Buehrle building path to Cooperstown consideration
Cy Young. Warren Spahn. Gaylord Perry. Christy Mathewson. Mark Buehrle. There's your list of the Major League pitchers who have started 30-plus games for 14 consecutive seasons.
Buehrle, by far the most reliable active pitcher, is tied for fourth on this list with Mathewson, who retired in 1916. He needs one more season to catch Perry, who retired in 1983; three more seasons to catch Spahn, who retired in 1965; and five more seasons to catch Young, who retired in 1911.
Buehrle would probably tell you that there's no way he'll catch the guy who has his name on baseball's top pitching award. But don't write off his chances.
The Blue Jays left-hander, who will be 36 when the 2015 season starts, is very quietly putting himself on the fringes of serious Hall of Fame discussion by going to the mound every fifth game, year after year after year.
Research by Bill James shows that Buehrle has made 228 consecutive starts, which became the longest streak in the Majors when Justin Verlander missed a start last August with soreness in his right shoulder. And that hardly tells the full story.
Buehrle's streak could be at 454, dating back to his first year in the White Sox rotation (2001), if not for a start he missed in 2007. That one was because of a coaching decision, not an injury, with Chicago using that spot to get an extra start for rookie John Danks, who had been given a breather after going 0-6 in August. He also could have had one more start in 2003, but he stepped aside on the last day of the season, so Esteban Loaiza could work on three days' rest in an attempt to have the winningest season ever for a Mexican-born pitcher. Buehrle is that kind of a guy.
"The bottom line is, when you think about Buehrle, he's a workhorse,'' White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "He's impressive. He has a good enough delivery to command pitches with movement, and a good enough delivery that enables him to take that workload of 200 innings that many years in a row. Only horses can do that. Just tremendous pitchers. That list he's on [of pitchers making 30-plus starts in consecutive seasons], there are nothing but tremendous pitchers on it.''
Buehrle has had some good timing. Unlike recent Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who had streaks stopped by the strike-shortened 1994 and '95 seasons, his career has fallen in an era of labor peace. But man, has Buehrle ever made the most of the chance he was given when the White Sox signed him for $150,000 in 1999, as a draft-and-follow.
Like Maddux, Buehrle makes pitching -- baseball, really -- appear simple. He gets the ball back from his catcher and fires the next pitch. Cooper says Buehrle shakes off signals "about eight times every 12 years," and that's probably high. Buehrle does so many things right on the mound that it barely matters that his fastball averaged only 83.9 mph last year, the second-slowest fastball velocity in the Majors last year to knuckleball-throwing teammate R.A. Dickey.
Buehrle didn't always have to rely on such finesse. He could break 90 with his fastball when he reached the big leagues, but just barely. Yet in 2001, Buehrle held opponents to a .230 batting average and led the American League with a 1.07 WHIP. He couldn't sustain such success once hitters adjusted (and his BABIP returned to the norm). Buehrle has never had the pure stuff to dominate that we associate with Hall of Famers, but in many ways, neither did Maddux or Glavine.
Maddux has said he was lucky that Ralph Meder taught him everything he needed to know about pitching in sessions when he was 14 and 15. He says Meder taught him that pitching was about "location, movement and velocity, in that order." Buehrle has won 199 games with a 3.81 ERA and a 58.3 career fWAR in his 15 years with the same approach.
Buehrle works quickly too. His first career start -- at the Metrodome in July 2000, when he was 21 -- went two hours, 46 minutes. Buehrle's most recent one -- against Seattle at Rogers Centre -- lasted only one hour, 59 minutes.
While the average time of Major League games has crept up to three hours, eight minutes, Buehrle's 32 starts last season ran an even three hours. If you throw out four extra-inning games, including one that went 19 innings, he's under two hours, 50 minutes. That's the beauty of keeping things simple.
"Buehrle trusts, believes and has total conviction in every pitch he throws," Cooper said. "It's almost like an ['I don't care'] type of attitude. 'Put it down, I'll throw it and it'll work.' That's a strength. That's a major strength of a guy when you can do that. It looks like he doesn't care; he cares but he didn't care. That confidence, conviction and belief can't be overstated."
Buehrle has checked off most of the big boxes on his career. He has thrown a perfect game and, for good measure, a second no-hitter. Buehrle not only earned a World Series ring but, like Randy Johnson and Madison Bumgarner, he did the unexpected and picked up a World Series save.
No one's saying Buehrle is a Hall of Famer if he retires tomorrow. He hasn't won a Cy Young Award and probably never will; but Nolan Ryan never won one either. Buehrle has only received Cy Young Award votes in one season, and that will probably kill his chances. If it doesn't, then we'd look at his strikeouts, and he hasn't piled them high either -- 1,779, 12th among active pitchers (and only 5.19 per nine innings, which ranks 74th among 78 pitchers with at least 1,000 innings).
But now's where it can get really interesting.
With his freak-of-nature health and his low-maintenance delivery, Buehrle is the type of pitcher who -- knock wood -- could be effective deep into his 40s. "He can do it as long as he wants," Cooper said.
People have been expecting Buehrle to turn into a batting-practice pitcher for years. The White Sox felt he was near his end three years ago, when they signed Danks to a contract extension while letting him follow Ozzie Guillen to the Marlins, and he keeps putting up results. Buehrle was unusually good early last season and rode that fast start to a 13-10 record and a 3.39 ERA for Toronto -- his lowest his since 2005.
Buehrle will be a free agent after next season, and guess who is going to need starting pitching? That would be the Cardinals, his hometown team, who have John Lackey in the last year of his contract and continue to sweat the health of Michael Wacha.
What if Buehrle could help the Blue Jays end their 22-season playoff drought in 2015, then slide in to finish his career with a string of two- or maybe three-year contracts with the Cards? Maybe he could last another five years in St. Louis, giving them 30 starts and 200 innings a season. That wouldn't be a bad way to go out.
"The good thing is it's going to be up to Mark," Cooper said. "He's a family guy. He talked about wanting to retire years ago. But I think it could be good for him and his kids if he keeps pitching, for them to be in the clubhouse, understanding what their dad does. I always like it when older players have their kids around. It's neat. Personally I'd like to see him keep going, go as long as he can go."
Buehrle might never win a Cy Young Award, but he's got a chance to join him atop the list of the greatest workhorses ever. The countdown has begun.