Call Me Maybe: Dioner Navarro and his Impact on Mark Buehrle

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Mark Buehrle will be taking the hill tonight as the Blue Jays attempt to move to .500 against the Houston Astros, who are a surprising 3-4 thus far. This will be Buehrle’s first start since a masterful outing against Tampa, where he matched his career high in strikeouts and was a Brett Lawrie dropped liner away from a complete game shutout. Assuming he brings his usual stuff to the mound today, fans should expect more of the same. However, this success may not be solely because of Mark Buehrle. A ton of credit for that first game has to go to the Blue Jays lone offseason acquisition, Dioner Navarro.

To be clear, while I really like Navarro, I also recognize that he is not some ‘saviour’; he’s a decent hitter who has poor actions behind the plate. However, he does bring one very notable skill to the table, his reputation as a tremendous game-caller. This was confirmed by Jose Bautista when he said, “…I could really get used to the chemistry I see between our catcher and our pitchers.” For 3 out of every 4 starts he makes, those skills make him a decent enough asset to have in the lineup, but on that one day when Mark Buehrle is on the mound, Navarro becomes so much more.

As you’re probably well-aware by now, Mark Buehrle hasn’t shaken off a pitch since Bush was President Paul Martin was Prime Minister. He also has an impeccable ability to execute whatever pitch the catcher puts down. This is of course a huge reason why he has been able to be so effective for so long. Of course, this makes it pretty important that the catcher calls the right pitch and that is where Dioner Navarro comes in.

Take a look at this at-bat against Ben Zobrist in the top of the 4th of last Wednesday’s game:

The Pitch Sequence of the above GIF went as follows:
1. Cutter Low and In (Ball 1)
2. Sinker Low and Away (Called Strike 1)
3. Curve in the Dirt (Ball 2)
4. Curve Low and Away (Swinging Strike 2)
5. 2-Seam Fastball Up and In (Called Strike 3).

If you look at Sportsnet’s PITCHf/x graphic on the right side of the GIF, that last pitch ended up in what would usually be a pretty dangerous spot to throw a slow fastball to a guy with some pop. However, in this sequence, Zobrist had absolutely NO chance. Given what he saw earlier in the at-bat, everything down and almost everything moving toward him, it would have taken unbelievable pitch recognition for Zobrist to do anything at all with that final offering.

And this is what it was like the whole night.

Now, as fans will probably remember, Buehrle had an absolutely terrible start to the season last year. He was knocked around all of April, and by mid-May he was sporting an ERA over 7.00. He improved as the season went on, but that’s because he started throwing harder once we hit Victoria Day.

Here is a representative velocity chart from a good 2013 Buehrle start (Aug 15 vs BOS):

And now a bad one (Apr 10 @ DET).

They look reasonably similar don’t they?

The only real difference seems to be top end velocity, which confirms what we already knew: He started throwing harder and got better. J.P. Arencibia called Buehrle the way he had always been called; lots of fastballs and changeups clustered together with the occasional slow curve mixed in as a “show-me” pitch. As evidenced in the good Buehrle start from 2013, in which he gave up 1 run over 7 IP, Buehrle’s strategy clearly works just fine when he’s regularly throwing his fastball at 86 mph; his command is good enough to get by at that velocity. However, when Buehrle is struggling to touch 84 mph, it’s a very different story. The problem was Arencibia’s inability to adjust. He was calling Mark Buehrle the exact same way regardless of how he was throwing.

Now let’s take a look at Wednesday’s start in chart form.

Once again, you’ll notice that Buehrle wasn’t exactly lighting up the radar gun, but any similarity to the previous charts ends there. There are zero speed clusters. Heck, if that pitch chart were a roller coaster we’d all be sick by the end. Navarro guided Buehrle through a start where he didn’t have his best stuff by constantly changing speeds and eye levels. On a percentage basis, he threw twice as many curveballs when compared to his career average. Buehrle also threw three different types of fastballs, all at different velocities, while mixing in some change-ups.

Navarro was also getting those signs down substantially quicker. In the start against Tampa Bay, Buehrle averaged 15.4 seconds between pitches, down from a career worst 18.1 seconds last year. It’s well known that Buehrle likes to work quickly, so having a catcher who can not only work at that pace, but work effectively, will be a big bonus. The faster pace also helps keep the defense active, which, combined with the apparently renewed willingness to shift, should help turn more balls in play into outs.

Navarro and Buehrle changed speeds, changed location, and did it all at a substantially quicker pace. The end result was one of the best starts of Mark Buehrle’s career. Funny how that works.

This ability to read stuff and hitters, something Buehrle has never had in a catcher, has the potential to be a real separator this year. We all entered the season with the idea that Buehrle would give us 200 innings of no. 4 starter quality, but what if he can give us a bit more than that? What if, instead of a 4.20 ERA, he pitches to a 3.75 ERA? If Mark Buehrle can pitch like a good No. 3, or heaven forbid a No. 2, then all of a sudden the Jays rotation looks a lot better. It would still be somewhat shaky, but the Jays wouldn’t need Brandon Morrow to be what he isn’t (consistent) or for Drew Hutchison to be a No. 3 starter right away. It would actually give the Blue Jays a little wiggle room, which this team could sorely use.

An end result of Mark “No. 2/3 Starter” Buehrle may be not likely, but thanks to Dioner Navarro it’s suddenly possible. This early in the season, I’ll take that in heartbeat.

Pitch Charts via Brooks Baseball
Picture Courtesy of James G via Flickr