Walker Buehler has lived up to the hype this season. The Dodgers’ youngster was one of the elite prospects in 2017 and has cemented himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game of baseball. On the season, the 24-year-old has a 2.88 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 131 strikeouts in 118.2 innings. As a starter, however, he has a 2.52 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and all of his punchouts in 117.2 innings, while limiting hitters to a .193 average. And one of the most impressive parts of his 2018 season is his 2.35 BB/9, which is less than half of Clayton Kershaw’s rookie year of 4.8 BB/9. In addition, Buehler has walked just 6.6% of the total batters he’s faced. Both are impressive numbers, especially for a rookie that had perceived control and command issues.
The righty has a 2.35 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 72 strikeouts in 61.1 innings during the 2nd half, but since July 31, Buehler has elevated his game to another level. In nine starts across 56.2 innings since, he has a 1.75 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and has struck out 67 of 217 batters (an elite 30.9%), while limiting hitters to a .167/.240/.268 slash line and an excellent (for a pitcher) .229 wOBA. He has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball in general during this stretch, placing fourth in ERA, wOBA, and on-base percentage, and second in WHIP, batting average against, and slugging percentage against, among starters with at least 50 innings.
He has established himself as the Dodgers’ number two starter, no questions asked. Los Angeles has been looking for a replacement for Zack Greinke since the veteran righty left for Arizona after the 2015 season and they have seen stretches where Alex Wood, Rich Hill, and Ross Stripling have been the sidekick to staff ace Clayton Kershaw. But everyone knew they weren’t the guys.
But Buehler has taken the mantle of Robin to Kershaw’s Batman, the role Greinke held for three seasons. And Friday night’s start was the stamp on that statement, as he threw eight shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals on the road, in a hostile environment. The 24-year-old carried a perfect game into the 5th inning, and when it was all said and done, just four of the 28 batters that came to plate against him reached base, while he struck out nine of the hitters, in what was the game of his life.
“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.”
That is high praise, considering Clayton Kershaw is on the roster. But it’s a true statement. The circumstances, the location, the opponent, and the fact that the Dodgers needed the scoreless performance from him because the Cardinals had their own young rookie stud, Jack Flaherty, allowing just one run in six innings.
The highlight of the start was in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was 2-0 Dodgers, with two on and two outs for the Cardinals. Buehler had just walked Jedd Gyorko to take his pitch count to 100. This is a time where Dave Roberts would usually bring out the pitcher.
The rookie had a relatively high pitch count, just walked a batter, is coming off Tommy John surgery from a couple of years ago, and has surpassed his previous career-high in innings. Buehler is the poster child of the type of player whose workload the Dodgers try to manage. Not to mention, the rookie is a right-hander that would be facing a lefty in Matt Carpenter, who is an MVP candidate with a .941 OPS against righties in 2018. And he struck him out in five pitches, with a curveball in the dirt, even touching 99 mph with his fastball during the at-bat, to put an exclamation mark on an outstanding night. He was painting 97-99 mph all night and mixing in his nasty secondary stuff. It was his coming of age moment that perhaps elevated himself from Robin to Nightwing, just as Greinke was.
And it just happens to be that Buehler not only reminds us of a young Greinke, but he looked up to the veteran pitcher and patterned his game a bit after him. Buehler and Greinke are both 6’2 and slim. Greinke has 25 pounds on him but also ten years. Buehler is still growing, and Greinke was a slot slimmer back then than he is now. Both have excellent arsenals of four-plus pitches headlined with a hard fastball that is complemented with nasty offspeed and breaking stuff. And they have a smooth and athletic delivery that is easily repeatable.
Greinke has a kind of swagger around him whenever he takes the mound and always pitched well under the brightest lights (2.38 ERA in six postseason starts with LA). And Buehler has something similar. He has lived up to the hype and delivered in the moments when needed to. In 58.2 innings against the Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers, and St. Louis Cardinals, the Dodger starter has compiled a 1.84 ERA and 0.80 WHIP while limiting hitters to a .168/.221/.246 slash line and .210 wOBA. These are some of the toughest opponents he’s faced all year and in some of the biggest games of his young career and he has performed like a Cy Young winner.
He always seems calm and collected, and if the Dodgers do make the playoffs, the rookie will be a significant reason why, and he appears to be someone who will have success in October. He doesn’t seem to get fazed by the big moments or if something goes wrong, and his stuff will play up in the postseason, especially on the road. Walker Buehler appears to have it, whatever it is.
The Dodgers could finally, and once again, say that they have a dominant one-two duo fronting the rotation. And even if Clayton Kershaw were to leave this winter, they will still have Buehler to build around. The franchise have always had an ace at the top, and they have found their next one.