I’m probably always going to remember Ryan Franklin for three on-field performances. One, as a starter in the minors, Franklin was involved in two consecutive no-hitters — the first one combined, the second one done by Franklin all on his own. Two, in April 2005, Franklin went head-to-head against Mark Buehrle in Chicago in a game between the Mariners and the White Sox, and it was all over in just 99 minutes. Three, I actually just have those two, because this is Ryan Franklin we’re talking about and I’m a little surprised I’ll remember him for anything. Anything, at least, having to do with his performance.
On that day in 2005, Franklin was a quick worker. Working in his favor is that he threw strikes and allowed plenty of contact. But he was opposing the very king of quick work, a guy who manages to spend so little time between pitches you’re reminded all over again of how much you can’t stand Jonathan Papelbon. I wouldn’t refer to Pace as an ability, per se, but in one statistical category, Buehrle is the undisputed leader.
To review, not that you need it, Pace is a stat we measure here, and it’s simply the average number of seconds that pass in between pitches. Or, it’s a measure of a pitcher’s pace, hence the name of it. To my knowledge, there’s no compelling evidence that a quicker pace keeps the defense on its toes. Likewise, to my knowledge, there’s no compelling evidence that defenses perform worse when a pitcher works slowly. Pace isn’t a tool, and it isn’t directly correlated with effectiveness. But it’s something we notice as fans, even if we don’t specifically notice it, and almost everyone would rather watch a fast guy than a slow guy. Yeah, in theory, it’s all baseball and we all like baseball, so we shouldn’t care how long the games take. But the period where a pitcher is holding the ball and not pitching is a period of inactivity, and that’s uninteresting. There’s nothing gained from that.
Nobody has a pace as fast as Mark Buehrle’s pace. Now, to draw a parallel…not everyone is aware that Buehrle is a quick worker. Not everyone is aware of pitch-framing studies. But among baseball nerds, you could say Mark Buehrle : pace :: Jose Molina : framing. Molina might be the league’s best receiver, and he’s recognized as such, even though there are other catchers in the vicinity. Buehrle works lightning fast, and people know that, even though there are other pitchers in the vicinity. But Buehrle’s number one. He’s regularly number one.
Let’s look only at starting pitchers, and starters work faster than relievers anyway. In 2007, based on limited PITCHf/x data, Buehrle led the league with a 16.8-second pace. Joe Blanton came in second, at 17.9.
In 2008, Buehrle led the league with a 16.7-second pace. Joe Blanton came in second, at 17.4
In 2009, Buehrle led the league with a 16.1-second pace. J.D. Martin came in second, at 17.0.
In 2010, Buehrle led the league with a 16.4-second pace. Mike Leake came in second, at 17.6.
In 2011, Buehrle led the league with a 15.9-second pace. John Danks came in second, at 17.8.
And in 2012, Buehrle led the league with a 17.2-second pace. R.A. Dickey came in second, at 17.7.
Between 2008-2012, there were 903 individual pitcher seasons for starters who threw at least 50 frames. If you sort by pace in ascending order, Buehrle shows up at No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. Then you get 2009 Martin, then you get 2009 Tim Wakefield, then you get 2009 Ryan Rowland-Smith, then you get Buehrle again. This is a part of who Mark Buehrle is, more than it’s a part of who anybody else is. Some of a guy’s pace will depend on the catcher, and some will depend on the hitter, but it’s clear that Buehrle has a lot of control, and he likes to spend as little time on the mound as possible. Time he isn’t pitching, anyway.
Now then, we’ve established that Buehrle works fast. His slowest recorded pace came in 2012, when he left the White Sox to sign on with the Marlins. He’s since been moved to the Blue Jays. Look at the 2012 runner-up. Dickey was just half a second behind, and he’s since also been moved to the Blue Jays. And through two starts with the Blue Jays — albeit two mediocre starts — Dickey’s pace stands at 17.0.
Which is faster than Buehrle’s pace in 2012. Granted, Buehrle’s pace was quicker in his 2013 season debut, but he’s started just the one game, so we’ll have to see. If Buehrle wants to hang on to his completely and utterly meaningless statistical crown, he’s apparently going to face pressure from a highly-touted teammate of his.
If you want to see what these guys look like when they work fast, here are Buehrle and Dickey throwing pitches to Michael Bourn to lead off games against the Indians not too long ago.
Neither Buehrle nor Dickey makes a habit of walking off and around the rubber. They don’t fuss around with the rosin, they don’t shake many signs off, and they don’t rub the baseballs with their hands. These guys are, usually, all business, which you have to be if you want to work fast. Which isn’t to suggest that slower workers are not all business, but they’re more deliberate business.
Something else to note about Dickey: in 2011, his pace was 19.3 seconds. In the first half of 2012, his pace was 18.0 seconds. Since the start of the second half of 2012, his pace has been 17.2 seconds. Evidence suggests that Dickey is getting faster, and it’s all a little intuitive given that he only throws a knuckleball and a fastball. So he actually throws a few knuckleballs, and catchers also have to indicate location and everything, and signs are complicated, but it makes sense that Dickey would work faster than the average pitcher. In truth, he works much faster, and he nearly works the fastest.
For as long as we’ve had the data, Mark Buehrle has been baseball’s fastest-working pitcher. Every single season, he’s been atop the leaderboard, by himself. Now it looks like he could be threatened by a teammate who might only be getting faster and faster. If part of Buehrle’s pace had to do with the White Sox, well, he’s not on the White Sox anymore. And Dickey’s worked quickly on a new team, even though he hasn’t worked efficiently or effectively. Dickey might only get faster if and when he settles into a groove.
What isn’t changing is that Mark Buehrle works fast. His slowest single-game pace on record is 20.4 seconds. Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s fastest single-game pace on record is 21.1 seconds. But just as Jose Molina seems to be getting threatened by Jonathan Lucroy in the pitch-framing department, Buehrle seems to be getting threatened by Dickey in the tempo department. Dickey is hardly slowing down with age, and all he needs is a comfort level with his catchers in Toronto. He’ll go as fast as they can keep up with, and they’ll also be keeping up with Buehrle.
Maybe you don’t care about the top of the pace leaderboard. Why should we care about the top of any leaderboard? Why should we care about anything? Mark Buehrle, for years, has been the most something. In 2013, that might discontinue. Either all of it matters or none of it does.