It’s 170 down, 130 to go.
That’s where Miami Marlins lefthander Mark Buehrle stands at this moment, not bad for someone who turned 33 in March. Buehrle has been good, consistent, and healthy, and when that happens, wins start piling up.
Yes, 170 is a nice total but nothing earth-shattering. It’s just four ahead of Sandy Koufax, and Koufax is a Hall of Famer because of his peak, not his career stats. It seems a bit premature to query if Buehrle can win 300 games. He’s never been dominant and never had a 20-win season. He’s just a tad over halfway to 300 wins and on the wrong side of 30 by a few years.
Aye to all that, but that perhaps portrays too bleak a picture. Let’s look at it this way: heading into this year, his age-33 season, Buehrle had 161 career wins. Only 13 liveball pitchers have won 300 games, and prior to their age-33 season they averaged …. 161 career wins, exactly where Buehrle began 2012.
Neat, huh? Well, that’s a bit skewed by guys who were super-late bloomers like Phil Niekro (81 wins before his age-33 season), and Randy Johnson (104 wins). Then again, Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux were north of 200 wins before their age-33 seasons.
There’s an old axiom that you’re a great player in your 20s, but you compile great career stats in your 30s. To make it to 300 wins, you almost always need some effectiveness into your 40s. The 300-game winners of the lively ball era averaged 161 victories prior to their age-33 season and 162 more wins from age 33 onward.
Looking at Buehrle, the questions are: can he be effective for very long, and can he win 300? The odds of his doing so are long, but then again, the question isn’t will he, but can he. There’s a lower threshold here.
Buehrle, the quick-working lefty.
First, Buehrle got an early start. He made the majors at age 21 and was a full-time starter by age 22. That’s nothing earth-shatteringly young, but it is young. Only 73 men have started 32 games or more in their age-22 seasons, and Buehrle is one of them.
Furthermore, while many of those young starting pitchers later saw their careers derailed by an arm injury, Buehrle hasn’t. In over a decade of pitching, he’s never gone on the disabled list. He’s only skipped his turn in the rotation twice, and one of those came back in May, 2001 when he was still trying to establish himself in the rotation and the White Sox had two off days in a week.
Due to his durability, Buehrle has joined an exclusive club—men who started 30 or more games in a season 11 straight years. Only these 14 men have done it since 1920: Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Mickey Lolich, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Livan Hernandez, Jeff Suppan, and Buehrle. There are some damn nice names on that list. And Jeff Suppan.
Assuming he does it again this year—and he’s just seven starts away—Buehrle will be the 11th lively ball pitcher with 30 starts in 12 straight seasons. Next year, he can be the eighth to do it 13 times in a row. Since 1920, only Spahn and Perry have done it more than 13 straight seasons, and Buehrle has a legitimate chance to join them.
Durability is a decidedly unglamorous athletic trait. But it’s a damn vital one, and Buehrle just doesn’t get injured. You need a quantity of starts to get a quantity of wins.
Quantity is nice, but you need quality, too, and Buehrle has had that, as well. He’s never been the best pitcher in baseball, but he’s almost always been a superior pitcher. In his off-years, like 2006 and 2010, he’s not so much bad as he is average.
Buehrle’s career ERA+ is 119, and that’s roughly what he’s done almost every year. He is consistent not only in his quantity, but also his quality. He’s had an ERA+ from 118-130 in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011. It’s a little lower at the moment, but not much, at 107.
It’s nothing breathtaking, but if he can consistently be that good for enough years, that quality level combined with his durability he might give him a shot. The question is how much longer can he be that durable.
Buehrle and strikeouts
The wins have piled up, but Buehrle needs them to continue to pile up. And here’s where we reach a real concern.
So 161 wins through prior to an age-33 season is both the average for live-ball 300-game winners and right where Buehrle is? That’s nice, but guess what? Plenty of other guys have been around 161 wins prior to their age-33 season, too. Frank Viola was just over it with 163 wins. Dave Stieb was a touch under at 158. Viola and Stieb each ended their careers with exactly 176 wins.
You don’t want to be keeping pace through age 32; you want to be ahead of pace. And that’s where we reach a big question for Buehrle. Is he the sort of guy that will age really well?
In his New Historical Abstract, Bill James wrote a lengthy essay noting that the statistic that best correlates with long-term success for a pitcher is strikeouts per inning. As a pitcher ages, his strikeout rate declines, and if it declines to too low a point, he ceases to be effective. Putting too many balls in play leads to runs, and runs lead to losses.
Buehrle never has been a strikeout pitcher. In his first five full seasons as a starter, Buehrle averaged 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Aside from his brief call-up appearance in 2000, Buehrle has struck out six men per inning only once. James noted that it’s very difficult for someone who begins his career as a below-average strikeout pitcher to last a long time. Well, Buehrle has been below average in K/9 in every full season in his career. A lot of those 300-gamers did it because they were strikeout guys.
Okay, but this cloud has a silver lining. Let’s go back to the James article for a second. He also looked at the guys most likely to be exceptions to the rule, guys like Tommy John or Jim Kaat or Tom Glavine. They were all smart, savvy—dare I say crafty—southpaws with good control. (Sure, Glavine would walk many batters, but that’s usually because he was intentionally pitching around guys, not because he was wild.) None ever had great strikeout rates, but they lasted quite some time.
Buehrle is cut from the same mold. He’s always had a reputation as a smart pitcher. He walks just two batters per nine innings. Those guys all lasted well into their 40s, so Buehrle could, as well.
That’s nice, but the comparison cuts both ways. Buehrle is like that trio, but two missed 300 wins, and Glavine just barely made it over the line despite pitching for a perennial playoff squad. Clearly, the odds aren’t good for Buerhle, but strikeouts alone aren’t going to keep Buehrle away from 300 wins.
Actually, there is one other bit of good news for Buehrle on the strikeout front. While his strikeout rate isn’t very good, it is very stable.
This year, Buehrle is fanning guys at the same rate he has in years past. Technically, Buehrle’s whiff rate is up this year, from 4.78 K/9 to 5.39 K/9, but that’s entirely the product of switching from the AL (with its DH) to the NL. Last year Buehrle’s K rate was 69 percent of the league average, and now it’s 70 percent. He’s been right around 70 percent almost every year since 2006. The danger in a low K-rate is that it diminishes over time. But if it’s not diminishing, it’s not as big a danger.
To sum up, Buehrle’s never been the best pitcher and has an unusually low strikeout rate for a long-lasting pitcher, but he is the sort of low-punchout pitcher who might last a long time anyway. Though the odds are against him, Buehrle does have at least one similar pitcher in the 300-win club and two others who didn’t miss by much.
What has Mark Buehrle done for us lately?
Okay, but all that overlooks one not-so-tiny detail. So far, we’ve been talking about what he’s done through his age-32 season, but we’re a tad over two-thirds the way through 2012, which is Buehrle’s age-33 season. What about now?
Currently, Buehrle has a record of 9-10. Sure, his ERA+ is above average, but it’s not that far above average. Buehrle is on pace for about 13 wins this year. That’s nice, but nothing spectacular. Remember how his 161 wins prior to this year put him exactly on pace with the lively ball era 300-game winners? Well those guys averaged 17 wins in their age-33 year. So Buehrle is falling off the pace, and he can’t really afford to do too much of that.
There’s also what Buehrle has done recently. For much of the year, it looked like Buehrle was still on pace to keep his 300-win hopes alive. He kept pitching well and claiming his share of wins.
That came to an end about a month ago. On July 14, he won a game to push his record to 9-8. His ERA was 3.13, which sure is nice. Since, then nothing has gone right. Buehrle is still stuck on nine wins. Even worse, it’s not simply a result of bad run support. He doesn’t have a single Quality Start since then. He’s allowed 21 runs (20 earned) on 12 walks and 33 hits in 26.1 frames for a 6.84 ERA. Yuck. Sure looks like he might be losing it a bit, doesn’t it?
In other words, this is an odd time to wonder if Buehrle can win 300 games. Yeah, but too much can be made of small sample sizes. He surely has not been ineffective as of late, but was very effective for the first half of these season. Also, Buehrle often has had these dead spots. In Sept., 2011 he posted an ERA of 6.99, and that’s despite throwing seven shutout innings in his last start of that month. He had a rotten start to 2010 and a dismal late summer in 2009.
It isn’t nice to have this bad stretches, but it provides some context to Buehrle’s recent travails. His bad month this summer isn’t the beginning of the end but just his seemingly annual rut he pitches through.
He has a bigger problem, though. It’s not his current production that can keep Buehrle from 300, but what happened in his prime.
What has Buehrle done for us previously?
All of the above factors can be overcome. Many pitchers have had their dead spots. Glavine showed that someone with Buehrle’s makeup can make it to 300. Glavine, John, and Kaat showed that someone like Buehrle can last a surprisingly long time.
But Buehrle’s odds for making it to 300 still appear bleak. His problem ultimately isn’t what will happen down the road, or what’s happened over the last month; it’s what he did in his prime.
He didn’t win enough.
Buehrle was always a strong pitcher, always a sure bet for a good chuck of wins in a season, but never one to post a great number of wins in a season. He’s never won 20 games, which isn’t ideal but isn’t a killer. Don Sutton had just one 20-win season, and he ended up with 324 wins.
Yeah, but Buehrle has won 17 games just once. Sutton did it seven times. In fact, of the 13 lively ball pitchers, they all had at least five seasons with 17 or more wins, and at least four of 18 wins, and three of 19 wins. Buehrle went 19-12 back in 2002, and that’s still the only time he’s topped 16 wins.
It’s not a fully fair comparison, as we’re comparing Buehrle’s partial career with their full careers, but you need to post the bigger win seasons in your prime, and Buehrle’s prime was 2002-06. Forget 16 wins, Buehrle has topped 13 wins only once since 2006. Yeah, a long career helps, but it’s hard to end up with a historically large win total without a plentiful supply of relatively big win seasons.
Here’s another way of looking at things. Buehrle has been around for 388 starts and has 170 wins. Remember those 13 lively ball 300-game winners I keep referring back to? Here were their win-loss records after their 388th start, with Buehrle thrown in for comparison:
Pitcher W-L Lefty Grove 269-123 Warren Spahn 213-142 Tom Seaver 204-146 Early Wynn 202-161 Randy Johnson 198-101 Greg Maddux 198-112 Roger Clemens 197-111 Gaylord Perry 192-150 Steve Carlton 183-132 Tom Glavine 182-114 Phil Niekro 180-158 Don Sutton 177-136 Nolan Ryan 175-167 Mark Buehrle 170-130
It’s not entirely fair, as some of these guys, especially the earlier ones, had plenty of relief appearances, but clearly Buehrle just hasn’t gotten as many wins out of his arm as he’d need so far.
All of which comes back to the same point. Mark Buehrle is a bad bet to win 300 games. He has several factors weighing against him, none of which by itself guarantee he wouldn’t get there, but the combination kills his chances.
References & Resources
Numbers come from Baseball-Reference.com, it’s game logs, and it’s wonderful Play Index.