Checking in: Revisiting the Mark Buehrle and Dioner Navarro Partnership

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Mark Buehrle has always been known for his reliability. You could enter the season knowing that he was going to give you 200+ innings of slightly above league-average production and stay off the disabled list. Thus far in 2014, that’s clearly not the case. Following his 6 ⅔ innings against Tampa Bay on Tuesday, Buehrle improved to 9-1 with a 2.33 ERA in what has been a truly fantastic and surprising start to the season.

When Buehrle was asked the reason for his success, he seemed unsure (taken from this piece by John Lott):

“I don’t know. I don’t feel like I’m throwing any different…I just feel like I’m hitting spots, and maybe [Dioner] Navarro’s throwing the right fingers down better than my previous catchers have. I don’t know.”

Well Mark, I do know. It is Navarro. Way back in April, after Buehrle dominated Tampa in his season debut, I looked at the pitch breakdown and compared it to previous seasons. I suggested that the way Navarro was changing speeds could lead to a slightly better season than normal, which would go a long way towards helping this Blue Jays team reach the postseason.

With Buehrle even making my optimistic take look like it sold him short, I figured it was time to take another look at how Navarro’s game calling has helped Buehrle get off to the best start of his career.

The first and most obvious change is that Mark Buehrle is throwing his curveball way more often than he ever has in his career. From 2007 (when PITCHF/x began tracking pitch type) to 2013, Buehrle’s career rate of throwing curveballs is 8.8%. This year he is throwing it 16.1% of the time.  In that same time period, he threw cutters 23% of the time. This year: 12%.  That’s a drastic change to his repertoire.

For some people, that would be enough. It’s something different, and Mark Buehrle is pitching better, so that must be it.  Not for me though. I don’t just want a cursory glance at this issue. I want to know why the switch is working for Mark Buehrle. So I dug a little deeper.

I decided to split things up by handedness. Over the previous 3 years (chosen because that’s when his velocity began to drop), Mark Buehrle has held LHBs to a .244/.287/.402 line. That’s not too far off from this season’s .237/.298/.368 line. A bit more power before, but otherwise very similar. He’s throwing far more sinkers and changeups to lefties so far (26% and 21%, respectively vs previous totals of 16% and 10%), which could account for the slight drop in power, but given the similar stat lines, it’s probably not enough to be considered a reliable sample.

The BIG difference has come against RHBs. Over that same 3 year sample, righties hit Buehrle to the tune of .280/.321/.426 with a HR every 36.4 AB. This year he has held righties to a line of .268/.313/.359 with only 1 home run in 198 ABs.  70 points of slugging is pretty significant, so this is where I’m going to focus my study.

On the first pitch of an AB or when the batter is ahead, there doesn’t seem to be much of a change in how Navarro is calling pitches. He uses an even pitch mix on pitch 1 and fastballs and changeups when behind in the count. Things start to change a bit more with an even count – many more curveballs when he used to throw cutters, but it’s once he gets a righty to 2 strikes that things have REALLY changed.

I’ve decided to use some gifs to show just how Buehrle has begun attacking right-handed batters with 2 strikes.  Here are the last 3 pitches of Wil Myers‘ 2nd inning at-bat from Tuesday.

The sequence begins on a 2-2 count.

Buehrle first tries to retire Myers by throwing a curveball, which he doesn’t quite get in as much as he’d like.  Myers fouls it off, so the count remains 2-2.

On the next pitch, Buehrle does manage to get the curveball in, but buries it a bit too much and it bounces next to the plate.

Before we get to the final pitch of the at-bat, I want to focus on these last two. The curveball with two strikes is a huge departure from previous years. Previously, he would only throw it to righties with 2 strikes 11% of the time; he would typically attack with 4-seam fastballs or changeups, while mixing in the occasional cutter. This year the 2-strike curveball usage is all the way up to 23%.

Also, this year Navarro has chosen to attempt to put righty hitters away almost exclusively inside.  Compare these two charts from Baseball Savant (seriously, click that link. The data is incredible) showing how Buehrle has recorded strikeouts this year against RHBs compared to his career:

Buehrle break

You’ll notice the dark red zones are completely flipped. He’s attacking inside, even with the hook; included in the 2014 chart are 3 strikeouts on curveballs down and in to righties. But of course, the last curveball wasn’t a strikeout pitch to Myers. It was ball 3.  So why am I spending so much time on this? Well, the big reason I’m focusing on these curveballs is because of what they put in the hitters’ heads. When a pitcher shows a willingness to throw a hitter a 2 strike breaking ball inside, the hitter is faced with two problems.

1) He has to wait back to make sure he doesn’t get fooled by the speed and the movement.

2) He has just seen a ball that breaks towards him.

Even if you missed with your previous curveball(s), when you take those two factors and follow them up with an inside sinker, you get this:

You’ll notice that Myers steps back on a pitch that wasn’t within a foot of his body.  After two straight pitches moving towards him, he was clearly fooled by the ball moving back towards the plate. Of course, anybody who has been watching the Jays this season has seen that strikeout pitch a lot. 14 times, in fact. The sinker on the inside corner has been absolutely deadly for Buehrle this year. In the past, Mark Buehrle threw sinkers with 2 strikes to RHBs 6% of the time. This year that is up to 41%. That is a drastic departure from his previous attack strategy.

Now we get to what seems to be the real reason why Buehrle has been so effective. By showing an increased willingness to attack inside with both soft and hard stuff, he sets up everything else. When he wouldn’t come in, hitters could lean out and drive those outside changeups. Now they must be aware of both sides of the plate, which turns those same changeups from rockets into weak contact. When you combine that with the constant changing of speeds that comes with the general increase in curveballs, you get hitters off balance on both location and speed. That’s how you dominate when you only throw 83 mph.

Obviously a ton of the credit for this has to go to Buehrle for executing his pitches – you can call an absolutely perfect game, but if the guy doesn’t hit his spots, he’s going to get crushed – but this is the advantage the Jays received by bringing in Dioner Navarro in the offseason. He’s not really any better than an average player, and he’s not very durable, but his pitch calling is absolutely top notch and has helped turn a 35-year-old Mark Buehrle from an innings eating fourth starter into a legitimate front of rotation guy.  That alone is worth the $3M salary he is making this year.

I’m sure that eventually teams will adjust to this new Buehrle and he’ll have a rough start or two, but I have all the faith in the world that Navarro will be able to adjust back. Believe in Buehrle.

Tremendous thanks to Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant for pitch data.
Picture Courtesy of James G via Flickr

About Joshua

Longtime baseball fan and player. I've gotten the chance to play with or against many current big leaguers and now I get to write about them. Life really can be fun sometimes, can't it? I can be found on Twitter @House4545