The Los Angeles Dodgers lost twice Friday night. They were outplayed by the rival San Francisco Giants in their series-opening 7-2 loss at Oracle Park (box score), and they also lost ace right-hander Walker Buehler to an elbow injury. Buehler exited after four innings and 70 pitches with what the Dodgers initially called right elbow discomfort. On Saturday, Buehler landed on the injured list and underwent tests to determine the exact nature of his injury. According to manager Dave Roberts, Buehler has been diagnosed with a ligament strain in his elbow and will be shut down for six to eight weeks. After he's able to resume throwing, he must then ramp back up to game readiness. The team expects him to pitch again this season, but in Roberts' words it's "gonna be a while." Do the math, and it could be September before Buehler is ready to rejoin the rotation, and that's barring any setbacks.
"I've had Tommy John surgery, so I think [the level of concern] is a little bit heightened," Buehler told MLB.com on Friday. "It is what it is. That happens in this game. A lot of guys in this clubhouse have dealt with stuff with their elbows. It's part of this game. I have all the faith in our medical staff and whatnot. But before we kind of dive into that, we need to know what we're dealing with."
Buehler, 27, had Tommy John surgery soon after being drafted in 2015. He has had no significant elbow trouble since, with his various MLB injured list stints the result of a rib fracture and blisters. Buehler allowed three runs in four innings Friday and is having a season well below is his usual standards: 4.02 ERA with a 1.29 WHIP and 8.0 K/9 are all career worsts.
The discomfort popped up after throwing a breaking ball in the third inning, Buehler said. He finished the inning and then threw the fourth inning as well, but his elbow didn't feel any better, so he was removed from the game. Buehler acknowledged he's dealt with minor elbow discomfort over the years, but it was always manageable. This injury, however, appears to be worse than his previous elbow aches.
As noted by Baseball Prospectus earlier this week, Buehler's fastball has not been quite right this season. His fastball has been a truly elite pitch throughout his career, though the spin and movement on the pitch isn't the same this year, and as a result, opponents are punishing Buehler's heater. Here are the numbers on Buehler's four-seam fastball the last few seasons:
|Avg. Velocity||Avg. Spin rate||Opp. batting average||Opp. slugging percentage||Whiff rate|
Buehler's fastball spin rate declined following the foreign substance crackdown last year (2,611 rpm before and 2,349 rpm after) and the pitch has not been as effective since. Whether this new elbow issue is related is unclear. Bottom line, Buehler and his fastball have not been right all season, and now he has a significant injury
"Certain discomforts you can manage through, where this one tonight, clearly he felt that any more could potentially be damaging," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told MLB.com. "I think that's more -- you have to default to, certainly, a player with Walker's intelligence and knowing his body."
Los Angeles welcomed Clayton Kershaw back to the rotation Saturday, and he allowed two runs over four innings in a 3-2 loss to the Giants. He missed about a month with a hip issue. The Dodgers should also get Andrew Heaney back soon. Heaney made two excellent starts to begin the season before going down with a shoulder problem. Losing Buehler for such a length of time is a blow, no doubt, but the return of Kershaw and Heaney should help.