By Dirk Hayhurst
Ten wins against one loss with a 2.10 ERA is a hell of a way to start a season.
If it was Justin Verlander, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey or Clayton Kershaw attached to those numbers, well, I'd be more than happy to dub the lucky hurler as my early favorite for a Cy Young.
But it's not.
10 and 1 against a 2.10 ERA is the start of Mark Buerhle's 2014 season, a pitcher whose fame is deeply rooted in his resiliency and flashes of pitching magic, not his wire-to-wire dominance.
Don't get me wrong, I love Buerhle. I love the way he, in a game that can't help but get slower season after season, speeds things up. I love that, when I covered him as the Jays radio color-man, I had to keep my commentary concise because no sooner had I started talking about what he was doing than he was already winding up to do it again. I love the way he poo-poos over-thinking the pitching process, focuses on reading the batter in the moment, and pitches like it's not baseball, but speed chess.
I'd love to see Buehrle win 20 games and win a Cy Young in 2014. Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to happen. Because as much as I love the 35-year-old, his teammates -- specifically his offense and defense -- love him even more.
Buehrle's 2014 Jays have scored 73 runs behind him thus far. That's just over 6 runs an outing, a level of run support few pitchers have seen for a handful of games this season, let alone all of their starts. Of course, more than six runs is not an insurmountable number in the AL East, especially considering it's home to two of Buehrle's career nemeses -- the Yankees and Red Sox -- but it's still a damn good number any pitcher would take.
Buehrle's defensive support has also been excellent. He's given up roughly one hit an inning with an H/9 of 8.5, walked his customary BB/9 of 2.2, and only managed a SO/9 of 5.1. Bottom line, he's not getting a lot of outs himself. Considering Buehrle plays on turf and not some soft, grounder-slowing sod, his defense's aptitude is key.
As it goes with any decision-heavy start to a season, there is a great deal of luck. The Jay's bullpen is shabby this year, even with Casey Janssen back in the mix. They own a collective ERA of 4.69 but have managed to hold the lead for Buehrle 10 out of 11 times they've had the chance (Buehrle hasn't thrown a complete game yet this season).
Maybe the most telling stat of what's helping Buehrle this 2014 is how he's only allowed two home runs in 12 starts. That's two home runs in 81.1 innings in one of baseball's most homer-centric leagues. Considering he's contact oriented and sees a base runner nearly every inning, that's a game changer.
If Buerhle goes on to win 20 games this year -- and if his team's present trajectory sustains, he'll do that easily -- he'd be a shoo-in for a Cy Young based almost exclusively on the wins total, and ERA value.
But those two stats are extremely misleading in terms of rating a pitcher's ability to run the table. There are far better advanced sabermetrics out there to consult, things like FIP, ERA+, SIERA, K% and so on. In fact, when you look at those numbers coupled with how much his team's support has played into his success, it's easy to predict a Buehrle regression.
Mind you, regression is not implosion, and this is where Buehrle's amazing track record of dependability comes into play, and what makes Buehrle such an interesting, and timely success story that baseball should be paying close attention to. In fact, I think the industry of baseball, for its own good, should throw out all the numbers and just look at what Buehlre is accomplishing in the face of where it's heading.
Analysts are going to tell you why Buehrle is not going to sustain, and all their sabermetric points are valid. But what's missing from this is what happens every time a player's unconventional style of play propels them into the forefront of baseball narrative: How is this success happening, can it be replicated, and should it be emulated?
Think about it. When Tim Lincecum won his Cy Youngs, there was talk of why his funky mechanics worked, and if there was anything to glean from them. R.A. Dickey's 2012 success did more for the proliferation of the knuckleball than perhaps any other player in the last 4 decades. Johan Santana's 2004 run made the changeup into the "it" pitch. Mariano Rivera's success with a cutter made it the pitch of the modern era.
While there are other pitchers that dominate, they are not so easily emulated. Fernandez, Harvey, Verlander, Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish -- they are all powerful pitchers with entire arsenals of weapons at their disposal. They are a scout's wet dream. They fit baseball's archetype of dominance. They are the gold standard and most of their skill comes from raw genetic ability only a few in the world are blessed with.
Buehrle, on the other hand, couldn't get signed with the stuff he's throwing if he was eligible in this year's amateur player draft.
Yet Buehrle turns in over two hundred innings of quality pitching a year and has done so for 13 years in a row. In an industry where championship dreams are crushed and revenue streams are sucked by injury, Buehrle is the game's iron pitching horse. He is the best example of trend defying success the game could ask for at the moment, and the current trend is arm injury.
I don't know what's more alarming, 2014's elbow injury epidemic or the surgical result (Tommy John Surgery) that's become accepted as a panacea? It's almost as if baseball is expecting it's players to break and be comfortable with the prospect of getting cut open as a right of passage. Of course, the industry doesn't state this directly, but through its economics -- which are slanted toward drafting high-powered, injury-risk pitchers -- where the cost of fixing them is already factored in as breakage, which is, at the very least, cause for conversation.
Major League Baseball has always coveted high velocity. But with pitchers seemingly reaching their physical limits, would it not be wise for baseball to shift it's focus off velocity and back on to health and longevity before surgery becomes a normal and acceptable part of the sport?
But if baseball has shown us one thing, it's that it's slow to change. As long as fireballers are eating up outs themselves, and setting quantitative precedent as to why they should endure, baseball will stay the course.
That's why Mark Buehrle's 2014 season is so important. As long as he continues to pitch well and stay healthy, the traits that makes him who he is -- resiliency, command, pitch-ability, tempo and health -- are thrust into the spotlight. It doesn't matter if he's propped up by his team or not, he represents a viable a departure from the catalyzing norm that seems hell bent on elbow zippers.
Dr. James Andrews and ASMI's Dr. Glenn Fleisig have both talked at length about the specialization of baseball over the last decade and the risk it poses to young arms. The amount of wear and tear young pitchers are seeing, and how, even when those young arms are in phenomenal shape and employing excellent mechanics, the human body is simply not meant to handle high work loads under the kind of stress required to generate high velocity. The good doctors can talk until they're blue in the face about what baseball's youth should be doing, and how to make pitchers less injury prone, but until something at the top changes, nothing else will.
There have been other soft toss success stories in baseball beyond Mark Buehrle, but baseball is a what-have-you-done-lately industry. And lately, the industry has gotten injured, specifically it's pitchers, with nearly one arm injury for every other game played this season. Meanwhile Buehrle has done what he's always done, pitch effectively without velocity or injury. A successful season from him may not answer all of baseball's arm health questions, but could help baseball ask some desperately needed new ones.
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Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also a best-selling author, and has appeared on Baseball America, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Score, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more. More from Dirk at www.dirkhayhurst.com. Follow him on Twitter at @thegarfoose