Biggest Surprise – Mark Buehrle

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Oh how the mood of Jays’ fans has changed.  My last post – on May 5th – was a plea for fans to be patient with their 14-17 ball club.  All signs pointed to a team that had been actually quite good, but experienced some bad luck and poor outcomes. Now, here we stand at 41-31, a comfy 3.5 games clear of our closest competitor in the AL East.  This change has lead me to a new topic – which Blue Jay has been the most pleasant surprise?

I had my own personal anecdotal thoughts, but I put it to the fans on Twitter to get a feel for public opinion:

 



The same names kept coming up with fans – Hutch, Buehrle, Gose, Lawrie, & Melky.

I decided to take a more statistical look at the question. I took ZiPS projections from before the season for the entire Blue Jays roster and compared them to the current updated ZiPS projections. The 5 biggest increases (WAR) for pitchers and batters are as follows:

Top 5 WAR Increases - Batter
Player WAR Increase
Bautista 1.7
Francisco 1.1
Encarnacion 0.9
Cabrera 0.6
Lind 0.6

Top 5 WAR Increases - Pitcher
Player WAR Increase
Buehrle 1.6
Hutchison 1.3
Korecky 0.7
Drabek 0.6
Rasmussen 0.5

Excuse some of the AAA depth pitchers making the list, apparently they are doing better than ZiPS anticipated and also more likely to log MLB innings. Two real items of substance jump out here – Bautista is having an even better year than the tremendous one he was expected to have and a couple of the fan votes didn’t make the top 5 list. Gose is almost there with a 0.6, but Lawrie has actually decreased his projected WAR by 0.2. Albeit, mostly due to defensive issues tied into the switch to 2B.

With this info in hand, I am going to take a look at a few of the players individually. Today, I will try to determine what has led to Buehrle’s success so far in 2014.

If we were to pick a player at the start of the year who would greatly outperform expectations, I would not have picked Buehrle. Surely one of the young players would breakout before the 35 year-old lefty reversed the tides of the aging curve. A quick look at some of Buehrle’s numbers and it seems like success would be impossible – the first season where his average fastball has dipped below 85 MPH, an almost 2 point dip in K%, and a career high BB%. How could he be outperforming projections with peripherials like that?

The answer is simple; he isn’t giving up home runs and he is getting lucky. A HR/FB of 4% is quite easily the lowest of Mark’s career, he has been victimized by the long ball quite frequently previously in his career. A lot of people would believe a decrease like this is mostly due to luck, but almost everyone would think a career high in Left on Base % (LOB%) of 81% is based in luck. The timing of events over the course of a year will generally stabilize, such is randomness. It is likely that both of these numbers will regress closer to career norms, which will mean more HRs and more runners scoring.

However, this feels like a cheap way out. Picking some peripherals that are abnormal and saying they will normalize is really quite easy. These are the outcomes. Perhaps Buehrle is actually doing something different that is leading to these improved and unpredicted results?

His pitch usage has changed substantially in 2014. He is no longer relying on his fastball as much – probably a wise choice – and has increased the usage of his curveball twofold. This has worked out very well for Mark, he already has as many whiffs on his breaking ball as he did in all of 2013. Not only that, but when hitters are making contact with his curveball, they are hitting for a 0.019 ISO. That is less than 1/6 of what they are hitting off of his fastball or changeup. Evidence A:

plot_profile

The old adage about pitching smarter, not harder, may never have been more true. Buehrle has changed his pitch mix to rely more on his curveball and changeup, and less on his very hittable and slowing fastball. Perhaps regression isn’t imminent for Buehrle. After all, we can see some obvious changes in the way he is pitching. It is likely that hitters will become wise to sly ol’ Marks tricks, but he may have more surprises waiting for them. Maybe we will see the return of his slider which he hasn’t thrown since his time with the Marlins?

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