In the premiere submission for Fun With Numbers, Bronx to Bushville co-founder Brent Sirvio’s 2020 IBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot series, we look at a pitcher whose numbers do not adequately paint a Hall of Fame pitcher. Mark Buehrle was never one of the dominant starters of his generation, but since when did that matter?
Mark Buehrle could give you just about anything in any given start. Some nights he could give six effective innings, putting his team in a position to succeed. Some nights, he was nigh near unhittable. Others, he was immortal. And others yet, he was all too mortal.
Never blessed with overpowering stuff, Buehrle was amongst the last of a breed of workhorse pitch-to-contact hurlers. While Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson wowed us by blowing hitters away, Buehrle went about the business of getting hitters out. Don’t good pitchers find ways to get hitters out?
The argument for Buehrle isn’t that he was on Martinez’ level; as I’ve noted time and again, the Hall of Fame can’t and shouldn’t be limited because a hitter wasn’t Babe Ruth or Henry Aaron; a pitcher, Bob Gibson or Greg Maddux.
The argument for Buehrle is that, in addition to 214 wins on typically good-ish ballclubs, plus a no-hitter and perfecto on his ledger, regardless of the team he was on, his performance was metronomic. Even the greatest, championship seasons club rely on a certain kind of tempo. Buehrle was the rhythm man.
Further, averages aren’t as instructive as medians: Buehrle’s ERA+ on average is only 117, which isn’t great, but is right there with Gaylord Perry and Vic Willis, better than Jim Bunning, Ferguson Jenkins, Steve Carlton and the recently-passed Phil Niekro. Perry, Carlton and Niekro all had 300 wins a piece. Jenkins [inexplicably] needed three rounds of balloting to gain induction in 1991. Bunning and Willis needed committees.
Buehrle’s median adjusted ERA, however, is 121, which puts him in the neighborhood of Juan Marichal, Bob Feller and, probably more instructive to Buehrle’s case, Don Drysdale. Drysdale pitched in a much more friendly era, in the quintessential pitcher’s park, on a top-flight National League team. And with those tailwinds fueling him, he amassed only 209 wins and a 121 ERA+. Had Buehrle and Drysdale switched places, would we be poo-poohing Drysdale’s belonging on the ballot? Would we remember Koufax and Buehrle the way we remember Seaver and Ryan, or Maddux and Glavine?
This is where the BBWAA writers consistently get things wrong: they act as gatekeepers of history while plying their trade mostly as writers on day-to-day beats. They generally don’t see for context insofar as what’s happening in the moment as the chapters are being written. That works when pounding the pavement and covering clubs — it’s what they’re paid to do, after all — but that zeroed-in focus necessarily skews frames of reference. Jeff Kent would have been a shoe-in if he played in an earlier era and put up similar power numbers at second. Because he existed in an era of beefed-up players and juiced balls — despite all the pearl-clutching over PEDs — he’s just another guy. Data yields to history, wherein the snobs keep the huddled unwashed non-elites out of the room.
In this respect, this is also where sabermetricians miss the boat: in the noble efforts of scouring numbers to find deserving candidates who got overlooked and underappreciated in their time — Tim Raines; to an extent, Larry Walker — the players who performed admirably, effectively, occasionally brilliantly and, in this instance, brought a championship to a city that too easily and conveniently forgets they have a second team on the south side of town, are still missed. History yields to data, and the empiricists in the room tend to loudly deride those they find undeserving, hoping against hope to, what, chase their plaques out of Cooperstown?
The Hall of Fame is both religion and science, belief and certitude, myth and fact. At the end of it all is ash and dust. At the end of baseball, the point is for hitters to get on and around bases. The point of the pitcher is to find ways to get hitters out. We moralize these aims by insisting that cheating (by way of nail files or pharmacology or placing bets that would otherwise prevent the natural course of a game of playing out as evenly as possible) is wrong. If the point is to get hitters out, then arguments to adjusted ERA only go so far: it helps to compare players on an all-time plane, but at the neglect of the context in which a player played. Arguments to ERA and traditional counting stats fail for precisely the opposite reason: Mark Buehrle wasn’t Greg Maddux or Roy Halliday, therefore he isn’t Hall-worthy. Incidentally, these arguments should both be weighed against the criteria that actually matters: the players already elected to the Hall of Fame. It is they, not voting members of a club or metrics mavens, who represent the benchmark.
And if we go by that standard, along with considering body of work, accomplishments and an absence of innuendo, I don’t see a good reason to not put Mark Buehrle in the Hall of Fame, as I don’t see good reasons why Jim Kaat or Luis Tiant aren’t already there. Buehrle’s peak may not have been that of the very greatest pitchers of all time, but he was nothing of not consistently effective innings eater, who did his job long enough and well enough to warrant serious consideration for the highest honor bestowed upon someone in his line of work.
Let’s have some fanfare for the common man, even though common in this instance is someone who was vastly superior to you or me at throwing a baseball 60 feet 6 inches. Mark Buehrle may not have had the same talent as Pedro Martinez or Greg Maddux, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be in the same room with them. After all, they too needed to get hitters out.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.