Mark Buehrle took the hill on Friday for the Blue Jays. While that start didn't go so well, he has had a sensational season so far, as his 79 ERA- ranks 22nd in all of baseball. Of course, luck has played a role in his success — a lot of stranded runners, not a lot of homers, you know the routine — but enough about the present.
Today, a legendary member of the White Sox (who later took his talents north of the border) will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. To commemorate the occasion, I thought I'd look at another erstwhile Chicago star who left for Toronto, and see if he should receive the same honor when he decides to call it quits.
Buehrle has pitched for fourteen years now, and he should return for a fifteenth. Over that span, he has accumulated 50.6 WAR — a fairly astounding figure. By runs allowed, his performance has been even more formidable, as his career RA9-WAR sits at 58.6. To see if he deserves to go to the Hall, though, we'll have to put these numbers in perspective.
Before we begin, we need to take into account that Buehrle is still an active player, and as such, that he'll change his career numbers as he adds to them. For the purpose of this exercise, we'll assume Buehrle doesn't play after 2015 (when his current deal expires); since he'll be 36 at that time, it certainly seems plausible. Let's use ZiPS's rest-of-season projections to simulate his 2014, and Oliver's 5-year projections for his 2015.
Now, to the comparison. FanGraphs provides a fun feature, under its "Leaders" tab, that allows you to view the best pitchers of all time*. Since Buehrle has a grand total of 25 relief appearances (all of which occurred in his forgettable 2000 debut), we'll isolate starters. This leaderboard holds 2,180 names, including Buehrle.
*You could also attain the same results by setting the year parameters to "1871" and "2014", and the minimum innings to 300, but...shut up.
We can analyze his candidacy from a few angles; let's begin with aggregate statistics. With the aforementioned conditions, Buehrle's theoretical career WAR comes out to 53.0. Of those 2,180 pitchers, that would rank 78th — the 96th percentile. Likewise, his total RA9-WAR, which should end up at 61.0, would be 76th — the 97th percentile.
So Buehrle appears to reside in the top 5% of starting pitchers, ever. Before we immediately declare him Cooperstown-worthy, however, let's look at rate statistics. If things hold up, he will end his career with 3.23 WAR/200 IP and 3.72 RA9/200 IP. The former would only rank 230th all-time (89th percentile); while the latter places him slightly better, at 188th ever (91st percentile), both represent significant downgrades from his cumulative rankings.
This boils down to the core element of Buehrle's pitching, the thing for which most people know him: his durability. He has compiled 200 innings in each of the past thirteen seasons, and according to ZiPS/Oliver, he should do the same in each of the next two years. That longevity has seemingly come at the expense of excellence, as he only owns one five-win season (albeit five by runs allowed).
So really, his case epitomizes a key question about the Hall: Should it be reserved for the truly great? Or should the good players who stuck around get in too?
Well, your answer depends on your point of view. Personally, I would lean toward the former, but you could feasibly make an argument for the latter. We can't really have one definitive, objective definition of "fame." Nevertheless, we do have one thing — the men who have already been inducted. Let's shift our focus to them, to see how Buehrle stacks up.
As of this writing, 72 pitchers are in the Hall of Fame; 57 of them accrued most of their innings as starting pitchers in the major leagues. Adding Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine brings that total up to 59. Now, since Buehrle won't receive his eligibility for several years, the roster will probably change by the time this exercise becomes relevant. For that reason, we'll include in our sample seven men who will most likely enter Cooperstown before he does: Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz, and Roy Halladay. Let's look at the stats of these superb 66.
They averaged 69.6 career WAR, to go along with 84.4 career RA9-WAR; Buehrle's future marks rank 49th and 53rd, respectively. Not only does he fall far short of the mean standard, many of the pitchers he beats don't exactly deserve their spots. Names such as Jesse Haines, Rube Marquard, and Jack Chesbro don't come with positive reputations in the historical sabermetric community. It's probably no coincidence, then, that none of the men he topped on either list were inducted in the new millennium — as more statistics become available, the voters have (very slowly) become more intelligent in their choices.
By contrast, the average WAR/200 of the group was 3.51; Buehrle's 3.23 mark ranks 37th. In this regard, he bests many pitchers who everyone agrees have earned their places: Warren Spahn, Phil Niekro, and Glavine have no debates surrounding them. Runs allowed tell a bit of a different story, as the group averaged 4.25 RA9 per 200 innings; Buehrle's 3.72 figure there only puts him at 48th. However, that's still better than some notable players — Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, and Red Ruffing, to name a few. Moreover, if Buehrle can outperform his projections for the twilight of his tenure, he could inch past other famous hurlers: Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry each are within a tenth of a win.
At first glance, those names don't seem like examples of "reliable veterans", as we think of Buehrle. How, then, is he comparable to them? Simple: The definition of "durable" has changed. Buehrle has remained injury-free for much of his time in the show, as his impressive 3018.0 career innings illustrate, but that mark pales in comparison to those from days of yore. To wit: A full 129 pitchers can surpass that.
Let's look at one more stat. Recall, if you will, the tidbit from above — that Buehrle only has one five-win campaign to his name. As you might suspect, most Hall-of-Famers have more than that; they averaged 5.92 per, with Buehrle's measly one tying for 61st. When we put each of those seasons on a rate basis, however, we flip the script.
Buehrle still has the lone 5-win season, but this time, he has company: That number is tied for 28th, meaning a mere 27 of the 67 pitchers did this more than once. Looking at the other names that occupy that spot (Niekro, Spahn, Perry, Rube Waddell, and Robin Roberts are among them), in addition to the 30 (!) pitchers with zero, we finally realize that Buehrle doesn't have the right reputation.
We would reach the same conclusion if we went by runs allowed. Buehrle has five 5-RA9 seasons, which ties for 57th. With that said, his three 5-RA9/200 seasons are the same as Ryan, Fergie Jenkins, Eddie Plank, and Old Hoss Radbourn.
Buehrle definitely won't go in without controversy, if he even gets there, and more starts like Friday's won't do him any favors. On the other hand, I carried this exercise out with a pessimistic outlook toward Buehrle's future; should he maintain the change that has brought him hegemony this year, he could improve his case.
Is Buehrle the best pitcher ever? No, but he's up there. It's just important to look at these things through a neutral mindset, and see that, well, he really should be enshrined when all is said and done. Too often, a player's reputation determines his legacy, as opposed to his performance. Even if he never shakes the label of dependable No. 3, comparisons to legends of years past reveal him to be so much more.
. . .
All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Saturday, July 26th, 2014.
Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.