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June 28, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Buehrle Dilemma

by Joe Sheehan

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It appears that the White Sox have pulled lefthander Mark Buehrle off of the market, with designs on signing him to a contract that would keep him in Chicago through at least 2012.

It's an interesting decision. As a lefty having a good year, Buehrle would have brought a considerable return in a trade, with the only downside being that he's a half-season rental. The pitchers the White Sox will shop now, Jose Contreras and Javier Vazquez, have been less effective than Buehrle, lack the southpaw bonus, but are signed beyond the end of this season. Kenny Williams should be able to move at least one of them, and with the pitching depth the White Sox have in the upper levels of their system, can do so without costing the Sox much in the short or long term.

Normally, I would praise this move. I've written before that because of the amount of money in the game right now, and the way it drives up free-market salaries, teams are almost always better off signing their players before they hit free agency. Locking up Buehrle for-and these are just the numbers that showed up in my inbox-four years and $50 million or so is a bargain compared to what he would get on the market. After all, you can make a decent argument that Buehrle is comparable to Barry Zito: a durable lefthander who always takes the ball. In fact, the perceived difference between the two is largely a park effect and Zito's BBWAA hardware, as the following chart, comparing some neutral measures, shows:

            ERA+              Stuff               PRAR
        Zito   Buehrle     Zito   Buehrle     Zito   Buehrle
2000     174       123       24         3       46        14
2001     125       140       25        10       78        78
2002     169       129       19         7      101        86
2003     129       108       10         4       80        60
2004     105       126       12        13       52        76
2005     116       143       15        17       67        74
2006     116        93        9        -1       73        38
Zito had a higher peak, but from 2003-2006, the two pitchers were essentially equal in value, Zito being about 24 runs better over that period. Buerhle is having a good year, with an ERA+ of 136 and a Stuff score of 15, so he would be hitting the market in better shape than Zito did (although a low win total may dampen some of that). The point is, the gap between the two pitchers isn't three years and $76 million, so the White Sox could sign Buehrle for something close to the rumored amounts and end up way, way ahead on the deal.

Of course, past performance does not predict future results, and that's where this potential signing makes me nervous. Those Stuff scores are not impressive, bouncing around "average," and that's largely because Buehrle doesn't walk many hitters. His strikeout rate has always been marginal: 5.27 K/9 for his career, with a downward trend since 2004 that he's only arrested this season by posting a 5.94 K/9, the second best mark of his career. Buehrle, like Zito, has thrown a lot of innings in his 20s without being dominant. The durability he's shown has both positive and negative elements, and I would be even more concerned about his longevity given that he doesn't miss a lot of bats. There is not much margin for error here, and any deterioration of his stuff, whether due to injury or age, could drop him below average in a hurry.

How concerned should we be? Well, Buehrle's top two PECOTA comps are soft-tossing lefties who lasted forever, Jim Kaat and Jerry Reuss. After that, though, you find an awful lot of pitchers who peaked by 28, such as Jim Abbott and Greg Swindell. Bil Burke found 53 pitchers in our database (back to 1959) who threw at least 1300 innings by age 28 and struck out less than six men a game. Many of those had careers in an era in which fewer strikeouts were had by all pitchers, so I'll just run the list:

                          IP   K/9    RkYr
Lary Sorensen         1589.7  2.86    1977
Doyle Alexander       1363.3  3.29    1971
Randy Jones           1343.3  3.42    1973
Ross Grimsley         1696.0  3.48    1971
Jim Slaton            1682.3  4.24    1971
Dennis Martinez       1446.7  4.42    1976
Mel Stottlemyre       1745.7  4.55    1964
Moose Haas            1380.3  4.71    1976
Scott Erickson        1310.3  4.73    1990
Jim Clancy            1419.0  4.74    1977
Dan Petry             1638.7  4.76    1979
Stan Bahnsen          1520.0  4.80    1966
Jon Garland           1324.7  4.82    2000
Jim Abbott            1560.3  4.83    1989
Richard Dotson        1506.3  4.89    1979
Larry Christenson     1354.3  4.90    1973
Dick Ellsworth        1903.7  4.93    1960
Bill Gullickson       1644.0  5.01    1979
Ken Brett             1321.0  5.02    1967
Jack Morris           1357.3  5.07    1977
Rick Wise             1821.7  5.08    1964
Blue Moon Odom        1314.7  5.09    1964
John Candelaria       1416.0  5.12    1975
Dave Stieb            1859.0  5.18    1979
Burt Hooton           1576.3  5.18    1971
Storm Davis           1431.0  5.23    1982
Mark Buehrle          1528.0  5.27    2000
Jerry Reuss           1726.3  5.29    1969
Nelson Briles         1301.3  5.31    1965
Tom Glavine           1522.3  5.34    1987
Tommy John            1607.7  5.39    1963
Steve Rogers          1390.0  5.42    1973
Sidney Ponson         1443.3  5.42    1998
Brad Radke            1537.7  5.51    1995
Dave McNally          1886.7  5.53    1962
Catfish Hunter        2456.3  5.57    1965
Tom Underwood         1369.7  5.57    1974
Gary Nolan            1617.0  5.60    1967
Ken Holtzman          2094.0  5.66    1965
Jim Palmer            1866.7  5.67    1965
Mark Mulder           1301.3  5.73    2000
Steve Avery           1442.7  5.76    1990
Mike Moore            1457.0  5.79    1982
Larry Dierker         2073.3  5.84    1964
Dennis Leonard        1316.7  5.86    1974
Mike Witt             1945.0  5.87    1981
Rick Reuschel         1352.7  5.87    1972
Steve Barber          1512.3  5.87    1960
Mark Gubicza          1540.3  5.90    1984
Ray Sadecki           1777.7  5.94    1960
Dennis Eckersley      1900.7  5.96    1975
Don Gullett           1380.3  5.96    1970
Mike Hampton          1463.7  5.99    1993

There are some reasons for optimism here. A couple of lines up from Buehrle you see Tom Glavine and Tommy John, in addition to Reuss. On the whole, though, this is a list of pitchers who weren't very good in their thirties, or if they were, weren't nearly as good as they'd been in their twenties. Strikeout rate is the best predictor of success, and Buehrle's just isn't very good. That makes signing him for four years a considerable risk, even at a discount from market rate. Were it my call, I'd deal him away to bolster the outfield and spend the money on a shortstop or outfielder this winter.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Mark Buehrle

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