When he struck out Los Angeles Dodgers pinch hitter Mark Sweeney with a changeup in the eighth inning last night, Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle joined the not-so-exclusive 1,000 strikeout club. It’s a bit of a dubious achievement for someone like Buehrle, who has never depended on overpowering stuff, but an honor nonetheless. After striking out six against the Detroit Tigers on June 12 to leave him with 995 career strikeouts, he stretched out the suspense through two starts and almost 16 full innings before he broke through the barrier. He ranks 60th among active pitchers in strikeouts, behind several short relievers (like Arthur Rhodes and Billy Wagner) and some starters significantly younger than himself (Josh Beckett, C.C. Sabathia). If he is able to maintain his current pace, he could break Nolan Ryan’s career record of 5,714 punchouts before his 65th birthday in 2043.
The Sox won 6-1 on the strength of Buehrle’s eight innings of one-run ball, and held the Minnesota Twins one-and-a-half games back. You may only know Buehrle as the yahoo who slid on the tarp during a rain delay in 2006, but there’s much more to the man than that.
Buehrle was selected by the Sox as a draft-and-follow in the 38th round of the 1998 draft out of Jefferson College, a juco in his hometown of St. Charles, Missouri. Only three other players selected in the 38th round that year ever made an appearance in the major leagues: pitchers Dennis Tankersley and Trey Hodges, and shortstop Tommy Watkins. So, it’s safe to say that Buehrle has been exceeding expectations from the beginning of his career. Despite his humble beginnings, Buehrle shot through White Sox’s minor league system, spending a year at A-ball and half a season at Double-A before making his major league debut on July 16, 2000. He never looked back, as he served as a swingman the remainder of the 2000 season and joined the rotation for good in 2001.
The most striking thing about Buehrle’s career has been its consistency. Since his first full season with the Sox in 2001, Buehrle has pitched at least 200 innings and won at least ten games every year. He’s also allowed at least 200 hits and 20 home runs in every season since 2002. He has the occasional rough outing, but he’s able to bounce back with enough gems that the final tallies at the end of the year look strikingly similar.
Since he doesn’t blow batters away or avoid giving up base hits or home runs, Buehrle has to limit walks in order to survive. He hasn’t walked as many as 60 batters in a season since 2002. That allows him to walk a knife’s edge, where he will remain successful if his command is excellent, but he’ll get shelled with anything less. In 2006, it looked like he had begun to decline, as he went 12-13 with a 4.99 ERA. This was the first season where he had a losing record, as well as an ERA above the league average. He also struck out fewer than 100 batters for the first time in a full season. Last year, though, he bounced back with a 10-9 mark and a 3.63 ERA, including a no-hitter against the Texas Rangers on April 16.
This season, Buehrle got absolutely shelled by the Indians on Opening Day and struggled for the first six weeks of the season. He was 1-5 with a 5.81 ERA after his May 12 outing against the Los Angeles Angels. Since then, he’s gone 4-1 with a 2.54 ERA. He’s pitched exactly eight innings in each of his last four starts, and appears poised to lead the White Sox rotation into the second half of the season.
Buehrle is a fast worker on the mound. It’s not unheard of for games that he starts to finish in less than two hours. It’s refreshing to watch him work; he receives the ball from the catcher, toes the rubber, and fires it right back. Here’s hoping that he’s able to continue to hold things together long enough to get to 1,100 strikeouts; heck, maybe even 1,200.