Baseball is a game of rituals of which Mark Buehrle wants no part.
On Monday, when the Tampa Bay Rays arrived in Toronto to play the first of a three-game series, the Blue Jays pitchers and catchers gathered in a conference room at Rogers Centre for a dissertation from pitching coach Pete Walker on what they might expect from Evan Longoria and company.
It is called the advance pitcher’s meeting and it takes place at the start of every series. It is heavy on analytics: the pitches that batters like to hit, the ones they don’t, what area of the strike zone to avoid to keep the ball in the park. All the data is printed out in a detailed document, usually three to four pages long, and distributed to the starters; relievers are given an abridged edition. There’s even a video component to see firsthand the recent hits and misses of the opposing batters.
Buehrle, as usual, was nowhere to be found, having been given a hall pass by Walker. Buehrle doesn’t want to know all that minutia, never has. The guy has probably never even read Moneyball yet is fast approaching the 200-win plateau.
“He’s a rare bird when it comes to all that stuff,” Walker said of Buehrle in an interview. “And he’s had such a great career that he’s not going to change now.”
And why would he? At the age of 35, Buehrle has enjoyed an incredible start to the 2014 season and has been a key ingredient to Toronto’s ascent to the top of the American League East standing. On Sunday, Buehrle will take the mound against the Kansas City Royals at Rogers Centre in search of career win 196, advanced scouting reports be damned.
His record on the season is 9-1 and he is the first Blue Jays pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1997 to win nine of his first 11 starts. (Clemens would go on to finish 21-7 to capture his fourth Cy Young Award as the league’s top pitcher.) Buehrle’s great start has made him the early frontrunner for this year’s Cy Young, and it is almost a given that he will be hurling for the American League in July’s All-Star Game.
Not bad for a pitcher who has always eschewed the analytics side of the game to concentrate on what he does best, which is getting batters out. Buehrle said he can’t even begin to explain this year’s early success after a middling 12-10 season in 2013, his first in Toronto. But he knows it is not because he has suddenly developed a penchant for studying Walker’s scouting reports.
“I remember when I was starting out in Chicago with the White Sox and Don Cooper, the pitching coach, would try to go over the scouting reports with me,” Buehrle said. “I’d tell him, ‘Coop, I’m not getting anything out of this, I’m not even paying attention.’ I don’t know, maybe I have ADD. I don’t pay attention to it and I don’t really want to. It’s just more crap in your mind and I just think it can only lead to more second-guessing.”
Perhaps it should not be surprising the way Buehrle is performing. He is an accomplished pitcher with a no-hitter and perfect game to his credit in a career now into its 15th season. He is remarkably durable, last season becoming just the second pitcher in MLB history to record a streak of 13 or more seasons with more than 200 innings pitched and fewer than 61 walks. The only other pitcher to accomplish that was Cy Young himself from 1897 to 1909.
“Success isn’t something new for him,” said Longoria, the fine Tampa Bay third baseman. “The guy’s been doing it for a long time. He’s having one of those years that has really made him Mark Buehrle. He’s just throwing the ball where he wants it, he’s making pitches. He’s just doing all the things he has ever done that has made him successful.”
As he is not one to study up on opposing batters, Buehrle relies heavily on the knowledge of his catcher to help him bridge the gap. This season that responsibility has fallen on Dioner Navarro, who signed on with the Blue Jays as a free agent during the off-season and has been behind the plate for all of Buehrle’s 11 starts this year. Navarro has gone to school on the tendencies of the opposing batters and determines what pitches Buehrle will throw, and Buehrle rarely shakes off a sign.
“There’s a joke we share, he just doesn’t want to get blamed for anything bad that happens,” Navarro said. “If he gives up a home run he wants me to take all the blame. That’s okay, I’m fine with it.”
Calling a game is not an easy chore, especially with somebody like Buehrle on the mound, who delivers a pitch every 16.8 seconds, making him the fastest worker in the game. (By comparison, Tampa’s Chris Archer is baseball’s slowpoke, taking 26.4 seconds between pitches.) That means Navarro has to think fast about the next pitch to call as Buehrle does not like to be kept waiting, and it took a bit of time for the two to mesh.
During their first couple of outings in spring training, Navarro was actually flashing the signs too rapidly, which was upsetting the hitters who felt they were not being give enough time to prepare after stepping into the batter’s box.
“I was going before the hitter was even ready because I already had my sign and bam, I’m ready to go as soon as the batter steps in there,” Buehrle said. “And it was, time-out, time-out. That was kind of getting me in trouble that way because I was working too fast.”
But the two quickly developed a rhythm that has met the needs of Buehrle, who continues to confound hitters despite a fastball that might top out at 85 miles per hour – in an age when many pitchers are approaching 100. With Buehrle, it has always been about pinpoint control and mixing speeds to keep hitters off-balance.
“We go in, out, up, down,” Navarro said. “The batters never know what to expect. They come to the plate thinking they can take this guy who only throws 83. And you should hear all the F-bombs some of the hitters drop after they ground out. He’s just so frustrating to them.”
Walker said one explanation for Buehrle’s early success this season could be an added reliance on the curveball, which he said Buehrle is throwing about 15 per cent of the time, almost twice the rate of last season.
“The off-speed pitch he used primarily in the past was a change-up,” Walker said. “But now he’s got the change-up and the curve. His fastball may be only 83 miles an hour, but it might as well be 90 because of the way he is keeping hitters off-balance.”