Editor's note: I started this series with a vengeance, and I'll be honest: the Omar Vizquel and Curt Schilling cases inspired me to attempt to write about the Hall of Fame this year differently. Frankly, it's been tougher than I thought. I felt strongly I could write a compelling article about both Omar and Schilling using that method (I had both their articles planned before I started the series), but the others? Less planned. So this is taking me longer than I had hoped. I also started another Hall of Fame project I cannot wait to share when it's done.
Unlike most other players on this list: I vividly remember Mark Buehrle. He anchored the White Sox pitching staff forever. I remember the Indians torturing poor Buehrle, and I constantly thought one thing: he wasn't as good as Sabathia, Fausto!, or Cliff Lee (at his best he wasn't). But, Buehrle was a darn good pitcher; a much better one than I anticipated. I am glad I got the opportunity to consider his Hall of Fame case.
July 23, 2009
Buehrle just signed a contract extension in Chicago, and started 2009 off pretty well. Then, it all came together for Buehrle at the right moment. On a perfect, breezy, Chicago afternoon: Buehrle took the mound for the White Sox, facing the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays, as I am sure this blog knows, were coming off an AL Pennant winning season, and expectations were high. The White Sox won the Central the year before, and the two teams entered the day in contention. Buehrle worked fast, facing Scott Kazmir.
Melvin Upton, Jr. started off the game on the first pitch with a ground ball to second base. Then, after a slightly tougher battle: Buehrle got Carl Crawford to ground out directly to Mark. Then, on a 1-2 count, Buehrle got Evan Longoria to strike out. First inning went perfectly for Mark.
Carlos Pena, in the midst of a career season, took the count full, but popped out. Ben Zobrist also worked the count, but struck out, leaving the inning to Pat Burrell (who also worked the count), but still couldn't touch Buehrle, who induced a fly ball. The White Sox had not scored yet, but Buehrle kept the score tied at nothing.
The White Sox generously gave Buehrle a four run lead off a Josh Fields Grand Slam, and Buehrle went to work protecting it. Gabe Kapler flew out after a seven pitch battle. Behind in the count, Michael Hernandez grounded out to shortstop. Perhaps eager, Jason Bartlett flew out to end the inning. Still 4-0 White Sox.
Mark started to hit his stride. He fought off Melvin Upton again, striking him out on a full count. Carl Crawford proceeded to fly out to left field, and Evan Longoria hit a liner, but right at the shortstop. Mark's day just kept improving as the sun slowly set into the West.
Carlos Pena did not put up as big of a fight as he did the first time, and meekly grounded out. Ben Zobrist even moreso than usual. Burrell, struggled for five pitches, but caved on a strikeout to Buehrle. The game continued...
Alexei Ramirez scored Scott Podsednik in the bottom of the 5th, padding the lead, and Buehrle duly noted the lead and continued his assault. Gabe Kapler, Michael Hernandez and Jason Bartlett all battled to break through, but all grounded out after various efforts against Mark. In the end: Mark kept the lead.
Melvin Upton grounded out again, and Buehrle got another chance to show his golden glove against the speedy Crawford. Longoria finally got a pitch to his liking and drove the ball to deep right...just not far enough. Buehrle walked off the mound with the lead intact.
The crowd could sense the special evening at this point. Buehrle had a strong lead to work with, and picked apart Pena after two tough battles: striking him out looking on three pitches. Ben Zobrist and Pat Burrell were more stubborn, both battling Buehrle on seven pitches. In the end, both gave way. Mark walked off again into the 9th, with the White Sox still in the lead.
Perhaps prescient: Ozzie replaces Scott Podsednik with Dewayne Wise in center. In the first play Wise proves his worth making a spectacular catch off Gabe Kapler. The score remained tied. Michael Hernandez fights Buehrle for a bit, but strikes out. That left Jason Barlett to fight Mark to save the game...he grounded out.
April 10, 2015
Mark would spend time with Miami, before being traded by the hapless Marlins to the Blue Jays. Sitting at 199 wins: Mark did not keep the Toronto faithful before winning his 200th game. Perhaps fortuitously: Buehrle faced Bud Norris, hardly the best pitcher in the American League. Bud would proceed to surrender four runs in the first inning, handing Mark a nice lead (not unlike his perfect game).
With the pressure off, Buehrle induced a ground ball to start the game. An error cost him an easy second out against Steve Pearce, but he struck him out to avoid embarrassment. Adam Jones homered, but with a four run lead it was a mistake Mark could afford. Chris Davis grounded out to end the inning. Buehrle worked around two singles and a walk in the second without damage, and pitched clean third and fourth innings. Adam Jones would single in another run in the fifth, but promptly ran the Orioles out of the inning to save Buehrle. Mark worked around another walk and a single in the 6th, before handing the ball to the Blue Jays bullpen.
Thankfully the Jays scored 12 runs to ensure the bullpen couldn't blow it: Buehrle was a 200 game winner.
I struggled to find a ton of big moments for Buehrle. In fact, Buehrle would define himself by avoiding big moments. Mark would only pitch three times in the playoffs, and with an overall 4.11 ERA: there isn't much to discuss in his postseason endeavors (despite the White Sox 2005 World Series). What defined Buehrle's career is his consistency.
Buehrle was good for 200 innings of solid run prevention, and a little over 10 wins, every year. Buehrle won at least 10 games, and pitched 200 innings, every season from 2001 until he retired (yes he technically 'only' pitched 198.2 innings his last year but come on). His run prevention rarely strayed: he topped out at 144, and bottomed out at 95. Buehrle never posted a below average season in the Majors; Buehrle was consistent. Never hurt, a professional, and he did not make things harder than he needed to.
This, I think, is what I'll remember most about Buehrle: Major League Baseball would not struggle with game times if pitchers took to the mound with his consistency and his lack of dithering. Buehrle never took time between pitches. Ever. That perfect game? Took under two hours.
So what if his style resulted in a few extra hits for the opponents? Buehrle surrendered the most hits in the majors four times in his career. One of those, 2005, was arguably the best season of Mark's career. And Mark had other virtues: like walking few batters; nine times Buehrle finished in the top 10 in fewest walks per nine innings (he led the league in his final season). Buehrle would surrender the occasional home run, he was in the top 10 three times in his career, but since he walked so few batters: he got away with a fair number of solo shots.
Overall, we are left with a fairly long (at over 3,000 innings Buehrle outlasted most of his contemporaries) career, with strong run prevention (ERA+ of 117), and the ability to avoid making games longer than he had to. Buehrle only ever finished in the top 10 in the league in pitchers bWAR six times (never higher than third), but he remained about the same pitcher forever. As a result: his JAWS of 59.1 ranks 90th ever, with well over 500 pitchers toeing the rubber. That's quite impressive.
This, I think, deserves stressing: Buehrle ranks 90th over the course of long Major League history. That's quite an accomplishment.
Buehrle reminds me a lot of Andy Pettitte. Pettitte pitched a touch longer than Buehrle becuase Mark retired comparatively young. But they were both similar workhorses, who were rarely the best pitcher in the league, but consistently performed. That's something. Sure, there are differences. Pettitte had that amazing pickoff move (it was a balk). Buehrle was an amazing fielder (four Gold Gloves). Pettitte got to pitch a ton in October due to the quality of the teams he played for; Buehrle got the 'joy' of pitching for Jerry Reisendorf. Which, of course, isn't fair.
What about the Hall of Fame? As I said: Buehrle was quite similar to Pettitte...except for the over 200 inning difference in the postseason. That matters, and gives Pettitte the edge. Then again, if Pettitte is a Hall of Famer: I'd strongly consider putting Buehrle there with him. He was much better than most people remember.
I have gained a recent new found respect for players like Buehrle. Players who, whether we accept it or not, were in a tier above a vast majority of their peers. It, perhaps, is not quite worthy of the Hall: but it's darn close. They come around far less than we expect, and that's something worth celebrating. His number is retired by the White Sox, deservedly so.