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Mark Buehrle: Call to the Hall?

by Jordan Lazowski

What were you doing on June 28, 2017?

I was studying abroad in Ireland at that time. We had traveled all over the country and were ending our trip in the west coast town of Sneem. Google says their population is 557 people, but I doubt that – the entire town was on one street. Regardless, among the classes, hiking, adventures, and #108ing, I had joined Sox On 35th just a few days earlier. That night, on June 28, 2017, I wrote my first article for Sox On 35th.

The topic? Mark Buehrle’s Hall of Fame candidacy and legacy in Chicago. You can read it here (I used to not be so wordy). Now, more than three years later, Mark Buehrle is on the Hall of Fame ballot, and I’m faced with the same question I was three years ago: is Mark Buehrle someone I would give a Hall of Fame vote to?

Three years ago, I said he wasn’t a Hall of Famer. I’m not sure I would’ve given him a vote.

This year, if I had a ballot, I would vote Mark Buehrle into the Hall of Fame, and I believe the BBWAA should do the same.

What changed? That’s what this article is for.

A Primer on Hall of Fame Evaluation

Let’s start off with a few things that I think are important to note:

1) I’m a “big Hall” fan. I believe that there are far more players who have made an impact and deserve HOF induction than will ever be voted in. I personally would vote for 10 players every time.
2) I don’t place much importance on what I consider “team statistics.” Wins, Losses, Playoff Record, among others, aren’t as important to me, because they are largely dependent on the whole team, rather than just the individual player up for consideration. I have to take a look at the player and the statistics he had the most control over. However, that comes with some additional context…
3)The era the player played in matters when looking at statistical arguments too. So, IP and ERA are two statistics you will see me reference here because in the era during which Buehrle and his fellow pitchers pitched, the number of innings a pitcher threw mattered a lot more. Pitchers weren’t getting pulled early in games. In other words: historical context matters.

There are three ways to evaluate a player for the Hall of Fame, in my opinion:

1) The player against other players on the ballot
2) The player against other players in the Hall of Fame at his position
3) The player against other players in the era during which he played

With these criteria in mind, let’s begin…

Mark Buehrle vs. HOF Ballot

Let’s start by taking a look at the players on the ballot and trying to establish where Buehrle might rank against some of his peers. First, we take a look at career bWAR for the top 15 players on the ballot:

So, Buehrle sits in there at #11 out of 15. He’s just behind Pettitte, Abreu, and Sheffield, and just above Sammy Sosa and Tim Hudson. So, at the very least, it’s clear that Mark Buehrle deserves consideration for a ballot with ten players on it (which is more than I was willing to give him a few years ago).

The next step is taking a look at Buehrle compared to his starting pitcher peers on this ballot. All 8 are shown below:

Let’s explain a couple statistics here because they will be important throughout this article:

  • bWAR: Baseball Reference’s version of the popular Wins Above Replacement (WAR)
  • WAR7: The combined WAR accumulated in the player’s top 7 WAR seasons
  • JAWS: Jay Jaffe’s measurement of a player’s HOF worthiness, comparing the player to current HOFers at their position
  • ERA+: Adjusted ERA, which takes a player’s ERA and normalizes it across the league. Every value above 100 is a percentage point better than the league average.

As I see it, there are three tiers of pitchers on the Hall of Fame Ballot this year:

Tier 1: Statistically, surefire Hall of Famers (Green)
Tier 2: Statistically, borderline Hall of Famers (Yellow)
Tier 3: Statistically, Hall of “Very Good”-ers (Red)

I am going to focus on that second group of players in yellow since that is where Buehrle is included. Do any of those players stick out over the other, so much so that they deserve to get a vote over the other two? Here are Buehrle, Pettitte, and Hudson’s career numbers. We’ve established them as borderline, but do we HAVE to vote for one over the other?

….. I mean, these guys are so statistically close to one another. Let’s really take a look at some of these statistics, to really understand what we are seeing:

  • Pettitte leads in IP, but also pitched in one more season than Hudson and two more than Buehrle.
  • Hudson leads in both ERA and ERA+, if only slightly. Runs Allowed (RA9) really doesn’t change the story either. However, Hudson trails Buehrle and Pettitte by about 4 wins in bWAR – a not totally insignificant difference, but certainly not a large one.
  • 162WL% is a fun number. It takes a look at the approximate record of a team with this pitcher and 24 league-average players. In other words, if a team of average players added either Pettitte, Buehrle, or Hudson to their rotation, no matter who it is, the team would be expected to finish with about a .511 winning percentage; this is approximately an 83-79 record.
  • None of these players struck out a ton of guys, but Buehrle was REALLY good at not only limiting baserunners via the walk (5.4 BB%) but also at keeping players off the basepath in general (1.076 WHIP).
  • WPA is Win Probability Added, which takes a look at how large of a factor each player played in increasing their team’s chances of winning. Hudson and Pettitte lead here.

These are just their cumulative statistics, however. Who had the highest peak of their career? Here is each player’s rank in SP bWAR for all of their seasons during which they accumulated more than 2 bWAR. So, a rank of “1” means that the pitcher led all pitchers in bWAR in a season during his career.

This chart gives us more information, yet still no clear leader among the rest:

  • Andy Pettitte was the only player to lead the league in bWAR during his career.
  • However, both Buehrle and Hudson were better than Pettitte over a longer period of time. Hudson accumulated eight seasons in which he ranked higher than Pettitte’s fourth-best ranking season. Buehrle accumulated nine such seasons.
  • Pettite had the “best” season among all three players. Hudson and Buehrle were more consistent over a longer period of time.

Some other interesting facts comparing Hudson, Buehrle, and Pettitte:

  • Mark Buehrle led the White Sox in bWAR in four seasons, including in 2005 for the World Champion White Sox. Andy Pettitte accomplished this in two seasons, including for the 1996 World Champion New York Yankees. Tim Hudson led his team in bWAR just once: on the 2003 Athletics, who won 96 games.
  • Buehrle finished in the Top 10 for SP bWAR in the league six times and in the Top 3 once. Hudson finished in the Top 10 seven times, and in the Top 3 once. Pettitte finished in the Top 10 just three times, but two of those times he finished in the Top 3.
  • Both Buehrle and Hudson never fell out of the top 10 on their team in bWAR throughout their career. Pettitte did so just twice in 16 seasons.
  • Hudson and Pettitte rise above Buehrle in cWPA, which is WPA – as described above – towards a championship rather than just a game. Hudson’s career cWPA is 21.3%, Pettitte’s is 16.9%, and Buehrle’s is just 8.7%. However, the timing of performances are incredibly important to this stat – one of these pitchers could pitch 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 10 K performances at two times during the season, and one would lead to a higher increase of cWPA due to other factors: place in standings, games ahead/back, etc.

I’ve stared at this data for quite awhile now. No matter how you break it down, there is no material difference between the regular season careers of Mark Buehrle, Andy Pettite, and Tim Hudson. A vote for one, theoretically, should be a vote for all three. Some might give an edge to Pettitte because of his Postseason success. However, as I mentioned in my primer, I don’t consider Postseason success or failure to be a huge factor. I’m sure Buehrle and Hudson would’ve pitched pretty well if they got to be on the 2000s Yankees too – their numbers show that they would’ve.

In reality, it’s unfair to judge all players by the other names on the ballot. Every year that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling remain on the ballot, more borderline Hall of Famers are hurt. A decision on what to do with these three players should’ve been made years ago by voters, but instead, they continue to linger on the ballot. As a result, more first-year players fall off every year, and even worse, other players that deserve to be in the Hall linger just below that 75% line.

But, let’s keep going though. Based on the “second-tier” of pitchers, it’s clear Buehrle belongs in the HOF conversation along with Pettitte and Hudson, despite Pettitte often being the only name mentioned of the three for HOF consideration. If you’re voting for ten people, there’s no reason that all three of these players shouldn’t be in consideration for your ballot. Additionally, based strictly on statistics, there’s no reason at least one or two of them shouldn’t make the ballot (as we walked through above).

This is just for this ballot, however. What about Buehrle compared to the rest of the Hall of Fame?

Mark Buehrle vs. Hall of Famers

The next test we have to run Buehrle’s career by is the current class of Hall of Famers. There is a nice system for this on Baseball Reference, and it compares a player’s career WAR, WAR7, and JAWS calculations, among other awards/honors, to the average HOFer at their position. Here’s how Buehrle ranks:

Career Stats: 59.1 career WAR / 35.8 7yr-peak WAR / 47.4 JAWS
Average HOF P (out of 65): 73.3 career WAR / 50.0 7yr-peak WAR / 61.6 JAWS

Well, that’s not a great start for Buehrle. He’s clearly not near the average HOFer in terms of some of the cumulative numbers he put up over his career.

So, is that the end of the section? Not exactly.

Since 2000, 57 players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame – 42 hitters and 16 pitchers. Just 9 of these players have been starting pitchers. That number is insane to me. Looking back at the ballots, this means that just 16% of inductees have been starting pitchers. Before 2000, approximately a third of inductees were pitchers. Now, that number is closer to 25%.

What’s the point? These are staggering numbers, and it’s suggesting something many people have suggested before: HOF voters have become too stingy on which pitchers they allow into the HOF.

These high standards, in fact, are also rather skewed because of those at the top. Of the 68 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, the top 10% hold approximately 20% of the total WAR for the entire HOF SP class. If you were to take the top 10% of pitchers – the best of the absolute best to ever play the game – out of the averages above, here’s how Buehrle stacks up:

Career Stats: 59.1 career WAR / 35.8 7yr-peak WAR / 47.4 JAWS
Average HOF of Bottom 90% 66.1 career WAR / 47.6 7yr-peak WAR / 56.9 JAWS

Now, things start to look a little bit better for Buehrle. Still not fantastic, but the idea that there might be an argument for his case might start to crystallize for a few more voters.

Let’s just say that, somehow, Buehrle manager to find his way into the Hall of Fame. Here’s where Buehrle would rank, among 68 current SP:

WAR: 49th (between Jim Bunning and Mordecai Brown)
WAR7: 59th (between Catfish Hunter and Lefty Gomez)
JAWS: T-52nd (with Sandy Koufax)

Would Buehrle nestle himself directly in the middle? Not exactly. However, there is a precedent for voting pitchers into the Hall of Fame with a pedigree similar to – or worse than – his.

The real reason Buehrle suffers so much in some of these numbers is because of what we know as White Sox fans: Buehrle was less of a “dominant peak” player and more of a “consistently solid” player. JAWS – one of the most popular metrics used – is going to always result in lower scores for him. Continue to dig a little deeper though, and you’ll see that his 117 ERA+ is certainly not out of place (T-45th with Gaylord Perry and Vic Willis – and above Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, and Catfish Hunter, among others). Look even further, and you’ll see that his 5.4% walk rate is tied for the ninth-best of the Liveball Era, with Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, and Fergie Jenkins.

If players like Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling are ever elected to the Hall of Fame, the numbers for the “average” Hall of Famer are only going to continue to rise and shut out more pitchers. The average HOF hitter posted a career 67.0 bWAR. That’s a full 6 wins lower than the average pitcher at current. These are essential things for HOF voters to keep in mind as they cast their ballots for the Hall of Fame. We’ve seen players such as Bobby Abreu, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, and even Todd Helton gain some traction on the ballot. There’s no reason Mark Buehrle shouldn’t be one of those names as well.

Now, is the argument that “Mark Buehrle isn’t the worst Hall of Famer” the best one ever? Absolutely not, and I’m not going to pretend it is – Buehrle would no doubt be among the bottom half of Hall of Fame SP. At the same time, he certainly wouldn’t be out of place.

Remember this: you know what they call the doctor that graduated with the lowest GPA in his class, right?

A doctor.

Mark Buehrle vs. His Era

What’s the point of adding this section? Well, it’s pretty simple. As I tried to explain above, not every era of baseball is equal. However, the Hall of Fame is meant to honor those who were the best of the era in which they played:

Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

So, let’s take a look at the era in which Mark Buehrle played. How did Buehrle stack up against other starting pitchers from 2000-2015?

Below is a mix of both “old-school” and “new-school” statistics. When evaluating players from even just 5-10 years ago, it’s a reminder to remember what was important: going deep in ballgames, keeping your team in a position to win. Like I said in the primer: historical context matters.

These statistics are among SP with at least 1000 IP over the time Buehrle pitched.

Some context to some of the numbers above:

  • In the era we watch the game today, Mark Buehrle probably wouldn’t have stood much of a shot. His low K-rate likely wouldn’t have allowed him to have the success he had pre-Launch Angle Revolution Era. However, in his era? He was pretty successful, and it was by no means a hitter-friendly era.
  • Buehrle’s ERA+ of 117 isn’t overly impressive to many, especially since in the time period we discussed, he only ranks 27th. However, if you were to limit the data set to pitchers who threw more than 2,500 innings in that time (approximately 12-13 full seasons), Buehrle ranks 3rd. This is important context to understand – in Buehrle’s era of pitchers, for those who threw approximately the same amount of innings as he did in the same time period, he was one of the best.
  • The rest of the numbers above, however, do show that 1,000 inning minimum. So, for Buehrle to be in the top 6 in bWAR and fWAR not only highlights his success, but also his consistency. Again, consistently throwing 200 innings was incredibly valuable just 5-10 years ago.
  • Buehrle was not only good in his era for limiting walks: he was historically one of the best at limiting walks, as I mentioned in the section above. That walk rate ranking rises to 2nd-best, just behind Roy Halladay, when considering players with 2,500 IP in this timeframe.

Are these estimations perfect? No, not really – this only counts the season during which Buehrle pitched. A better estimation would probably add 2-3 years before and after Buehrle’s career to give a fuller picture of pitchers on the endpoints. However, knowing the type of pitcher Buehrle was and the era in which he played, he’s clearly among the best. The names up there are ones you would expect: Pettitte, Hudson, Sabathia, and of course, Halladay. Are these the biggest household names? Outside of Halladay, not really. However, the voters shouldn’t punish the players for the era they played in – if you’re part of the best of an era, you’re part of the best of an era.

In addition, his production shows that his statistics aren’t just a product of longevity – he was legitimately a top arm throughout his entire career. His ERA+ fell under 100 just twice in his career (95, 2006 and 99, 2013). Let’s not forget the fact that in 14 of his full 15 MLB season, he threw 200 or more innings. In 2000, he only started 3 games. In 2015, he fell four outs short of 200 IP. Everywhere in between: you were guaranteed 200 IP from Mark Buehrle. That matters.

Are Mark Buehrle’s numbers eye-popping? Not by any means. As you’ll find throughout this, the article is not meant to make Buehrle out to be something he wasn’t However, it’s meant to call out that among both borderline candidates on the ballot and players who pitcher during his era, Buehrle was quietly among the top names in the league for quite some time. His resume deems him worthy of articles such as these.

The “Narrative” – and The Verdict

I’m a proponent of a larger Hall of Fame than most people. Here’s why.

I’ve been to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum once in my life. I’ve walked around, seen the exhibits with my uncle, and just genuinely enjoyed such a special house of history. I liked hearing the stories my uncle shared and watching other people tell their kids about their favorite players growing up. This is where the intangibles of a player come in, something I haven’t even mentioned yet.

Buehrle has certainly racked up some nice hardware: a no-hitter, a perfect game, a World Series Champion, a 5x All-Star, and a 4x Gold Glove Award winner. He’s hit a homer as a pitcher, and he logged 14 straight seasons with over 200 IP. He pitched in a game that lasted 99 minutes. All of these things help to create a “narrative” surrounding a player, which is the reason why I’m a fan of a larger Hall of Fame.

When I’m older and (hopefully) have a baseball-loving son, I want to be able to share with him the story of baseball, the story of what brought me into the game, and the players that did that for me. Being able to assign a special “narrative” to a Hall of Famer is important to me when I decide on ten I want to choose to put on my hypothetical ballot.

It’s hard to make a story better than Buehrle’s:

“You see this guy here? He threw a no-hitter AND a perfect game! In 2005, he helped the White Sox win the World Series. Heck, he pitched in Games 2 AND 3 of that World Series! He won a bunch of Gold Gloves, went to the All-Star Game a bunch, and pitched at least 200 innings in almost every single season of his career. And you want to know what? He barely threw over 92 mph and was drafted in the 38th round. Crazy, right? That’s a REAL pitcher there, buddy.”

Back when I played baseball, I wasn’t a very hard-throwing pitcher. I relied on strikes. After Buehrle’s perfect game, as part of my routine, I would watch all 27 outs before games I started. It was a reminder to me that no matter who you are, no matter your perceived talent level, on any day, you can be perfect in baseball.

It’s those kinds of stories that may make me a little partial to Mark Buehrle, but are also the types of stories I hope the next generation of baseball kids can find in some Hall of Famers as they walk through Cooperstown.

Is Mark Buehrle ever likely going to be voted into the Hall of Fame? I’ve reached the same conclusion here that I did three years ago: no, he likely won’t be. I’m not even sure he will stay on the ballot after this year. There simply aren’t enough proponents of a “big Hall” that would cast votes for players like Buehrle. Indeed, many players of the same ilk as Buehrle – both pitchers and hitters – are struggling due to some rather “interesting” ballots being cast. This would be my plea to the voters: consider giving Buehrle another look. I think you might be surprised by what you find.

I do, however, believe Buehrle deserves more than one year on the ballot. Additionally, I stand firm in saying that if I had a Hall of Fame vote, I would vote for Mark Buehrle. His statistics, while not eye-popping, fit among Hall of Famers without lowering the standards of the Hall of Fame. Mark Buehrle found a way to rise among the ranks and put up incredibly respectable and consistent numbers throughout his career.

Three years ago, when I was younger and newer to writing/baseball analytics, I think I would’ve had to reach harder to make a case for Buehrle. I don’t feel I did here, and as we walked through all of these numbers, I hope you find it more and more acceptable for someone who wasn’t based in Chicago to vote for Mark Buehrle – unlike some national sportswriters do.

We will find out more tonight, though I’m not sure Buehrle will ever make the Hall of Fame.

But I will share his story as if he did.

Thoughts? Opinions? Comment below or let me know on Twitter! @jlazowski14

Featured Photo: Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) / Twitter

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Paul Konerko

Please do this for Konerko too

Michael S Korn

Very informative. Thanks. I didn’t follow all the stats, but you present a great rational for a larger Hall of Fame. Mark Buerhrle was an excellent pitcher and had a Hall of Fame worthy career.

Gilbert L McAuliff

Another way to look at it is Buerhle pitched during the steroid era and was clean. Had he face batters who weren’t cheating his numbers would have been much better. That is the problem when evaluating players like Buerhle. I wouldn’t even put Petitte in the conversation, since he is an admitted juicer. Things like that have to be looked at when saying who is a Hall of Famer and who isn’t. That is why Konerko also needs a second look. Cheaters have hijacked the stats and made excellent ballplayers only look very good.

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