Walker Buehler's emergence is helping Dodgers stay alive in the postseason race
Buehler has a 2.35 ERA in the second half
With 14 games remaining in the regular season, the Los Angeles Dodgers are still very much alive in the postseason race. Friday night's win over the Cardinals (LAD 3, STL 0) combined with the Rockies losing to the Giants (SF 2, COL 0) has Los Angeles a half-game back of Colorado in the NL West. They're tied with St. Louis for the second wild-card spot.
Yasiel Puig swatted two home runs in Friday's win at Busch Stadium, but the real story of the night was rookie right-hander Walker Buehler, who struck out nine in eight scoreless innings. He held the Cardinals to two singles and two walks.
Buehler's not the biggest guy in the world (listed at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds) but he is awfully impressive: big velocity, wide array of secondary pitches, good control and command, and an athletic delivery. Go into a lab to build a starting pitcher, and the finished product would look a lot like Walker Buehler.
"He was just coming out firing. Just domination," said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to reporters, including Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times, following Friday's game. "This was probably the best pitching performance of the year. Not just Walker. Across the board."
Friday's win improved Buehler to 7-5 with a 2.88 ERA (137 ERA+) in 20 starts and one relief appearance this season. He's struck out 131 in 118 2/3 innings. Buehler broke in as a reliever as a September call-up last year, and earlier this season, he went back and forth between Triple-A and MLB for a few weeks. He also spent some time on the disabled list with a rib fracture after being hit by a comebacker.
Buehler has taken a regular turn for the Dodgers since mid-July -- he rejoined the team for good right before the All-Star break -- and, during that time, he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball. Not just one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball. One of the best pitchers in baseball period. Fifty-two pitchers have thrown at least 60 innings since Buehler joined the rotation for good on July 13. His ranks among those 52:
- ERA: 2.44 (7th best in MLB)
- WHIP: 0.95 (6th)
- Strikeout rate: 10.4 K/9 (10th)
- K/BB ratio: 4.1 (24th)
- Opponent's batting average: .185 (4th)
Although he lags in innings, Buehler's overall rate stats this season are very similar to the numbers Yankees ace Luis Severino put up last season, when he finished third in the AL Cy Young voting. Here's the side-by-side comparison:
Severino did that in the DH league and in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium whereas Buehler pitches in the more spacious Dodger Stadium and gets to face the opposing pitcher a few times a game, but overall, the rate stats are very similar. Severino was excellent last season. Buehler has been similarly excellent this season.
Buehler did not come out of nowhere, of course. He was a first-round pick in 2015 and Baseball America ranked him as the 13th-best prospect in baseball coming into the season. "Buehler's slight frame gives a few evaluators pause, but most see him as an elite pitching prospect with top-of-the-rotation potential," said Baseball America's preseason scouting report. And so far this season, we're seeing him live up to that potential.
The Dodgers have been hit hard by injuries to their starting pitchers this year -- all of their starters have been on the disabled list at some point, including Buehler -- which has led to them using 11 different starters this season. Buehler's second-half emergence has not only helped solidify the rotation, it also allowed the Dodgers to move Kenta Maeda into a relief role to help the struggling bullpen.
Between the minors and MLB, Buehler has thrown a career-high 134 2/3 innings this season, up from 98 innings last year. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and returned to throw only five innings late in 2016, so Buehler's workload is something the Dodgers have to monitor. For what it's worth, Roberts said back in spring training that he thinks they can get 150 innings from Buehler this year.
This much is for certain: Buehler is showing no signs of slowing down. His fastball averaged 97.5 mph Friday night, this third-best average velocity in a start this season, and he was still pumping 95-97 mph heaters in the eighth inning. Velocity is typically a pretty good indicator of fatigue and we've seen no signs of it from Buehler so far.
Depending how the Dodgers map out their pitching schedule, Buehler has either two starts (stick with five-man rotation) or three starts (start him every fifth day and skip someone else on off-days) remaining this season. With 134 2/3 innings under his belt already, getting up to 140-150 innings won't be an issue. What about saving innings for the postseason? Well, the Dodgers have to get there first. Get there and worry about Buehler's workload later.
For now, Buehler has emerged as a rotation mainstay for the Dodgers in the second half, and he's performing like one of the best starters in baseball. Given the team's current position in the standings, it's not unreasonable to say Los Angeles wouldn't be on the cusp of going to the postseasonfor a sixth consecutive season without him. Buehler's been that good these last few weeks.
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