Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
Usually we're a pretty gullible bunch in the fantasy community. Except when it comes to Mark Buehrle.
Apparently eight wins and a sub-three ERA aren't enough to warrant universal fantasy ownership. As of this writing, Buehrle is owned in 85 percent of Yahoo leagues. Even with more wins than any other starter in the major leagues, a cloud of doubt lingers.
Our reluctance to fully embrace Buehrle is understandable. He's 35-years-old, notorious for pitching to contact and his average fastball velocity (83.1 mph) is second-lowest among 105 qualified starting pitchers.
So who gets the last laugh, us or him?
Maybe all of us can laugh. Buehrle, a 15-year veteran with close to 3,000 innings of big league experience, has always walked a fine line between dominant and ordinary.
We've seen the dominant Buehrle in his six starts away from home. In 43 innings pitched on the road this season, Buehrle is 5-0 with a minuscule 1.47 ERA and a .217 opponent batting average. His strikeout to walk ratio is 29 to seven in those outings.
Ordinary is what we've seen from Buehrle in his four starts at Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays ace is 3-1 with a 3.42 ERA at home with 11 walks to only 11 strikeouts. In Toronto, opposing batters are hitting .315 against the left- hander.
Seems simple enough, right? Start Buehrle when he's pitching in the continental United States, sit him when he's in Bieberville. We can go home now, right?
Not quite. See, Buehrle has a few interesting trends working in his favor. His strand rate (81.0 left on base percentage) has been off the charts and opponents are hitting just .154 against him with runners in scoring position and two outs.
In addition to being lights out with runners on base, Buehrle has done an excellent job of keeping the ball in the yard. While CC Sabathia's HR to fly ball rate sits in the mid-twenties (23.3 to be exact), Buehrle's is three percent. Among starters, that ranks fourth-best behind only Justin Verlander, Garrett Richards and Kyle Gibson.
And though Buehrle looks the same as he did last season, he's made some important changes to his repertoire. Two years removed from throwing sliders 15 percent of the time, Buehrle has completely abandoned that pitch in favor of more fastballs (his 49.7 percent fastball rate is his highest since 2010) and an increased number of curve balls (15 percent is his highest curve ball rate since 2002). Buehrle has also gotten away from the cutter, throwing it about half as often as he did in 2013.
The pitch sequences might be different, but many of Buehrle's trouble areas are still the same. Are we really to believe Toronto will continue scoring six runs a game every time he pitches? That's the fifth-highest run support in the league. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are good hitters but remember this was a last place team in 2013.
And what about his 3.66 pitches per plate appearance? That's one of the lowest rates in the league and an obvious sign that Buehrle is still pitching to contact. When your fastball's registering at 83 you're not going to strike many hitters out and it's only a matter of time before those long fly-outs start turning into home runs. For his career, Buehrle has allowed one home run every 34.9 at bats. In 2014, he's given up one every 124.5 at bats.
Fantasy owners with a keen eye will notice that May has always been Buehrle's best month (33-18, 3.29 ERA). August and September haven't been as kind to the left-hander (3.90 ERA in August, 4.30 ERA in September/October), which is something to be aware of when the trade deadline draws closer. Given his history, renting Buehrle is a lot safer than investing in him long-term.
But the truth is, whether you're impressed by Buehrle or not, he's put together one heck of a career. Since taking over as a full-time starter in 2001, Buehrle has never gone on the disabled list, an incredible testament to his durability. His consistency is also something to be admired, as the left- hander has won ten games and pitched 200 or more innings in each of his last 13 seasons. He's finished nine of those seasons with an ERA under four.
And maybe there's a lesson here. By throwing in the mid-80s with sound mechanics, Buehrle has lasted 15 years in a league famous for chewing up and spitting out starting pitchers. When his contract runs out next season, Buehrle's career earnings will reach $137 million. Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez, two hard-throwing youngsters recovering from Tommy John surgery, are still looking for their first big pay day.
You hear that? That's Buehrle getting the last laugh.