Let me make this clear: I’m a huge Mark Buehrle fan in real life.
What's not to like about him? The Blue Jays left-hander has put up double-digit win totals and eclipsed 200 innings in every full season of his 15-year career, he has a World Series ring and a perfect game to speak of, and he's the fastest working pitcher in baseball. Just about every team in the majors would love to have Buehrle in its rotation.
Even so, when it comes to fantasy baseball, my love for Buehrle evaporates. There's a reason the Blue Jays left-hander was the 133rd pitcher, on average, selected in NFBC drafts.
In fact, there are a number of reasons. The most significant limiting factor, and the most obvious one when it comes to Buehrle’s fantasy value, is his lack of strikeouts. He hasn’t struck out more than 140 batters since 2005, failing to even reach 100 Ks on two different occasions. His career K/9 rate (5.2) has only slightly improved this season (6.1), despite the left-hander’s incredible early-season success.
Indeed, Buehrle is off to a ridiculous start, with a 4-0 record and a 0.64 ERA in 28 innings. How has he been able to baffle so many hitters in the season's early going? According to FOX Sports' Gabe Kapler, an ex-MLB player who faced Buehrle on a number of occasions, it's the left-hander's ability to control the at-bat that makes him so tough.
Here's what Kapler wrote, explaining how Buehrle is able to dominate without true overpowering stuff:
Quite simply, he dictates the pace of the game, taking control away from the hitter. Sticking with a plan, concentration and confidence are all as essential factors to success as a hitter. Buehrle snatches that confidence away, toying with the offensive player’s ability to maximize these intangibles.
By varying the speed of his delivery, maintaining a lightning fast pace between pitches and mixing in an occasional quick pitch (delivering the ball before the hitter is ready), he dominates the interaction.
Now that you know what makes Buehrle successful, I want to point out what's going to cause him trouble this season.
The first red flag can be found in Buehrle's BABIP. A somewhat controversial statistic that's difficult to interpret, BABIP nevertheless provides some valuable insight into whether a pitcher's performance is for real.
Thus far, Buehrle's BABIP sits at .253 this season, an incredible 37 points below his career total and his lowest total, by far, since his first full season. While BABIP certainly isn't a perfect statistic, it's hard to imagine that Buehrle will maintain that number.
Buehrle's low BABIP isn't his only statistical anomaly this season. The left-hander has also posted a LOB% of 92.9–needless to say, that's incredible, not to mention completely unsustainable over the course of a season.
According to FanGraphs, an "excellent" LOB% is around 80 percent, and 72 percent is "average." Unless Buehrle happens to have an improbably lucky season, one can expect him to come back down to earth, especially considering his career LOB% of 72.7 is right in line with the major league average.
After examining highlights of Buehrle's outings this season, it appears that there has been a fair amount of hard contact that has been rendered harmless because of outstanding defensive efforts, a profusion of warning track flyouts, or just plain luck.
Maybe it's nitpicking, or maybe the concerns I'm expressing are legitimate. Whatever the case, Buehrle is putting up some insane statistics, namely BABIP and LOB%, that are way off from his career averages.
But in most cases, those lack of punchouts will really hurt your team, and that doesn't even take into account the statistical regression that Buehrle will almost certainly endure in his upcoming starts.
Don't forget, Buehrle also pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays, which raises a couple of red flags as it is. Like I wrote in my Ubaldo Jimenez piece last week, the AL East is a pitcher’s nightmare for a number of reasons, especially when one has to make half his starts at the Rogers Centre.
While the Blue Jays stadium is particularly conducive to home runs, per ESPN park data, the division’s other stadiums (Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium) aren’t much better. Factor in the top-notch offenses that the teams around the division have, and life gets tough pretty quickly for pitchers in the AL East.
Remember, two of Buehrle’s four starts have come against the Cleveland Indians and the Houston Astros, neither of whom are exactly offensive juggernauts. Expect Buehrle to come back down to earth during his next start against the Baltimore Orioles.
What's the takeaway here? If you're lucky enough to have Buehrle on your fantasy team, there won't be a better time to trade him than right now. His value has nowhere to go but down, and if you can manage a good deal for him–which is likely given his outrageous start–then there's no reason to keep the overachieving veteran.
Perhaps more importantly, to the vast majority of us who don't have Buehrle on our fantasy teams: Do I even need to tell you to stay clear? After all, getting 200 innings out of a pitcher each season is inherently valuable in real life, but in fantasy baseball? Not so much.