Mark Buehrle: Pitch Selection and ValuesBy
In last week’s edition, the Marlins’ newly acquired closer Heath Bell’s pitch selection and pitch values were examined using Pitch f/x data, courtesy of Texas Leaguers and Fangraphs. Next up is the team’s second offseason addition, Mark Buehrle.
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The former White Sox was targeted with the intent of bolstering the rotation, and signed as a free agent this December for $58 Million over four years. Like before, we’ve seen analysis of Buehrle’s signing and projections for him going forward (from the excellent Michael Jong of Fish Stripes), but today the focus is on what to expect from Buehrle on the mound–which pitches he has relied on the most, and what has been most effective for him.
For the past two years, Buehrle has attacked hitters with a variety of pitches: a two-seam fastball, cutter, curveball, and a change-up. While he has thrown the latter three for the entirety of his career, the two-seam is a relatively new addition to his arsenal. Starting in 2009, Buehrle began using the pitch, albeit rarely at first, but it has since become a mainstay in his game plan. Up until the 2010 season, Buehrle also relied on a slider, before dropping the pitch and replacing it with the two-seamer.
Buehrle’s average fastball velocity last season was only 85.0, which was good for third slowest among qualified starters, putting Buehrle next to knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (ouch!) and the Royal’s Jeff Francis. As for the cutter, Buehrle’s average velocity of 81.8 was second slowest among those who qualified, and ahead of only Chis Capauno. Not surprisingly, both Buehrle’s curve velocity (72.9) and changeup speed (79.0) were also well below the league averages of 77.2 and 83.1, respectively. While most are slightly lower than in previous years, Buehrle’s velocities are all in line with his career averages, and the decline can be attributed to the effect of aging–a trend that should continue as Buehrle nears his 33rd birthday.
Unlike the Marlin’s new closer Heath Bell, Buehrle does not rely heavily on one specific pitch; rather, he uses all four pitches at least 10% of the time, and no pitch more often than 25 percent. The curveball was his most scarcely used at 10.1% last season, but still is thrown enough to keep hitters off-balanced. Next in terms of usage rage is Buehrle’s cutter, which he went to 13.1 percent of the time in 2011–and right in line with his 12.2 percent career average.
The ex-White Sox’s second most common pitch choice during last season was his two-seam fastball, which he relied on only 20.2 percent of the time, quite a low number for a fastball. And, while Buehrle continues to age and his velocity continues to drop, he will have to depend even more on off-speed pitches for the remainder of his career, as the effectiveness of his already slow fastball decreases. Buehrle’s go-to pitch was his changeup, which he went to 24.2 percent of the time in 2011–an increase from his career average of around 20% for the changeup.
Buehrle’s changeup, along with being the most used pitch, was also his most effective. It was worth 9.5 runs last season, or 1.25 runs per 100 pitches. Although, in his career the changeup has only been worth .3 runs –the result of two seasons with -7.1 and -6.0 runs–so it remains to be seen whether he has actually improved the pitch, or 2011 was a season where Buehrle benefited from a regression toward his true skill level (and some luck), or a combination of both. His cutter was also very impressive last year, racking up 5.5 runs, or 1.30 per 100 pitches. And while his curveball was almost exactly average–.3 runs, or .03 per 100 pitches, the same cannot be said for his two-seamer. His fastball was worth -8.8 runs (-1.38 per 100 pitches), and 2011 was not just an aberration; in fact, all three seasons that he’s thrown the pitch have recorded negative runs. Granted, that’s partly to be expected with an 85 mph two-seamier.
Buehrle has done a very good job at getting hitters out while working with some of the slowest stuff in the big leagues, largely the result of his very good changeup and cutter, as well as keeping hitters off-balance by mixing up his pitches very well.