Mark Buehrle and the Called Strikeout

Tom Szczerbowski

Mark Buehrle is having a special season in 2014 and one of the reasons has been his ability to set down hitters looking.

Mark Buehrle has been exceptional so far this year.

He leads the league in wins, for what that's worth. His ERA of 2.04 is tops in the American League, and his WAR of 1.2 puts him 16th among pitchers. While Buehrle is expected to be a paragon of consistency, these kind of numbers are not what one would expect, especially given the southpaw's slow start to the season last year.

One explanation that can has been given is his rapport with Dioner Navarro. It's hard to dispute that with no contrary evidence to go on, but it's also hard to accept it as the only reasoning behind Buehrle's gems to date.

Another possible reason for the 35-year-old's career-best start to the season is a simpler one. Luck. The "this guy is pitching over his head and will regress to the mean" angle is never a fun one, but looking at Buehrle's stats so far this year it jumps off the page.

Year

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

HR/FB

BABIP

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2013

6.14

2.25

1.06

10.6%

.305

4.15

4.10

4.09

2014

5.26

2.89

0.17

1.9%

.287

2.04

3.25

4.31

Toronto's de facto ace is striking out less players than last year while walking more, hardly a recipe for success. He has survived on keeping the ball in the ballpark, something there is no way he can continue to do at his current pace, especially given that he pitches in a hitter's park.

Mark Buehrle's house of cards is almost certain to come tumbling down.

However, while the house still stands, shaky though it might be, the opportunity presents itself to show a way Buehrle has been absolutely fantastic this year that hopefully has a little less to do with good fortune.

After all, if I spent an article railing on the unsustainability of Mark Buehrle's awesomeness, that would definitely add to the stereotype of the negative Nelly, party pooper stats guy who sucks the joy out of the game.

It just so happens that I believe statistics can inject joy into the game when handled correctly, and by correctly I mean not by Pat Tabler.

To that point, when watching Mark Buehrle this season, which despite what could be inferred by what I've said above is an absolute treat, one thing really stood out to me. Beginning with Buehrle's first start in Tampa, he has absolutely excelled at striking out hitters looking.

Looking strikeout rates and percentages are statistics that are rarely examined too closely, but they do capture powerful moments in a baseball game when catchers and pitchers completely befuddle hitters with a combination of game-planning and deceptive movement.

The table below shows the looking strikeout leaders so far in 2014, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

Pitcher

Looking Strikeouts

Johnny Cueto

30

Jon Lester

28

C.J. Wilson

25

Cliff Lee

21

Mark Buehrle

20

James Shields

20

David Price

19

Andrew Cashner

18

Dan Haren

18

Zach McAllister

17

This is pretty good company to be in for Buehrle as many of the pitchers above are having excellent seasons. What makes Toronto's lefty an interesting member of the list is that he is not a big K guy, like most of the hurlers on the list. If we expand the chart a little bit (and make it sortable), it's clear that Buehrle is leaning on the looking strikeout like no one else in the game right now.

Pitcher Looking Strikeouts Swinging Strikeouts Total Strikeouts Looking Strikeout%
Johnny Cueto 30 38 68 44.1%
Jon Lester 28 38 66 42.4%
C.J. Wilson 25 29 54 46.3%
Cliff Lee 21 30 51 41.1%
Mark Buehrle 20 11 31 64.5%
James Shields 20 28 48 41.7%
David Price 19 39 58 32.8%
Andrew Cashner 18 23 41 43.9%
Dan Haren 18 20 38 47.3%
Zac McAllister 17 21 38 44.7%

One way to interpret this data is to say that Buehrle is relying on the less reliable form of the strikeout, and point to this data as another reason his performance will regress to his career norms.

A more romantic notion is the thought that despite his lack of swing-and-miss stuff, Buehrle possess the "crafty lefty" guile to leave hitters completely and utterly bewildered.

It seems that for a player who has had a career characterized by quasi-boring consistency Mark Buehrle is always doing something fascinating. At the moment he is laying siege to the corners of the strike zone, allowing him to set down batters without the bat leaving their shoulders.

For Buehrle to keep sending hitters on the lonely stroll back to the dugout he's going to need help from the umpires, and possibly from his good buddy Dioner Navarro. His current success with the looking strikeout may not continue, much the same way his overall excellence this season may not continue.

In this moment enjoy the incomparable Mark Buehrle. He is quite simply a marvel to watch. The fact that league-average starter Mark Buehrle lurks menacingly around the corner need not be of any concern. Not yet.

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