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Buehrle's key to success

Veteran lefty Mark Buehrle hasn't missed a start in 14 years. What's his secret?

Originally Published: June 1, 2014
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Mark BuehrleJason Miller/Getty ImagesIn 14 years of professional baseball, Buehrle has learned some valuable lessons.

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ON THE DAY it was announced that Miami's Jose Fernandez had broken down -- one of the more than 20 pitchers already lost for the season to elbow tears and ruptures -- 35-year-old Mark Buehrle won his league-leading seventh game for Toronto. Buehrle's average fastball velocity this season has been a tick above 83 mph; the only current major league pitcher who throws less hard is R.A. Dickey, his knuckleballer teammate. Buehrle also happens to be on pace for his 14th consecutive 200-inning season, which would tie him with soft-tossing immortals Greg Maddux and Phil Niekro. If the loss of Fernandez and his 97 mph fastball has renewed debate about the game's toll on its young pitchers, perhaps in outlier arms like Buehrle's there hides a solution.

Except that magic is no longer an acceptable answer even to baseball's metric-proof mysteries. Buehrle isn't just hopelessly anecdotal in our age of harder evidence; he is so far removed from anybody else, his lessons must apply only to him. "How many Mark Buehrles are there?" Cleveland manager Terry Francona says. "He's a rare guy." Buehrle knows intuitively how he does what he does. "It ain't just throwing as hard as you can," he says. "It's trusting your stuff," especially when your stuff doesn't appear to be all that trustworthy. But on the wide spectrum between art and science, he almost always follows his own private muse over anything like method.

"I don't want to ask questions," Buehrle says, which means he doesn't really want to answer them either. He is a good and well-liked man who remains unreceptive to cameras and microphones, because they are the instruments of inquisition, and inquisition leads nowhere good for warlocks like him. "The last guy who wanted to talk to me, I was 4-0," he says, "and I got my ass handed to me on my next start." Only in the interests of saving his fellow pitchers does he consent to reveal his secrets. "If they can't learn from watching me, they can't learn," Buehrle says. His supposed rareness is among the many of our modern givens in which he alone does not believe.

He does not have a conditioning program. ("I'm not a guy who goes into the weight room and has a regimen.") Nor does he follow a rigorous between-outings routine. ("I do just enough to get ready for my next start.") Not surprisingly, his winters could best be described as restful. ("I don't throw much.") He doesn't watch video of himself or anyone else. ("Why would I want more in my head?") He doesn't read scouting reports on opposing hitters. ("Never. I don't really see a need to.") He very rarely shakes off his catcher. ("Who's to say I'm right over him?") He does sometimes mourn what he remembers as his high-powered youth ("Of course I'd love to go back to when I was 25 and throwing 86 or 87"), but these days he's more than willing to match his cutter or sinker against even batters who like breaking pitches. ("If a guy hits off-speed well, what, am I going to just pump heaters down the middle?")

No, he is not going to pump heaters down the middle. In fact, the answer to just about any question you might think to ask him will come back in the negative. If you ever find yourself asking the most important of questions -- "What Would Buehrle Do?" -- the answer is nothing. Too bad we've decided that there can't be any wisdom in the absence of everything else.

Because he has so little to do, he works faster than every other pitcher in baseball, making it impossible for hitters or his doubts to dig in. (When he was with the White Sox, he sometimes ruined Fireworks Night by finishing games before it got dark.) Rather than relying on power and suffering its attendant sins, he depends on movement and command. He doesn't hurl or heave or throw. He pitches. And all he has to show for his unlimited faith in his limited self is a World Series ring, a no-hitter, a perfect game, $118 million in earnings and a Tommy Johnless, 14-years-and-counting career. "All I know is these guys gifted with 97 are going down," he says, "and I was gifted with 84 and I'm holding up."

If only we could somehow calculate the difference between them. If only life and baseball and their mazes hadn't become so complicated. If only we could still believe in what we used to call magic.

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Chris Jones is a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire.

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