Starting pitching has been, without any real doubt, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ core strength in 2019. Yet its limits have been apparent as of late. Hyun-Jin Ryu, the best MLB pitcher all year long, has endured a rough September for the most part. Another likely concern is the poor quality of a fair number of Walker Buehler’s starts.
Bad Buehler tonight I guess.
— Marshall Garvey (@MarshallGarvey) September 3, 2019
To illustrate this, let’s look back at Buehler’s sterling 2018 rookie season. Last year, he made 23 starts, and all of them except four were quality starts or very close. The most earned runs he surrendered in a game was 5, on two separate occasions. The first was June 28 against the Cubs at home, in his infamously ill-advised lone relief appearance on the season. The second was a bad start in Philadelphia on July 25.
His best, meanwhile, was far more noteworthy. On September 14, he spun 8 shutout innings with just 2 hits allowed in St. Louis, striking out 8. In his next start five days later at home against Colorado, he struck out 12 in 6 shutout innings.
In 2019, Buehler has continued to be stellar, enough to earn his first All-Star selection. But it seems (whether or not it’s really true) that his bad starts are a lot worse. In his first start of the year, he immediately matched his 2018 high of five earned runs allowed. On June 27 in Colorado, just six days after a historic domination of the Rockies, he was shellacked by them to the tune of 13 hits and 7 earned runs. In his most recent outing on September 2, also against Colorado, he was permissive in giving up runs, making every Dodger run in a 16-9 blowout feel more like a necessity.
At the same time, Buehler’s best starts have also been better than his initial heights from 2018. He threw his first career complete game against the Rockies on June 21, his 16 strikeouts ranking high in Dodger single-game history. On August 3, he provided an encore presentation for me and the rest of the Dodgers Nation staff in attendance, this time striking out 15 in 9 innings against San Diego. In doing so, he joined Pedro Martinez and Dwight Gooden as the only pitchers with 15 strikeouts and no walks in multiple starts in the same season.
The factor stands out in evaluating “the two Buehlers” is that it seems his worst starts almost all happen on the road. Of the 7 games in 2019 where he’s given up 4 or more earned runs, four of them have been away from Dodger Stadium. Other losing starts where he surrendered many unearned runs have been on the road as well.
Most importantly, what does this somewhat vacillating quality in starts mean for Buehler this postseason? That’s hard to say. In my Buehler/Kershaw competition piece earlier this year, I praised the then-rookie’s ability to improve throughout that postseason as the stakes grew higher. Starting with a rough outing in NLDS game three, as well as game three of the NLCS, he locked down game seven in Milwaukee, although a weird scoring rule made Ryan Madson the pitcher of record. Then came the best for last in game three of the World Series, shutting out Boston for 7 innings.
However, in that piece I also acknowledged the folly of judging a player for good or ill on the small sample size of one October. Now that National League batters have had far more time to study him, there’s a possibility Buehler could be blunted by the harsh realities of the postseason. It’s not impossible, and yet I feel confident about his prospects next month. Especially when pitching at home, he elevates his game in special ways, chiefly when he trusts his breaking stuff.
The last explanation for the occasional rockiness this season may simply be that this is Buehler going through the growing pains every young ace has. I frequently touch on my concurrent Minnesota Twins fanhood, and in Minneapolis there is a similar (and more severe) case right now with Jose Berrios. Minnesota’s youthful right-hander made the All-Star Game for the second year in a row, yet has been awful since then, with a clunker in Boston this past week. Yet it doesn’t make him any less crucial for the Twins’ present and future.
If that’s the case, then it should be smooth sailing for Walker Buehler in the bigger picture. He was incredible in his defiance of his greenhorn status in 2018, pitching like a seasoned veteran. Without that, the Dodgers wouldn’t have tasted either the postseason or World Series. In a year of an endless stream of star rookies, Buehler’s potency now and in the years to come is enough to override any worries about a few clunky outings.