The Future of Mark Buehrle

Guest Post By Albert Lang

(TCM Note: While every else is worried about how Albert Pujols will perform over the next ten years, our friend Albert Lang, who does his own excellent work over at H2H Corner, had some thoughts about the value of Mark Buehrle going forward.)

I’ve never been a Mark Buehrle fan for a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t his fault (most likely it is MTV’s fault).

I’ve become more of a fantasy player so I view the game through a different lens – workman pitchers without even a handful of Ks aren’t super valuable. In addition, aside from his defense, there isn’t a ton of flash with Buehrle. I grew up a huge fan of the me-first type players (Barry Bonds and Deion Sanders predominantly). I also think Buehrle can be somewhat of a hypocrite at times.

That said, he was clearly (and deservedly) at the top of the free agent class for a variety of reasons. So, will Buehrle be the free agent god that brings titles to South Beach or more like Jeff Suppan? Certainly there can’t be an in-between!

The good: since 2001, when Buehrle began 11 straight seasons of 200+ innings, Buehrle is first in the majors in innings, 21st in BB/9 (min. 400 IPs), and seventh in WAR (Fangraphs edition) behind only Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Roy Oswalt, Javier Vazquez, Randy Johnson and Johan Santana. You can’t quibble with that consistent usefulness. 

To date, Buehrle has a 3.83 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 2.48 K:BB rate and 45.9% ground ball (GB) rate. However, there are some chinks in the armor. He led the league in hits four times and, as Dave Cameron pointed out, his ERA likely benefited from some subjective ground ballness and how they are classified/scored as errors. As Cameron discovered, 10.1% of Buehrle’s runs allowed have been unearned. While his ERA puts him in great company, if you look at runs allowed, he seems more like Al Leiter, Barry Zito, Randy Wolf and Jarrod Washburn. You certainly can’t just assume all his unearned runs were a product of his insane amount of ground balls, but it is certainly possible he’s getting a little help from those scoring the games.

Another issue with Buehrle being the savior is that he’s old and has a tremendous amount of innings on his arm. Buehrle will be 33 years-old next year and has already pitched 2,476.2 innings in the majors. I wrote the majority of this before he signed, with the assumption that he would get a four-year deal, just based on the fact that every single team wanted him. I just don’t think he’ll stay productive that entire time, i.e., until his age 37 season. And I’m not sure I can find a pitcher similar to Buehrle who has.

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Hall of Famer Herb Pennock broke into the majors in 1912 at 18. Over the next 14 years, he totaled 2,374.1 innings, a 3.45 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 1.29 K:BB rate. After turning 33, he pitched seven more years for New York and Boston, but averaged just 150 innings per year with a 3.89 ERA, 1.41 WHIP and 1.48 K:BB rate. That dip in innings is largely caused by his last two seasons. If you remove those years, he averaged 178 innings from 1927-1932 (his age 33 – 38 seasons).

From 1953-1965, Johnny Podres threw 2,027.2 innings with a 3.67 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 1.99 K:BB rate. During that time, he missed a full season and threw just 2.2 innings in 1964, yet still managed to average 169 innings a year. Podres pitched just three seasons after turning 33, and averaged 79 innings with a 3.75 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 1.42 K:BB rate. He was done at 36.

Through his age-32 season (1991), Bill Gullickson pitched 2,063.2 innings with a 3.66 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 2.15 K:BB rate. Pretty similar numbers to Buehrle even after accounting for Gullickson pitching in Japan for two years in the midst of his career. From 1992-1994 (Gullickson’s last years in the majors), he averaged just 165 innings a season with a 5.04 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and 1.67 K:BB rate.

When Buehrle comes up for the Hall of Fame, I have to imagine comparisons to Jack Morris will abound. From 1977-1987, Morris pitched 2,387.2 innings with a 3.55 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 1.81 K:BB rate. He pitched seven more seasons after turning 32 and averaged 205 innings over that span, but he wasn’t as successful as in his youth: his ERA was 4.48, his WHIP was 1.38 and his K:BB rate was 1.74. Like Pennock, his last two years were brutal. Still, removing those horrid years only gets Morris a 4.11 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 1.80 K:BB rate. This appears to be the best case scenario comp for Buehrle’s next four-five seasons.

I’ve written and read a ton about Frank Viola lately and he certainly seems a lot like Mark Buehrle tme. From 1982-1992, Viola pitched 2,577 innings with a 3.70 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 2.29 K:BB rate. He pitched 238 innings for Boston in 1992, his age 32 season. However, his career quickly ended. He did last four more years, but, during that span, averaged just 65 innings per season with a 4.03 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 1.08 K:BB rate. If Viola is most like Buehrle (and their lines are certainly similar), this appears to be the doomsday comp.

Doug Drabek provides another cautionary tale. From 1986-1995, he pitched 2,081.2 innings with a 3.32 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 2.41 K:BB rate. He pitched just three more seasons after turning 32, never throwing more than 175 innings in a season and posting ERAs well above 4.50. Of course, the decline was there for Drabek before he reached Buehrle’s free agency age. In his age 32-season, Drabek had a 4.77 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and 2.65 K:BB rate. It marked the second straight season he failed to reach 200 innings after reaching that threshold for the previous six seasons in a row.

Of course, modern medicine and training have come a long way since most of the above have pitched, so I wanted to see how Buehrle compared to a few contemporary players. From 1997-2007, Kevin Millwood pitched 1,947 innings with a 3.97 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 2.63 K:BB rate and routinely had GB rates between 40-46%. After turning 32, he pitched just four more years and averaged 153 innings with a 4.53 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 2.16 K:BB rate and his GB rate rested around 40%. Those were in Texas, Baltimore and Colorado (a far cry from Miami) but still, he fell off.

While Mike Hampton was never really good or worth his contract, he was pretty decent from 1993-2005 (his ages 20-32 seasons). During that span, he threw 2,074 innings with a 3.97 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 1.54 K:BB rate and routinely had GB rates between 47-52%. After turning 32 in 2005, he missed the next two full seasons and pitched just 194.1 innings from 2008-2010.

In addition to Viola, I’ve been thinking and writing about Jeff Suppan a ton. While Suppan is no Buehrle, from 1999-2007 (his ages 24-32 seasons), Suppan averaged 204 innings with a 4.44 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 1.68 K:BB rate and GB rates between 44-47%. His moderate success in St. Louis fooled the Brewers into giving him big bucks. While he wasn’t worth the contract in the first season, he wasn’t horrible (he threw 206.2 innings with a 4.62 ERA, 1.51 WHIP and 1.68 K:BB rate). After that season, he pitched less and less innings as he turned 33, 34, and 35.

Bartolo Colon has had a surprisingly similar career to Mark Buehrle. While he is short on innings by his 32nd birthday, from 1997-2005, Colon did pitch 1,819.2 innings with a 3.94 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 2.25 K:BB rate and GB rates that oscillated considerably from 37-46%. Then he turned 33 in 2006 and the injuries mounted, and, until 2011, Colon never reached triple digit innings in a season, even though he had averaged 216 innings from 1998-2005.

Jeremy Guthrie is a bit of a different comparison to Buehrle. Guthrie didn’t really reach the majors until his age 28 season (2007). Since that time, Guthrie has averaged 197 innings with a 4.12 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.14 K:BB rate and a 40.6% GB rate pitching in Camden Yards and the AL East. He also has roughly 1,000 less MLB innings on his arm than Buehrle. If Guthrie were a free agent, would he be attracting the kind of attention Buehrle has? Absolutely not, he doesn’t have the long successful career. However, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Guthrie outperform Buehrle over the next four years – and if we take value per dollar into account, I’d put my money squarely on Guthrie to out-value Buehrle.

Certainly none of the comparisons are perfect. I’m not sure we have seen a pitcher exactly like Buehrle before (snowflakes, fingerprints and whatnot). However, it is hard to find a tale that makes me comfortable with Buehrle getting an expensive four-year contract. While he likely won’t become Jeff Suppan or Frank Viola, hoping that he is the next Jack Morris doesn’t strike me as the blue chip free agent the Marlins bought.

Still, according to Baseball Ref, he has averaged 4.7 WAR over the last four seasons and, according to Fangraphs, a win (on the open market) is worth approximately 4.5 million.

If we take a rosy view: 16 WAR over the next four years seems like the best case scenario for Buehrle, so a four year deal for $18 million per would be on target, which would make the 4-year $58 million he received a significant bargain.

However, if you are a pessimist, six WAR over the rest of his career seems plausible, meaning a four year deal worth just $27 million would be the mark and clearly, in this scenario, he would be worth less than half what he will be paid.

If you average the two you get a four year deal worth $49.5 million. That is probably what I would be comfortable investing. I would have rather looked to other free agents like Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Javier Vazquez or take fliers on Erik Bedard, Paul Maholm, or Roy Oswalt.

I don’t think the Marlins criminally overspent. There is a decent chance he performs close to those millions, a slim chance he outperforms them and a solid chance he underperforms. Still, the market is what the market is. Clearly, Buehrle was sought after and the Marlins had to add millions and a year to obtain his services. In addition, the move from Chicago’s ballpark to what appears to be a cavernous park in Miami and the move from the American League to the National League should help Buehrle quite a bit as he ages. Could the contract end up being a disaster? Sure. But, as of now, it makes decent sense. I’d still take the under.