Miami Marlins pitcher Mark Buehrle held out his hands, palms up, the gesture meant to show off the callouses he earned in spring training re-acquainting himself with the use of Louisville Sluggers. It has been about 15 years since the left-handed thrower played in any kind of league that required more than a cameo at the plate. Now he pitches in the National League where each time he starts a game he could come to the plate as many times as he did during entire seasons in the American League.
No one knows as well as Buehrle that the Marlins hired him for his arm after 12 seasons pitching for the Chicago White Sox in the designated hitter’s league and that not even one percent of the reason the club wanted him had anything to do with the way he wields a bat. Yet Buehrle also recognizes the politest way to describe his Major League average of .106 entering this season. “It ain’t good,” he said.
Buehrle brought a lifetime 161-119 pitching record to free agency and that’s why he was worth many millions of dollars to the Marlins. He said when he considered his team options he did think about the necessity of hitting all the time in the National League as opposed to staying in the American League’s virtual swing-free zone, but that it wasn’t going to be a deal breaker.
Through the 2011 season, Buehrle, who broke into the majors at 21 in 2000 and is now 33, made 56 plate appearances, or an average of 4.6 per year. That included walks and sacrifices and the like, so his official plate appearance total was 47. Bearing no resemblance to Ferguson Jenkins, Bob Gibson or Early Wynn with the stick, Buehrle had one home run and two RBIs. The at-bats were accumulated on the road in interleague play.
“I never batted in Chicago,” he said.
Well, maybe at Wrigley Field against the Cubs, but not at home park U.S. Cellular Field.
Buehrle was asked to ponder when the last time he was on a team when he had to hit a lot. It certainly wasn’t with the White Sox. It wasn’t in the minors, either. He never batted at that level at either Burlington in the Midwest League or Birmingham in the Southern League. It wasn’t at Jefferson College in Missouri–he had one at-bat there. It was when he was enrolled at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Missouri, where he grew up. Many moons ago.
From college, through the minors, and throughout his time with the White Sox, Buehrle was about as likely to take a turn in the batter’s box than he was to become an entrant in the Indianapolis 500. For a good chunk of his career in Chicago, Buehrle had Ozzie Guillen as his manager, the same guy who is managing the Marlins now. Guillen wanted the always-reliable and very durable thrower on his Florida team, too, but the attraction was not his bat. Did Ozzie even suggest that Buehrle work on his hitting in the off-season?
“The only thing I care about my pitchers is that they get three at-bats,” Guillen said after Buehrle pitched his first NL game against the Cincinnati Reds the other day. “I don’t care if they go oh-for-three.”
Guillen’s trick answer reflected his desire for the starters in his rotation to last six or seven innings, that longevity usually bringing them up three times. Buehrle did pitch six complete that day, but his turn came around only twice in the order because his teammates weren’t hitting. He grounded to short in the top of the third at Great American Ballpark and he grounded to second in the sixth.
On the mound, Buehrle’s first game in the National League went this way: Shaky first inning, one run allowed, 28 pitches thrown. The other five innings, one run allowed, a total of seven hits allowed. An L on his record. Guillen didn’t fret much over Buehrle’s slow start because he has seen him pitch out of trouble and out-last danger so many times during their 2004-2011 partnership in Chicago.
“I know this kid for many years,” Guillen said. “I know what I’m going to get from him.”
Buehrle the pitcher resembles a Greg Maddux more than a Randy Johnson. He is not a flame thrower. Against the Reds his fastball topped out at 86 mph. His changeup came to the plate at between 76 and 79 mph. And everything set up his curve, which had batters flailing, missing the ball by a foot, at 72 mph.
Seventy-two mph is only a few miles per hour removed from a floating knuckler.
“They’re all curves,” Buehrle said of his slowest of slow pitches.
That means other pitchers might be throwing more than 20 mph faster than him. Yet Buehrle gets the hitters out.
“Location,” he said. “That’s all it’s ever been.”
As a hitter Buehrle would probably like to see a few more 72 mph tosses than 92 mph tosses. But when a guy’s a career one-for-10 on average, the big throwers are going to make him prove he can hit speed before they try anything else. Buehrle better keep toughening those practice callouses.