Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How Will Mark Buehrle Transition to the AL East?


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Courtesy of Yahoo/AP/Canadian Press
In a sport with an inordinate amount of variables, there are very few constants in baseball. There are very few players that can be depended on game after game, year after year. That's what makes Mark Buehrle one of a kind.

Where else in baseball will you find a player who has logged 200 plus innings for 12 consecutive seasons? Where else will you find a player who has remained healthy and avoided the disabled list for 12 years running?

Buerhle is the consummate innings eater, which is precisely what the Blue Jays starting rotation needed. Logging innings likely won't be a problem from Mark Buehrle, but it's all the outside factors that they should be concerned about.

I spoke with Ben Lindbergh from Baseball Prospectus last week, and he reiterated that BP is projecting Mark Buehrle to have a down year in 2013. The funny thing, it really doesn't have to do much with Buehrle himself, instead it's mainly attributed to two outside things; defense and park factors.

For one, let's address the defense. Baseball Prospectus projects the 2013 Blue Jays to have the worst defense in the AL East. That is crucial for a pitcher like Mark Buehrle who doesn't miss a lot of bats and relies heavily on his defense.

Realistically, Brett Lawrie looks to be the only plus defender on the starting roster according to ZIPS projections. So the way the Blue Jays infield is currently constructed, it really isn't doing Buehrle any favours.

Secondly, there is of course the park factors. While Marlins Park may have been gaudy, at least it was much more friendly to Mark Buehrle compared to U.S. Cellular field where he spent the first 11 seasons of his career.

YearHR/9FB%HR/FB
20100.7338.46
20110.9235.48.6
20121.1636.311.4

Despite a higher HR/9 (1.16) and higher fly ball rate last season (36.3%), most of Mark Buehrle's peripheral stats were actually down in 2012 compared to 2011. That is no doubt in part to making half his starts within the confines of Marlins Park.

Buehrle's gradual increase in his home run to fly ball ratio might be a little concerning already, but put him in the Rogers Centre and surely that number is likely to rise even further inside a ballpark where there were 2.52 home runs hit per game on average.

The other thing that Ben mentioned to me which really stood out was Buehrle will have an uphill battle pitching in the other home run-friendly ballparks within the division.

The AL East houses 4 of the top 6 home run parks in the American League, which seems like a disaster waiting to happen for fly ball pitchers like Buehrle.

In addition to pitching in a hitter-friendly park and pitching on the road in other homer-friendly parks, there's another reason to be concerned about Mark Buehrle; the velocity on his four seam, two seam and cut fastball have all seen a steady decline since 2010:

YearFour SeamTwo SeamCutter
201086.185.581.9
20118585.381.8
201284.984.579.9

That's not to say  Mark Buehrle won't be hold his own with the Blue Jays in the American League East. He did after all spend 11 seasons in Chicago at U.S. Cellular Field; the second highest run-producing park in all of baseball.

Buehrle still faced the likes of the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays upwards of two times a season. The issue now is those inter-divisional starts versus New York, Boston, Tampa and Baltimore could increase up to four or five times a season per team.

That's upwards of 16 starts a season inside 4 of the top 6 home run parks in baseball; a daunting task for even the most seasoned veteran pitcher like Mark Buehrle.

Mark Buehrle's stats may take a bit of hit this season with the Blue Jays, but that's to be expected. I don't think they should expect him to win a Cy Young Award by any means, but merely put forth a solid six or seven  innings on any given start.

There are a few things Mark Buehrle does have in his favour, however. Like always, Buehrle is a Gold Glove calibre defender, making the plays and fielding baseballs that most starters otherwise would not.

Also, since Buehrle works so quick to the plate, the running game is virtually non-existent when he's on the mound. He hasn't given up more than five stolen bases in any given season the past five years running.

No matter which ballpark you put Mark Buehrle in, those things will never change.

So with Buehrle saving some runs with his glove and shutting down the running game, perhaps these park factors even themselves out and he doesn't regress quite as much as your typical pitch-to-contact  pitcher moving to a hitter-friendly park.

Will Mark Buehrle's ERA take a hit this season? Probably. Will he win 15 games with the Blue Jays? Not likely. But so long as he continues to limit his walks to fewer than 50 a season and he makes 30 starts, then Toronto will get exactly what they expect from Mark Buehrle.

Albeit, they'll be paying him $48 million dollars over the next three seasons, but that was the Miami Marlins decision to sign him to that large of a contract, not the Blue Jays.

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