As I begin writing this, my beloved Chicago White Sox are sitting in the 4th place in AL Central with a dismal 16-22 record. The White Sox are 5.5 games back of the Detroit Tigers and a mere three games ahead of the woeful Cleveland Indians.
Being closer to last place than you are to first place is never a good thing.
Without question, the early part of 2009 has been filled with negatives for the White Sox: Alexei Ramirez’s struggles out of the gate; Carlos Quentin’s struggles and yet another injury; Gavin Floyd’s complete implosion from good-to-great in 2008 to awful in 2009; the utter failure of the hitters at the top of the White Sox batting order; AJ’s complete inability to control the running game; the relative power outages of the aging trio of Thome-Dye-Konerko; and on (Contreras) and on (Fields).
When I think about it, I’m almost kind of happy that we’re only 6 games under .500 and 5.5 back. It feels like it could be much worse. After a decent start to the season, the last three or four weeks have just seemed to drag on while offering little hope for a 2008-like rebound.
But there is at least one bright spot for the White Sox this season, and it’s the guy who is usually the bright spot when the rest of the team is struggling: Mark Buehrle.
I have referred to Mark Buehrle as the most underappreciated player in baseball a few times here on MSF, but I am finally dedicating an entire post to the idea. For whatever reason, Buehrle never seems to get the credit on a national level that he deserves; and I think that sometimes we as Sox fans don’t always give Buehrle the credit he deserves for being the one consistent anchor of our pitching staff for what has been a pretty successful decade. (The truth is, any decade during which a Chicago baseball team wins a World Series has to be considered a successful decade.)
Let’s take a look real quick at Buehrle’s career numbers (through May 20th, 2009):
- Came up in 2000 after being selected in the 38th round of the 1998 draft by the White Sox and went 4-1, though he only started 3 of the 28 games he pitched in that season.
- Career record: 128-88
- Career ERA: 3.77
- Career WHIP: 1.26
- Career K/BB: 1116/437 (2.55/1)
- 23 career complete games
- Threw a no-hitter against the Rangers
- 2-1 career postseason record with 1 memorable save in the 2005 World Series
- 8 straight seasons with at least 30 starts, 201 innings, and 10 wins.
The numbers may not be spectacular, but they are incredibly solid and consistent. And yes, Buehrle has received some credit. He’s made three All-Star teams (2002, 2005, 2006) and finished 5th in the 2005 Cy Young voting. However, whenever people talk about the “aces” in baseball, you rarely hear the name Mark Buehrle talked about.
In a certain sense, I can understand why.
Though I love Buehrle, he clearly is not a dominating pitcher on par with a Johan Santana or a Tim Lincecum. Guys like Santana and Lincecum, who double as aces in fantasy baseball and real life, tend to get the most credit and recognition. Buehrle, despite his non-fantasy importance for the White Sox, is far from a fantasy ace and thus can get forgotten by many baseball fans.
Additionally, many of you may say that Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays is the true underappreciated ace in baseball. And while I agree that Halladay is vastly underrated, there is at least a consensus that he is a “true” ace, which is a level of respect that I do not think is always given to Buehrle.
Plus, Mark has a season sprinkled in there where his ERA was 4.99, and anyone who follows the White Sox knows that Buehrle is prone to giving up some runs early in the game and will have a few clunkers thoughout the year. So there is certainly an echelon of consistently elite pitchers that Mark Buehrle falls a little below.
However, there is one very important component that does make Mark Buehrle an ace: when his team needs him, he almost always steps up. Whether the White Sox are desperate for a win to stop a losing streak, or just desperate for someone to take the ball deep into a game to give the bullpen a rest, Buehrle rarely fails to deliver. His clunkers usually seem to come when there are other guys rolling who can compensate for it, but I do not remember too many times when the White Sox really needed a big performance from Buehrle that he did not step up and bring it.
Case in point: 2009.
Coming into last night’s homestand opener against the Twins, the White Sox had lost 5 straight games. What does Mark Buehrle do? He goes 7 innings, gives up 1 earned run, and walks no one. The White Sox mercifully won the game, and Buehrle improved to 6-1 on the season. Can you imagine where the White Sox would be this season without Buehrle? Only 10 of the White Sox wins are not specifically accounted for by Mark.
Last night’s game was far from the only example of Mark Buehrle breaking up a White Sox losing streak. On Friday, May 1, a game that I was in attendance for, Buehrle pitched six strong innings in a White Sox victory over the Rangers. The White Sox then proceeded to drop the next four games, until Buehrle took the hill again and pitched 8 shutout innings against first place Detroit, followed by the White Sox dropping three of their next four and and eight of their next ten, until Buehrle’s start last night.
There is a good chance that Mark Buehrle, if he maintains his current yearly pace, will have to compile stats for at least another decade to even merit mention for the Baseball Hall of Fame. As for the White Sox Hall of Fame, I don’t even think it’s a question that he would be a first ballot choice right now. While so many pitchers have come and gone from the White Sox rotation since 2000, Mark Buehrle has been the anchor. And though your first thought may not be “ace” when you look at his numbers, if you watch the games and follow the ebbs and flows of the season, you understand the immense value that Buehrle brings to the table.
So despite the White Sox horrific start to 2009, there is one bright spot that at least gets me excited every fifth day: when Mark Buehrle, baseball’s most underrated ace, takes the hill.
One of the best arguments I can make for Mark Buehrle is that around the same time he came up to the big leagues, the Cubs were supposedly building the next Braves-like pitching staff with Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano. If you had asked any major league GM, manager, or fan to choose between those three and Buehrle, Mark would have been chosen last every time.
But now that we have the clear vision of retrospect, who should have been the first choice out of those four?
Prior isn’t in the majors, Wood is now in Cleveland’s bullpen, and Zambrano is a ticking time bomb both in temperament and health. Yet Buehrle chugs along, like the little-pitcher-that-could, contributing positively to his team’s chances to win almost every fifth day.
If Mark Buehrle does retire after his current contract runs out in a few years (2011), or if he decides to finish out his career at his offseason home in St. Louis, I will wish him well and miss him like an old friend. No one has meant more to the White Sox since the beginning of this decade, and it’s time the rest of the baseball world wakes up to the fact that there is an ace pitching in Chicago; but he pitches on the South Side, his name is Mark Buehrle, and he’s the most underappreciated and unrecognized ace in baseball.