All good things come to an end. Every player at some point needs to decide when they give up on their dream and walk away from the game. As Mark Buehrle says goodbye, Ian York takes some time to appreciate the soft-tossing lefty.
The Toronto Blue Jays are moving on to the playoffs for the first time since 1993, but Mark Buehrle isn’t moving on with them. Buehrle has retired, after a distinguished 16-year career during which he won 214 regular-season and two post-season games, for three teams. He leaves with a career ERA+ of 116, having been less than average for only two seasons (2006 and 2013), and then just barely, with an ERA+ of 95 and 99 respectively.
Buehrle has a perfect game and a no-hitter under his belt, as well as a World Series ring, but what comes to mind when most people think of Buehrle is that he throws slowly. In 2014 and 2015, Buehrle’s average fastball velocity was the slowest in baseball (for players throwing at least 500 four-seam fastballs). At 83.9-mph, his 2015 version was a full 2-mph slower than the second-place pitcher, Dan Haren. (Speeds quoted here are based on PITCHf/x measurements, which are generally slightly slower than those measured by radar guns. If we drop the cutoff to 250 fastballs per year, Buehrle becomes the second-slowest fastball thrower in 2014 and 2015, with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s 81.5-mph fastball in the lead.)
This wasn’t always so extraordinary. As recently as 2008, Buehrle had plenty of company in the slo-pitch division. Here are average fastball velocities, for pitchers who threw at least 500 fastballs in a season, since PITCHf/x became universally available in 2008; Buehrle is shown in red:
In 2008, seven pitchers threw slower fastballs than Buehrle. Granted, one of those players was R.A. Dickey, who threw more fastballs than he does now, and Buehrle was throwing several mph faster than he did in 2015, but still: back in 2008, throwing a slow fastball was a legitimate way to make a living.
But then R.A. Dickey cut back on his fastball use, Paul Byrd and Cla Meredith retired, Jamie Moyer retired to spend more time with his great-great-great-great-grandchildren and Buehrle got slower. Meanwhile, across baseball, fastball velocities are up, from an average of 91.3-mph in 2008, to 92.1 in 2015. As the chart above shows, the fastest pitchers are throwing harder today, and the average pitchers are throwing harder. In 2008, it was common for pitchers to have a sub-90-mph fastball; by 2015, those were the exception.
As well as his four-seam “fastball”, Buehrle throws a sinker (PITCHf/x calls it a “two-seam fastball”, abbreviated “FT” here), cutter (“FC”), a curve (“CU”), and changeup (“CH”). The four-seam and the sinker, and the change and the cutter, are paired pitches: They have very similar velocities, but different amounts of horizontal and vertical break. In terms of amount of movement, and of course speed, none of these pitches look exceptional. Dozens of fireballing young pitchers in the league can throw more spectacular-looking pitches than these:
Instead of focusing on the vaguely comic aspect of Buehrle’s pitching, though, we should look at what he has done well, because he has been a solidly above-average pitcher for almost all of his career. Very simply, Buehrle has superb command of his pitches. Here are the locations of his fastball, sinker, and cutter in 2015:
(These charts are from the viewpoint of the umpire, so the batters would stand in the center, between the charts. The grey polygon is the de facto strike zone as umpires called it this year.) His pitches neatly outline the edges of the zones, and each of these different pitch types target different parts of the strike zones’ edges. The center of the strike zone is virtually empty.
We should miss Mark Buehrle for at least two reasons: First, because he was a master of a dying art, actually pitching instead of trying to overwhelm the batter with 99-mph fastballs in the center of the strike zone. And second, because by 2015 he was an oddity, a massive outlier in the increasingly homogenous, cookie-cutter field of baseball. Like knuckleballers, like pitchers who throw with either hand, like batters who hit pitches wildly outside the zone, Mark Buehrle found a way to success in baseball without following the usual guidelines, and that deserves celebration.