This is a signing that simply cannot be justified. Buehrle’s reputation for handling large workloads is essentially worthless, and his expected decline is sharp.
My gut instinct in this case was wrong, but I’m still glad that I took the time to investigate. Both mainstream analysts and sabermetrically-inclined commentators attempted to apply universal truths to a very specific situation which deserved individual treatment. Yes, Buehrle signed a below-market deal, both in terms of dollars and years. And yes, pitchers get injured at incredibly high rates as they age. For us to pretend that we know which of these facts is more important would just be foolhardy.
This time, however, the stock sabermetric principle won out.
Mark Buehrle has a way of taking the air out of "stock sabermetric principles." For FIP, he used to be Public Enemy No. 1 before Matt Cain seized the title. Still, after completing his four-year, $56 million contract, it looks like he found another way to get in one more dig.
I didn't intend to look for Buehrle projections from 2007 -- I found this one on an unrelated search -- because baseball has a way of making everybody look foolish at one point or another. But I feel compelled to highlight it because it's a great example of what Colin talked about on Tuesday.
Gassko didn't make that conclusion on a whim. He explained his process, and he consulted MGL of The Book Blog, who also detailed his own reasons for determining that the signing was "at best a tad poor, and at worst, terrible."
They had their case -- chiefly, pitchers with Buehrle's peripherals and workload tend to break down as they cross over to the wrong side of 30. It's grounded in reality, but Gassko was perhaps guiltiest for deciding to phrase his conclusion with absolute phrases when most of his evidence suggested mild skepticism.
The problem (heh) is, Buehrle busted the comparable projections by not really aging. The percentages Gassko applied to Buehrle's numbers over the four years of the contract never factored in:
Buehrle exceeded the inning projections by a whopping 44 percent, which allowed him to throw six additional wins on the pile. By FanGraphs' simple WAR-to-dollars conversion, Buehrle was worth $66 million over the course of the last four years.
Not everybody of sabermetric orientation was that pessimistic about Buehrle's chances, though. Baseball Think Factory's Dan Szymborski and Chris Dial gave it two thumbs up.
What's there not to like about this? Buehrle's not a true 3.03 ERA pitcher, but the Pale Hose don't need him to be and they're not paying him like they expect him to pay. Given the market, $14 million a year for a healthy pitcher who's a good bet to put up an ERA+ of 120 every year is an excellent deal. No snark needed in a world in which Barry Zito, an inferior pitcher, gets twice the dough for twice the time.
Pitchers like Mark Buehrle do not come along very often. He’s already demonstrated durability beyond the arm damage that "should have" happened. The odds that Buehrle will be very good over the next four seasons are very, very good. He’s easily going to be very good for four more seasons, and very likely five. Heck, he’s likely to be good for another ten. He’s the next generation’s best bet to win 300 games, and the key to being a successful GM is identifying the true stars that will decline atypically, and signing them relatively cheaply and enjoying the ride. Okay, the purer economics may not make it a great deal, but it’s going to get them a discount after four years if Buehrle continues on like his peers.
They were a lot closer, mostly because they didn't overthink it. They put a lot of thought into it, but they basically said, "He's been very good and extremely durable. He should continue to be good and durable." Buehrle's career has generated so few truly comparable pitchers that maybe we should expect him to most resemble himself.
This is where Don Cooper and Herm Schneider factor in, with help from Ozzie Guillen. I said this before on Sox Machine, but the White Sox staff is great at working on cars while they're running. Buehrle basically contends with rumors about an aching shoulder every spring -- what else is there to talk about? -- but they disappear when the season starts. Likewise, they were great about getting Jon Garland to exceed expectations on an annual basis even with a dead arm that surfaced around June, and they also pushed and pulled Freddy Garcia perfectly before and after his arm surgery. When they know a pitcher, they know a pitcher. They knew Buehrle well enough to give him a big four-year contract, and they got their money back.
Their history of excellent judgment makes their relationship with Jake Peavy all the more curious. It became clear that Peavy couldn't resist pushing himself too hard well before he admitted he had a problem. Still, the Sox have never found a way to establish a system of checks and balances with The Glass Bulldog, mainly because they give him veto power for everything. Hell, they came up with a six-man rotation with the sole purpose of easing Peavy back into a regular starting job, and they caved in after just one challenge.
Maybe it's inevitable that Peavy will get injured, but had the Sox stuck to their guns instead of letting Peavy overrule them a half-dozen times, at least they would know they were powerless against the aging process.
It's really bizarre. Jerry Reinsdorf hated giving pitchers contracts longer than three years, and really, the Sox did a nice job of working around that constraint. So it was a huge moment when the Sox not only gave Buehrle a fourth year, but threw in a little bit of no-trade protection. It was a commitment that reflected their special bond.
Or at least it was supposed to be special. But then the Sox gave four years to Scott Linebrink when all other bidders stopped at three. With Peavy, Williams went out of his way to trade for a four-year deal that cost more than Buehrle's, and watched as his on-field staff made little effort to actually protect the investment.
We don't know if Buehrle will be around 2011, and it would suck if unrelated recklessness made him a budgetary impossibility. We do know the Sox are stuck with Peavy for one more year, and hopefully the Sox will decide to apply their Mark Smarts to Peavy whether or not Buehrle is back.