Game 163 of the 2018 MLB regular season could not have gone any better for the Dodgers. They took advantage of their home field and beat the Colorado Rockies to win their sixth-straight NL West title. And in doing so, a new star was born in the form of Walker Buehler. If there was any doubt before the game, there shouldn’t be now. The 24-year-old has cemented himself, not only as one of the best (if not the best) young pitchers in the league but as one of the best pitchers in the sport.
In the biggest start of his young career, Buehler showed out for the Dodgers, throwing 6.2 shutout innings of one-hit ball, which included taking a no-hitter into the sixth. It’s what the Dodgers expected when they turned to him to help clinch the West. The confidence they showed in him as a rookie speaks volumes of his talent, production, and ability to handle the big moments.
He is uber-confident, bordering cocky if Cody Bellinger is to be believed, but it wasn’t meant as an insult. It helps make him so great. He knows he has great stuff and can overpower most hitters when on his game. Buehler will always have trust in himself, as he did yesterday. When asked postgame about whether he knew he would win the game, Buehler responded, “I won’t say yes, but, yes.”
“Big-Game Walker, you know. … He’s not afraid of a big moment,” teammate Kike Hernandez said. And team ace, Clayton Kershaw, echoed a similar sentiment.
“You can’t teach that stuff. The stuff that he has, to go along with his competitiveness, there’s not a better way to say it. He’s just got some — he’s got some big balls. I mean, there’s no other way to say it. It’s been fun to watch him pitch. I’ll never tell him how good he is. He already knows that, but I enjoy having him around and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
On the season, Buehler had a 2.62 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 151 strikeouts in 137.1 innings, while batters hit just .193/.256/.300 off him. He had the tenth-best ERA, fifth-best WHIP, and third-best OPS allowed amongst pitchers with at least 130 innings. He did have one poor outing out of the bullpen when he came back from injury and allowed five runs in an inning which skews his numbers. But, pitchers will tell you the transition back-and-forth between starting and relieving is not easy.
As a starter, Buehler had a 2.31 ERA, 0.924 WHIP, and .556 OPS against in 136.2 innings. And the righty has been next-level since July 31. He has a 1.55 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 10.4 K/9 (aided by an elite 30.2% K-rate), .531 OPS against, and .219 wOBA allowed. This ERA ranked third in the entire league during this stretch, as did his OPS and wOBA allowed; his WHIP was fourth.
One of the stats that stood out is how he performed at different levels of run support. Usually, pitchers perform better with a larger cushion because they are more comfortable attacking the zone without the fear of getting punished because there is a large margin of error. However, Buehler is the opposite, and what you want in an ace. He pitches better with more at stake. With 6+ runs of support, he has a 3.06 ERA in 32.1 innings. With 3-5 runs, a 2.44 ERA in 59 innings. But, with 0-2 runs, that number drops to 1.60 in 45 innings.
It can’t be overstated how well he responds to pressure and crucial situations. In his starts against teams with winning records, the rookie had a 1.73 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, and .480 OPS against in 88.2 innings. And the last four starts of Buehler’s career have been the most important of his career because the Dodgers were in desperation mode, trying to make the playoffs. He went up against the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks on the road and the Colorado Rockies, twice, at home.
Three of the games were against teams Los Angeles was trailing and directly competing with for a playoff spot, while the Diamondbacks was a division rival with a winning record. And Buehler responded by allowing just two earned runs, ten hits, and eight walks in 26.2 innings.
You always hear about the “It” Factor, and the Dodgers’ rookie has “it,” whatever that is. He is fearless, competitive, and hungry to get better. His heartbeat appears to be one that slows down in the most significant moments and uses the energy of the situation to help amp him up even more. He has a certain kind of swag surrounding him, a bit of a “Heh, good luck trying to hit this” aura about him. And this is why I believe Walker Buehler will have tremendous success in the playoffs.
The rookie has emerged as a legitimate number one, a genuine ace who will counteract the ace opponents will throw at the Dodgers in the playoffs. But the luxury LA has is that he is their number two guy behind Kershaw, although an argument can be made the other way. Walker Buehler performed as a top-ten pitcher during the 2018 season, while pitching like a guy who has a Cy Young waiting for him in the future, during the second-half.
The 24-year-old has some of the best pure stuff in the game and has turned that into tremendous production that matches up with those of the game’s elite. We may be seeing a passing of the baton in Los Angeles, as the Dodgers turn from longtime ace Clayton Kershaw to Walker Buehler, and the whole league needs to be on notice. Next season, he will be one of the favorites for the National League Cy Young, and it will only be the beginning.