- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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But in this day of starting pitchers routinely pumping 95 mph fastballs, these three veterans are pitching better than ever without lighting up the radar guns. Here's what happened Sunday:
--Buehrle, 35, pitched eight shutout innings to improve to 10-1 with a 2.10 ERA. He averaged 84 mph on his fastball, topping out at 87.2. For the season he's averaged 83.3 mph on his fastball; of 101 qualified starting pitchers, the only one with a lower average velocity on his fastball is knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
--The 35-year-old Lohse gave up three hits and beat the Cubs with his eighth career shutout to improve to 7-1, 2.60 ERA. His Game Score of 87 was tied for the second-highest of his career, behind an 88 last year when he recorded a two-hit shutout. His fastest pitch on Sunday was 91.8 mph, and his season average fastball velocity of 89.6 ranks 81st out of those 101 starters.
--Hudson, 38, allowed three hits and no runs in seven innings in an 8-0 victory over the Cardinals, and he's 6-2 with a 1.75 ERA. His average fastball velocity on the season ranks 86th of those 101 pitchers.
What do the three have in common? Obviously, they know how to pitch, moving the ball around and changing speeds. You may classify all three as strike throwers, and that's generally true: Hudson has the third-lowest walk rate among starters (2.7 percent, with eight walks in 11 starts, and well below his 6.7 percent rate of last season); Lohse is ninth-lowest at 3.9 percent (13 walks in 12 starts and slightly lower than the past two seasons but still a career-best rate); Buehrle is actually just 35th in walk rate at 6.1 percent, which is just above his career mark of 5.5 percent.
You may think all three are ground-ball pitchers, but that's not quite true, either. Hudson is fourth among starters in ground-ball rate, a reason he's allowed just four home runs. I'd say that moving to AT&T Park has helped the home runs, but he's allowed just one of the four on the road. Of course, with that good sinker, Hudson has been successful throughout most of his career in limiting the long ball, especially in recent seasons. But Buehrle is 61st in ground-ball rate and Lohse is 76th. Despite being middle-of-the-pack in this category, Buehrle has allowed just two home runs. If you're going to chalk up any number of the three so far as lucky, this is probably it: Buehrle has the lowest home-run-to-fly-ball rate in the majors at 2.6 percent. His ground-ball rate is right at his career average; last year he gave up 24 home runs.
Anyway, a look at some heat maps will help in seeing how these three attack hitters.
We can see that these guys love to pound the corners. Hudson's map, if we shaded it with more colors, would emphasize the red on the outside part of the plate more than the middle. These get hitters to chase pitches off the plate. Buehrle, for example, throws 47 percent of his pitches to right-handed batters in the strike zone, but 62 percent of his pitches to right-handed batters have been strikes. Hitters won't do much damage on those pitches off the plate, even if the pitches are slow, slower and slowest. I'm reminded of two Sandy Koufax principles. "Show me a guy who can't pitch inside and I'll show you a loser," he famously said. But as a spring training coach with the Dodgers, Koufax also instructed young pitchers to locate on the outside corner. Sure, you have to go inside sometimes, he would say, but the outside corner is how you get batters out.
Lohse is instructive (and Hudson is similar) because he has the ability to pound the outside corner against both lefties and righties. Back in 2009 and 2010, he posted a 5.54 ERA for the Cardinals over 40 starts. In 2010, he did have surgery on his forearm to fix a rare condition called exertional compartment syndrome -- apparently, no major leaguer had had the surgery before (it's reportedly common among motocross racers and long-distance runners) -- and he's been an improved pitcher since 2011.
Injuries or not, Lohse's heat maps from 2009 and 2010 aren't the same as now. He used to be up in the zone more often and caught the middle of the plate more often. So his command has improved, but his two-seam fastball has also become an effective sinker, similar to Hudson's go-to pitch. He rarely throws his four-seam fastball anymore, an adjustment he started making in 2011, relying almost exclusively on the sinker to go with his slider, changeup and curveball. It's a valuable lesson: Velocity isn't everything.
These three guys may not be able to keep this up -- Buehrle will start giving up some home runs, and Hudson's hit rate may go up -- but they're proving that radar readings aren't everything. They call it the art of pitching for a reason, and these three are three of the best artists going right now.