When the Marlins and Blue Jays pulled off their megadeal before the 2013 season — one that saw a boatload of prospects head Miami's way for established stars Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson — few would've guessed the most valuable player to come out of that deal for Toronto would be the 15-year veteran expected to be a serviceable back-end starter. As Reyes struggles through his first season-plus with the Jays and Johnson now in San Diego after one injury-plagued year in Toronto, Mark Buehrle has emerged as the ace of a thin rotation. On Sunday, the left-hander grabbed his 10th win of the season, tops in MLB, with eight shutout innings in the Jays' 4-0 win over Kansas City.
For Buehrle, who put together a league-average season in his first year with Toronto, 2014 has been an unprecedented success. His 2.10 ERA is fifth-best in baseball and the second-lowest mark in the American League behind Masahiro Tanaka's 2.06. Eleven of Buehrle's 12 appearances have been quality starts, with Sunday's start being his fourth scoreless outing of the year. Buehrle has also given the Jays a good amount of innings each time out, only twice pitching fewer than six innings in a start this year; his 81 1/3 innings are tops on the team and seventh-most in baseball, third in the AL. All of that has added up to a 10-1 record — two wins ahead of Tanaka, the Dodgers' Zack Greinke, the Tigers' Rick Porcello and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright — and 2.4 WAR, fourth-highest among pitchers in the AL.
But as much as Buehrle's succeeded so far this season, there are red flags all over his stats. His strikeout rate is anemic — just over five batters per nine — and his home-run rate has been extremely lucky. Buehrle has allowed only two homers all season, a home-run percentage of 2.7, which is a big drop from his career rate of 9.8. And while Buehrle's getting more swings this year than last, he's also giving up more contact while getting fewer whiffs.
|Season||Swing %||Contact %||Zone %||SwStr %|
What's most problematic is the zone percentage — Buehrle is working in the strike zone more often despite increased swing and contact rates. Buehrle has never been a hard thrower or a big strikeout guy — his career-high in strikeouts per nine over a full season is 6.14, set last year, and his fastball is averaging 84 mph so far this season — but it's hard to imagine that as a soft-tosser he can survive a full season working heavily in the strike zone without getting more swings and misses.
There's one thing, however, that may help explain why Buehrle's gone from back-of-the-rotation starter to ace for the Jays: his return to the curveball. Going into Sunday's start, Buehrle had thrown his curve 16 percent of the time, over twice as much as last season, and the most he's ever thrown it over a full season. And so far, it's proven to be a highly effective pitch: Batters are hitting just .256 on the curve with a .282 slugging percentage. It's been especially useful against left-handers, as southpaws have yet to get a hit off of the 49 curves they've seen. The use of the curve has helped complement Buehrle's most effective weapon against lefties from last season, his changeup, giving same-side batters another pitch to worry about late in the count and when he's ahead. Check out his pitch selection in 0-2 counts against left-handers this year versus last:
|Season||FF %||Sinker %||Cutter %||Curve %||Change %|
Note also Buehrle has stopped using his cutter as frequently, as it's gone from being thrown 27 percent of the time in 2013 to just 12 percent of the time this season. Buehrle threw a cutter more than any other individual pitch last season, but the results weren't there, as batters hit .308 with a .472 slugging percentage on that pitch. The cutter is still getting tattooed when Buehrle's thrown it — hitters have a .345 average against it this year, with left-handers slugging .800 against it — so it's worth wondering if Buehrle is simply going to shelve the pitch entirely. Against Kansas City, Buehrle threw only eight cutters total, compared to 16 curves and 31 changeups. Whatever the reason for Buehrle's newfound success – be it a new pitch, some luck, or simply the planets aligning the right way — the Blue Jays will certainly take the results. His eight shutout innings helped Toronto grab the rubber match of its three-game series with the Royals, and at 34-24, the Jays have the third-highest win percentage in the AL and a three-and-a-half game lead in the division over the Yankees. And while Toronto's great 2014 may not be coming from the trade piece they expected, they're surely happy to be getting Buehrle's career year all the same.