Lefty Buehrle continues to baffle foes, but how good is he really?

Mark Buehrle, who pitched 12 seasons for the White Sox, tossed a perfect game in 2009.

Ron Vesely/Getty Images

I faced Mark Buehrle more than any other pitcher in my career, and he kicked my a**. I also think Buehrle will have a longshot case for the Hall of Fame in five years. These two things are not (entirely) related.

When we think of Hall of Fame pitchers, we envision overpowering velocity and fastballs blasted past flailing by hitters. I never once felt overpowered by Buehrle’s stuff.

Dating back to 2008, Buehrle has not had a single month in which his average fastball velocity broke 88 mph, per brooksbaseball.net. Not once did I witness a pitch from him that prompted me to go back and tell my teammates, “Look out for X, it’s nasty today.”

On Saturday, Buehrle improved to 4-0 this season for the Toronto Blue Jays. He worked seven shutout innings, yielding four hits and three walks, while striking out three in a 5-0 win at Cleveland.

I spoke to a scout, on Saturday, who told me that if Buehrle were entering the June draft this year with his stuff, “I’d hesitate to go early on that,” meaning take a risk and grab him in the early rounds. Buehrle’s lack of pure stuff coupled with his consistency is why his potential borderline Hall of Fame career is so spectacularly impressive.

Among pitchers born in the 1970s, Buehrle is fifth all time in rWAR, behind Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay, Andy Pettitte and Tim Hudson.

Buehrle’s career ERA- is 85, which suggests he’s been 15 percent better than average. Not jaw dropping, but quite good. It puts him at 40th among qualified starters from 2000-14, tied with Jon Lester and Anibal Sanchez.

AROUND THE HORN

Adam Darowski’s Hall of Stats puts Buehrle’s Hall rating (based on comparative WAR) at 96. That puts him at 93rd overall.

Jay Jaffe rates the 35-year-old lefty 97th overall among pitchers at 45.4. Assuming Buehrle can accumulate 9-10 WAR in the next five seasons, he’d be in the Early Wynn (HOF) neighborhood.

After Saturday’s win, Buehrle is 190-142 with a 3.81 career ERA since his major-league debut with the Chicago White Sox in July, 2000. He also threw the game’s 18th perfect game (in 2009), two years after he tossed a no-hitter.

So without the plus stuff, how has Buehrle racked up these numbers?

Quite simply, he dictates the pace of the game, taking control away from the hitter. Sticking with a plan, concentration and confidence are all as essential factors to success as a hitter. Buehrle snatches that confidence away, toying with the offensive player’s ability to maximize these intangibles.

By varying the speed of his delivery, maintaining a lightning fast pace between pitches and mixing in an occasional quick pitch (delivering the ball before the hitter is ready), he dominates the interaction.

Context is helpful here. 

To track the pace of a pitcher, Fangraphs records the time between the first and last pitch of an at-bat divided by number of pitches. Buehrle’s pace from 2007-14 (all of the years that Fangraphs has recorded data) is 16.7 seconds between pitches. During that time, he leads the league, and it’s not close. Ben Sheets comes next at 18 seconds.

Buehrle’s best season was 2011 when he averaged 15.9 seconds between pitches. Next best that year was his teammate John Danks at 17.9. 

Stepping out of the batter’s box to take a practice swing is not a good strategic move against Buehrle. The moment you get back in, dig your spikes in the dirt and glance up, he’s on top of you and the pitch is on its way.

2014 HALL OF FAME CLASS

Of course, you can call time out. But if you do, he knows he’s got you. He smirks because he understands that he’s won the mental battle. You’re thinking about hurrying up and getting ready and he’s removed you from your focused zone. You’re licked; you’re an out.

Not to take away from our spectacular partner Fangraphs, but let’s add a new tool to their already full box. In addition to a pitcher’s pace, we can include alterations in delivery time that create further deception.

I’ll call it Enhanced Pitcher Rhythm. EPR is an underappreciated, underutilized asset that can be taught. Pitchers have the capability to develop, nurture and implement it, but they don’t, largely because they’re uneducated regarding its value.

Winning a battle vs. a hitter with a 95 mph fastball up in the zone is intoxicating.  Power is sexy in baseball, but Tom Glavine is in the Hall of Fame. At some point, player development departments will learn how to teach this undervalued asset; until then, pitchers like Buehrle will be uniquely positioned to gain a competitive advantage.

EPR isn’t Buehrle’s only trophy. The reason he has at least a chance to join Glavine in the Hall of Fame if he decides to pitch and stays healthy through age 40 or beyond is his consistency. Given his aforementioned style, left handedness and lack of dependency on power, this seems at least plausible.

He’s been remarkably durable and dependable; he’s looking to build on his streak of 13 consecutive 200-plus innings seasons dating back to 2001. In the era of the Tommy John surgery, this accomplishment is even more mind-boggling.

Additionally, and like Glavine did, Buehrle mixes his pitches beautifully, depending on a solid cutter, sinker, changeup mix to get right-handed hitters out, and features the sinker and curveball more often to left-handed hitters. His key is his command of these pitches. When he throws balls, he intends to throw balls.

He somehow had me chasing his cutter in off the plate, then his changeup or sinker off the plate away. The control is crazy given the speed at which he works. One would think that he’d need to pump the brakes now and then to gain composure and regroup. Quite the contrary.

The question around dominance of an era will always play into any discussion regarding the Hall of Fame and no matter what happens over the course of the next five seasons, should he elect to continue to compete, I believe he will earn the right to be in the dialogue.

It’s worth noting that historically the first month of the season has been Buehrle’s second worst month next to September from an ERA perspective. This season he sits at a cool 0.64 after Saturday’s win over Cleveland.

The sample size is too small to take seriously, but if it’s indicative of another crafty adjustment, look out.

In any event, whether something miraculous happens and he sneaks into the HOF despite anything overwhelming or truly dominant, he’s been one of the most respected and admired competitors by his major-league peers.

That is the greatest compliment I can give Mark Buehrle.