April Baseball: Mark Buehrle

One thing everyone is aware of is that what a player does in April is probably not how they will do by September.  25 games out of 162 is a very small sample size.  However, that doesn’t mean we haven’t learned anything about players during the first 3 weeks of the season.  In “April Baseball”, I’ll take a look at some of the guys off to hot or cold starts and see if we can determine what we know about them so far and where they will end up.  

In the first post, I looked at Alexei Ramirez.  Today, I’ll look at Mark Buehrle.

Mark Buehrle, SP (TOR) – 4-0, 28 IP, 0.64 ERA, 19 K, 5 BB, 0.93 WHIP, 0.8 WAR

First things first, Mark Buehrle is not going to finish the season with a 32-0 record, an ERA under 1 or a WAR over 6.  But as I mentioned in my Ramirez post, this is not about whether the player will regress (he will), it’s about how much regression he’ll experience.  If you own Buehrle, do you sell high, do you keep him?  There’s no way to know for sure but we can figure some things out.

Last season, Buehrle’s first with the Blue Jays, he had a 4.15 ERA with 139 strikeouts – a performance that’s hardly worth more than the occasional spot start in most leagues.  And while Buehrle has never been a big strikeout guy (139 was his most since 2008), he has kept his ERA in the 3.50 range and can easily get 13 wins or so.  His hot start has put him as #3 on the player rater for SP, right behind Felix Hernandez and Adam Wainwright.  Some of that is inflated by the 11 Ks he got in the first game (he’s only struck out 8 in the next 3 starts) and it’s definitely inflated by 4 early wins but if he can keep a low ERA all season, it should be reasonable to expect he’s worth holding on to.

So let’s look at some of the stats.  Buehrle (who I’m now going to start referring to as MB because his name is annoying to type) started off with a 6.11 K/9 which would be the 2nd highest in his career, right behind last season’s 6.14.  His 1.61 BB/9 would also be the 2nd best in his career but the best dates back to 2005. And he also hasn’t allowed a HR yet which clearly skews that data.  A look at his FIP (2.47) and xFIP (3.47) show, to no one’s surprise, the MB has gotten a bit lucky so far to start the season.  For those not familiar with those stats, FIP only considers K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 to remove defense from the equation and xFIP adjusts HR/FB rates to the league average to further account for luck.  MB’s SIERA (a stat that accounts for game context as well) is much closer to the xFIP and is 3.65.  All 3 of these would be career bests for MB.

Next let’s look at some batted ball and plate discipline numbers.  MB has allowed 29.3% line drives, which is noticeably higher than his 20% career average.  Normally more line drives is bad, but his GB% (45.1%) is right in line with his career average 45.5% and it’s the FB% that has taken a hit – 25.6% this season compared to 34.6% overall.  That’s obviously helped the fact that he has yet to allow a HR but it’s hard to explain how his LD% increased so much yet his WHIP is under 1.  What might is the opponent’s BABIP of .253 which is quite a bit lower that his career .290.  As for plate discipline, MB is getting less hitters to chase pitches out of the zone (24.4%, 27.6% career average), hitting the zone less than usual (45.9%, 49.5% career average), getting less first pitch strikes (53.2%, 60% career average) and getting the usual amount of swinging strikes (7.2% both this year and average).  Oh and just to add to it all, MB’s fastball is still in free fall, he’s at 83.1 MPH this year, down from 84.1 MPH last season and 86.1 MPH in 2010.

So I just threw a lot of data out there, but what does it mean?  At first glance it really appears he’s just been getting lucky.  He’s letting up more line drives, has a very low BABIP against and seems to be getting inside the strike zone less often and getting less misses when he does draw swings.  Surely that can’t result in good success.  Yet he is getting more strikeouts and less walks.  It’s easy to say that he just faced some offenses on bad nights, and that very well may be the case, but perhaps he’s changing things a little bit.  Here’s a chart on his pitch selection from the past few years:

Mark Buehrle

 

What you should notice is the big increase in his sinker this season with an enormous drop off in the cutter.  Now look at opposing AVG vs each of his pitches:

MB

 

His cutter had been the easiest pitch to hit last year, a trend which has continued this season despite him using it more often.  MB made the adjustment to throw his worst pitch less often, which is obviously something you want to see.  As for his sinker, it was never a particularly great pitch for AVG, being one of his worst a few times, but so far this year it’s been his most effective pitch. I won’t bother including the graphs but aside from losing velocity, there isn’t a whole lot different with his sinker this year from previous years.

So with all that in mind, what do you do with Buehrle?  I was probably a lot more long winded than I needed to be but more information is better than less.  Obviously, if you own him and someone offers you value at anywhere near a top 25 pitcher, you take it in a heartbeat, but the real question will be do you go to grab him off the wire and hang on to him for more than just a spot start.  Most of the information suggests what we already know – he’s getting lucky and will regress.  He’s losing velocity, throwing less strikes, and getting fewer swings and misses.  There’s definitely something to be said about him switching up his pitches to go with what is working, and I’d feel comfortable projected MB to get a sub 4.00 ERA.  I would probably ride out the hot start with him and once he begins to stop being effective, I’d have no problem cutting him for the next hot item.  If he starts getting more whiffs or velocity, maybe that will change.