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Mark Buehrle Deal With Marlins Contingent on Consistency

Yesterday, the Marlins signed their third catch of the offseason by inking free agent left-hander Mark Buehrle to a four-year, $58 million deal. The initial, visceral reaction to the deal involved the evocation of "too much money" or more likely "too many years," but it was the price the Marlins paid to lure Buehrle into their camp. After all, Buehrle will begin his age-33 season next year, and the Marlins will have him on until he is 36 years old. That seems like an awfully long stay for an old pitcher.

So the question, as always, becomes whether this was a good idea or not. And as is the case with all of these questions, we turn to the numbers to see if they have any idea what is going on.

Buehrle's Consistent Past

It is ironic that Buehrle signed a four-year deal worth $58 million this season, given that he is coming off of a four-year, $56 million pact from his previous employer, the Chicago White Sox. Essentially, Buehrle has not changed salaries, as he will be receiving the same paycheck he has been earning each of the last four years.

The drastic similarity in salary only mirrors how drastically consistent Buehrle's career has always been.

Buehrle, Year K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
2011 12.7 5.2 3.59 3.98 3.2
2010 11.0 5.5 4.28 3.90 3.2
2009 12.0 5.2 3.84 4.46 3.4
2009-2011 11.9 5.3 3.91 4.12 3.3
Career 13.5 5.5 3.83 4.13 3.2

It's actually pretty amazing that throughout his entire 13-year career, Buehrle has essentially been the same pitcher more or less. And for the Marlins to get good value out of the Buehrle, they want him to be the same pitcher he has been for the last three or four years, because they will need that sort of performance to get their contract's worth.

Past Buehrle Concerns

Projecting Mark Buehrle is one of those things that you either find extremely easy to do or extremely difficult. You see, Buehrle has not followed suit with the idea that pitchers only get worse after age 26. His skillset has barely deteriorated over that time span; as you can see above, only his strikeout rate has fallen, while he has maintained almost identical walk rates along with runs-allowed marks. When taking the average of FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR), and Baseball Prospectus's WARP, we get an average of 3.2 wins above replacement per season for Buehrle, which also almost identical to his marks the last three seasons. If there was anyone who could maintain their performance over four seasons, even at an advanced age, it is Buehrle.

The concerns with him have always been surrounding his odd career split in ERA and FIP. He has always outperformed his peripherals, and there seem to be a number of reasons for that. One is his actual fielding capabilities, including his ability to hold runners, BIS credits pitchers for holding baserunners in the running game, and Buehrle has averaged almost seven runs added per season just in working fast and taking out would-be stealers with his patented pickoff move. Buehrle's pickoff move is perhaps the best in the game, and with it he has picked off 83 baserunners over his career. That is an average of almost seven pickoffs a season, which adds 1.5 runs a season to Buehrle's benefit. Combine that and his skilled fielding (for what it is worth, his reputation is good enough that he has won three straight Gold Gloves at pitcher) have combined to shave possibly 0.3 runs per nine innings over the course of a season, which helps to explain some of his ERA-FIP gap.

The other thing that could help to explain this is his penchant for allowing unearned runs. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs has more.

In fact, if we look at Buehrle’s career, 10.1% of all the runs Buehrle has allowed have been labeled as unearned. For starting pitchers since 2002 with 1,000+ innings pitched, that’s the ninth highest ratio of unearned runs in baseball. Some of the pitchers ahead of him include Brandon Webb, Felix Hernandez, and Derek Lowe, which illustrates the point of how ground-ball pitchers tend to have ERAs that are driven down because many of the runs they actually do allow are counted as unearned.

Now, there may be something to this, but Buehrle's ground ball rate has been at 46 percent for his career and has never climbed to more than 50 percent, which is not nearly as close as the guys Cameron lists. Indeed, Buehrle is only a bit above the league average in ground ball rate over the course of his career, which does not help this argument.

Of course, that does not mean much. Unearned runs are still runs allowed, and the concept of the error has probably hurt the ability of people to credit runs to players more than it has helped over the years. So if we use runs allowed (RA) per nine innings instead of ERA, and we normalize FIP to the RA scale by using a simple FIP/0.92 estimate, we should see if this is a significant equivalence factor.

Buehrle, Year RA FIP RA
2011 4.08 4.34
2010 4.49 4.24
2009 4.09 4.85
2009-2011 4.22 4.48
Career 4.28 4.49

Some of the gap did indeed close in this case, but the difference is still 0.2 runs per nine innings, some of which I can only presume is involved with his defense. In other words, there are some ideas as to why Buehrle has been so good at outperforming his FIP, but we are not so certain that we can pinpoint it easily.

Projecting Consistency

Since we have had no problem discussing how utterly consistent Buehrle has been since his career began in 2000, we suspect that a 2012 projection would not be entirely difficult to perform. For the last three years, Buehrle's ERA has been at 3.91, which sounds like a perfectly reasonable starting point for analysis. Compare this to the Bill James projection of 3.98 and the projection of nine fans on FanGraphs of 3.89. There does not seem to be much doubt about that. Let us use the average of the three projections and give him a 3.92 ERA for 2012.

If we were to just use a 3.92 ERA and figure that Buehrle would be pitching in a run environment similar to the 2010 major league run environment, we would put him at a projection of just about 3.0 Wins Above Replacement, which is exactly what we would have expected. However, there are some added caveats that should add value to Buehrle. First off, he will be moving to a more spacious park and an easier run environment in the National League. The difference between the NL and AL run environments in 2010 was about 0.13 runs per nine innings, and if we add that conservative adjustment to Buehrle's runs allowed, we up his value slightly to 3.3 WAR, which is right in line with his last few seasons. There is a good chance his numbers will improve even more with the park, especially given the spacious dimensions coupled with Buehrles penchant for allowing balls in play, but I will allow park factors and the regression from Chicago's defense to Miami's defense to more or less even those factors out. This could be incorrect, but it is done for the sake of ease.

So in 2012, Buehrle would very easily match his $14.5 million average annual value. At 3.3 expected wins, he would be worth anywhere between $14.9 and $16.5 million in free agent value, depending on where you feel the market will be this season for dollars per WAR. But the question will be how well Buehrle fares over the next four years, and that will entirely depend on his consistency.

Rather than project consistency, I will simply give you a spectrum of various possibilities. We usually assume a 0.5-WAR drop per season for simplicity's sake, but let us consider various dropping points and how they might affect Buehrle's value over the next four years. In the following table, I will assume the market begins at $4.5 million per WAR and inflates at a five percent rate per season, as noted in the Jose Reyes column.

WAR drop / Season Total WAR Total $M Net Surplus ($M)
-0.0 13.2 63.7 +5.7
-0.2 12.6 57.7 -0.2
-0.3 12.3 54.7 -3.3
-0.5 11.7 48.6 -9.4
-0.7 11.1 42.6 -15.4

This shows very clearly how the Marlins believe Buehrle will age. They suspect he will lose very little in the way of wins over the next few seasons, as their contract asks for Buehrle to lose just a fifth of a win per season. Interestingly enough, if he loses the equivalent of what we expected from Jose Reyes (0.7 wins per season) every year, his fourth season is almost a complete loss, as the overall surplus of the deal would be worth one season of the contract itself. However, the Marlins are paying with the idea that the 2009 to 2011 version of Mark Buehrle is surprisingly similar to the 2012 to 2015 versions.

Which of those above paths is most likely? I cannot be certain. Buehrle has defied projection systems for quite some time, and the idea that his skill set of control and defensive prowess over power stuff may age better than a traditional strikeout guy may hold some water. All I do know is that the Marlins are banking on that consistency, and that even if he drops a little more than expected, the Fish are not out a significantly large sum of money. The four-year contract is not going to be a noose around the Marlins' necks, and there is a solid chance that Buehrle will come close to meeting his value, especially if the market turns out to be paying more than the above assumptions state. Overall, it is a surprisingly solid deal for the Fish and for Buehrle, and both sides should be happy with the addition from a purely contractual perspective.