Prospect Retrospective: Mark Buehrle
Sometimes, prospects sneak up on you. Case in point: Mark Buehrle.
Mark Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round in June, 1998, from Jefferson Junior College in Missouri. Signed as a draft-and-follow for $167,000 (good money for a DAF guy) in May ‘99, his made his pro debut for Burlington in the Midwest League, being used as both a starter and reliever. He went 7-4 with a 4.10 ERA, with a 91/18 K/BB in 99 innings, allowing 105 hits.
I did not put him in the 2000 book. Although his K/BB for Burlington was impressive, he gave up more than a hit per inning. I had not seen him in person, but the scouting report I had indicated that his stuff was nothing special, with a mediocre fastball and an assortment of adequate but not excellent off-speed pitches. For me was a Grade C prospect at that point, like a hundred other guys; not everyone of them makes the book due to space limits.
Buehrle moved up rapidly in 2000. He looked very good in spring training, drawing the quick attention of the front office and White Sox manager Jerry Manuel.
"I really like the way he's been throwing," Manuel said. "The key is finding out if he can perform in places like Chicago and Texas. That's a lot different than throwing here. But if he is able to do that, why waste his ability in the minor leagues?"
Buehrle began the year in Double-A, but the White Sox didn't forget about him. He pitched brilliantly in 16 starts (8-4, 2.28 ERA), showing excellent command with a 68/17 K/BB ratio in 119 innings. His strikeout rate was very low, but he did throw strikes, and overall the results were there.
When a spot opened up on the White Sox pitching staff in July, Buehrle got the call. He held his own in the bullpen, posting a 4.21 ERA with a 37/19 K/BB in 51 innings with 55 hits allowed. His ERA+ was quite good at 120.
I remember thinking that Buehrle was a fluke of some kind and that in the long run he would be an average pitcher, at best. He didn't throw that hard, and his strikeout rate was very low. Usually, even a successful finesse pitcher still has a decent strikeout rate. I was convinced that the hitters would eventually catch up with him and figure out how to beat him.
They never did.
A year later, Buehrle won 16 games, and has been a consistent and effective inning-eating starter ever since. He has thrown 200 or more innings for twelve years in a row. He has won 175 games, posted a 3.84 ERA with a 118 ERA+, has pitched 2695 career innings, and racked up 45.8 WAR. He's had a very, very successful career by any standard.
Through age 33, Buehrle's list of Sim Score comparables brings up some very interesting names: Frank Viola, Jim Kaat, Jerry Reuss, Ken Holtzman, Andy Pettitte, Herb Pennock, Bill Sherdel, Rick Wise, Dave Steib, and Paul Derringer. Pennock is a Hall of Famer, Kaat has a good case, and the still-active Pettitte has 247 career wins.
If his career ended today, Buehrle's 45.8 WAR puts him in some elite company with Jamie Moyer (47.5), Steib (46.2), Jon Matlack (45.8), Vida Blue (45.7), Orel Hershiser (45.2), and Jimmy Key (45.2). But Buehrle's career is not ending today, and assuming that he has a few good years left in him, he should push past 50 WAR and 200 victories.
So what happened here? Is this a case of a Grade C prospect who just suddenly got better, or was I just flat wrong?
Looking over Buehrle's track record in retrospect, the best number that stands out is his very low walk rate in the minors, giving him a sound overall K/BB. His K/IP rate was good in the Midwest League, but I was turned off by his hittability and reports of non-impressive stuff. In Double-A, his walk rate remained very impressive. His 2.28 ERA mark was sharp for anyone, let alone someone making the jump from the Midwest League, but his strikeout rate was very low. This fit in perfectly with the scouting reports of mediocre stuff.
Putting all that together, he didn't look anything special as a prospect to me, sabermetrically or otherwise, yet he's certainly turned out to be special. Sometimes you just miss them.
For more on how Buehrle was viewed as a prospect, check South Side Sox.