4%
5.5%
2007
52.5%
5.4%
2008
49.7%
5.7%
2009
48.6%
5.2%
2010
44.3%
5.5%
2011
41.3%
5.2%
2012
42.1%
4.8%
2013
38.8%
6.6%

Something here doesn’t make sense. It seems as if no matter how few balls Buehrle throws in the zone he is almost immune to walking batters. At one point the description of Buehrle as someone who fills the strike zone was an apt one. In 2005 he was 8th in the league in Zone%, right between David Wells and Pedro Martinez. This year, his Zone% is the 4th lowest in the league, between Gio Gonzalez and Jeff Locke. It’s almost as if he decided he was done with throwing strikes in 2010-ish and hitters just haven’t noticed yet. Is his reputation a factor here? Do batters assume the ball will be in the zone and swing just as much now as when he was actually throwing a ton of strikes? The answer is…. sort of?
Year
O-Swing%
Swing%
2002
17.3%
48.3%
2003
24.3%
47.6%
2004
22.6%
46.8%
2005
21.6%
49.2%
2006
27.7%
48.3%
2007
26.6%
47.7%
2008
31.4%
47.7%
2009
27.8%
46.8%
2010
33.1%
47.5%
2011
31.2%
46%
2012
32.8%
45.3%
2013
30.2%
43.9%
As Buehrle has thrown fewer pitches in the zone his swing rate has fallen slightly but not nearly as much as his Zone%. His O-Swing% has gone steadily up, allowing him to maintain approximately the same level of effectiveness over the years.
However, if these trends persist one wonders if there is a threshold where Buehrle’s effectiveness can no longer continue. As a pitcher who doesn’t strike many batters out and isn’t especially good preventing home runs, not walking batters is essential to his success. Yet it is hard to imagine his ability to keep a low walk rate will last if he puts so few pitches in the strike zone. Perhaps his struggles this year are an indication that it’s all coming crashing down. It might be prudent to let his incredibly low left-on-base% (64.1%- 7th lowest in the league) and his abnormally high HR/FB% (15.1-19th highest in the league) normalize before making that kind of declaration though.
What this data really shows us is that Buehrle is very unusual type of pitcher, the control specialist without control. It’s hard to know what to think of this except that its inexplicability might be a result of "crafty lefty" factors beyond our understanding.While he has not been a treat to watch so far this year, when you watch Mark Buehrle this afternoon keep in mind that he is a pretty unique specimen.
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