The Walker Buehler Gambit

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the Dodgers originally had Walker Buehler scheduled to start Sunday. Manager Dave Roberts opted to push Buehler back, however, letting Rich Hill take the mound against the Giants in San Francisco.

The team indicated the move was based partially on the Nationals’ decision not to pitch Max Scherzer against the Rockies on Sunday. Regardless of whether Scherzer was starting, however, the choice made a lot of sense. The Dodgers did not control their own destiny in yesterday’s matchups. Even if they won (which is what happened), they would inevitably have to play another game to reach the divisional series (which is what they’re doing this afternoon). Letting Buehler start a less important game would have left the team worse off in a more consequential one, like today’s.

The decision is predicated on the belief that Buehler is one of the best, if not the best, Dodger pitcher at the moment. It’s not particularly difficult to make that case. For the season, Buehler’s 2.99 FIP leads the Dodgers; his 2.76 ERA is virtually even with Clayton Kershaw’s 2.73 mark. Hyun-Jin Ryu has a 1.97 ERA in just under 100 innings with a FIP right at 3.00, so he’s certainly part of the conversation, as well. Buehler has been roughly as good (if not better) in the second half as the first, recording a 2.96 FIP and 2.20 ERA since the All-Star break. Kershaw and Hill have been close — as has Ryu in nine starts. In September, though, nobody can touch Buehler’s 2.30 FIP. Kershaw has slowed some (4.32 FIP), while Hill (3.36) and Ryu (2.76) have pitched well, just not as well as Buehler.

With Ryu and Kershaw having started Friday and Saturday, they weren’t going to be available Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, so flipping Buehler and Hill meant the 24-year-old rookie would be pitching in a game which, with a Dodger victory, would advance them directly to the division series.

That raises a question, however: by the logic employed above, wouldn’t it make sense to save Buehler for a hypothetical Wild Card game, with a view to saving the team from possible elimination? The short answer is, “No.” The longer answer is below.

There is less to be gained from holding back Buehler for another day. For one, there is no Rich Hill-level pitcher the team can use in Buehler’s place. Kershaw and Ryu wouldn’t be available because they made starts over the weekend. Alex Wood and Kenta Maeda have been transitioned to the bullpen, while Ross Stripling has, over the last month, pitched bullpen-level innings out of the rotation without bullpen-level quality. Holding Buehler for a potential game tomorrow means employing a bullpen game today. While bullpenning an important game might seem like a really good idea, it poses challenges in this particular scenario: if the Dodgers lost today, then their best relievers would likely be unavailable — or, at the very least, tired — for a potential do-or-die game tomorrow. If the team were choosing a game to bullpen, tomorrow’s game with a potential day off on Wednesday makes a lot more sense.

Plus, holding Buehler back doesn’t present that much of an advantage even if the club wins. The Dodgers already have Kershaw and Ryu ready for Thursday and Friday. Using Buehler today actually gives him an extra day of rest both today and in a potential Game Three on Sunday, though calling it extra rest might be a bit disingenuous, given Buehler has made twice as many starts with five days rest (13) as he has on the more traditional four days of rest (four). While potentially not meaningful, Buehler has also pitched better at home this season (2.63 FIP) than on the road (3.37). Throw in a 12-strikeout, one-walk start against the Rockies at home on September 19, and having Buehler make another start in similar circumstances makes a lot of sense.

As for what to expect from Buehler, the data suggest he’ll throw lots of high heat with a diverse arsenal to complement it. The right-hander employs a mid- to high-90s four-seam fastball 40% of the time, mixes in a hard sinker around 20% of the time, and also uses a slider, curve, and cutter about 10% each. Buehler is not a pitcher of extremes. He doesn’t have a single offering that gets a whiff rate above 13%, but he has four pitches with swinging strikes above 10%. At 8%, the sinker is above average, as well. Overall, his whiff rate of roughly 11% makes him good, but not great. Despite heavy four-seam fastball usage, Buehler still induces ground balls at a 50% rate, around the top 10% of pitchers. Buehler gets a first strike 63% of the time — another good, but not great, figure. The same is true for inducing swings out of the zone and takes for strikes.

One area where Buehler has been elite this season, however, is against left-handers. The table below shows the best right-handed starting pitchers against lefties this season with a minimum of 50 innings against lefties.

Best Right-Handed Starters Against Lefties
Gerrit Cole 99.2 HOU 389 41.1% 9.8% 0.6 .271 2.10
Jacob deGrom 107.2 NYM 424 29.5% 5.4% 0.5 .303 2.29
Trevor Bauer 87.2 CLE 359 29.5% 7.8% 0.5 .280 2.65
Luis Severino 83.2 NYY 351 29.1% 7.7% 0.6 .349 2.66
Justin Verlander 99.1 HOU 381 38.9% 5.5% 1.3 .249 2.80
Noah Syndergaard 81.1 NYM 346 21.1% 6.9% 0.3 .325 2.84
Walker Buehler 64.1 LAD 250 30.4% 6.8% 0.8 .260 2.85
Max Scherzer 112.1 WSN 452 31.2% 7.1% 1.0 .263 3.03
Lance McCullers Jr. 63.0 HOU 255 31.4% 10.6% 0.7 .248 3.04
Ross Stripling 62.0 LAD 255 29.4% 5.1% 1.2 .315 3.05

That’s pretty good company to keep — and it might be relevant this afternoon. Colorado leads off with lefty Charlie Blackmon, while fellow left-handers David Dahl, Carlos Gonzalez, and Tony Wolters are all likely to start. Neutralizing that side of the plate will be important for Buehler.

Against lefties, Buehler minimizes his use of the slider and ups the use of the curve and cutter. In a lot of years, Buehler might be a leading rookie of the year candidate. With another good game, he’s going to end up within half a win of Ronald Acuna. When I wrote about Buehler early in the season, I guessed he might be able to survive on his fastball and slider; the curve, at that point, hadn’t proved yet to be a swing-and-miss pitch. He’s exhibited a much broader repertoire than I anticipated, using five different offerings total: the two fastballs, a slider, a curve, and a cutter. He’s parlayed that into one of the better pitching seasons of the year.

Buehler’s counterpart in today’s game isn’t merely younger than Buehler but has actually been better in the second half of the season, as well. That’s not to short-change Buehler, either: German Marquez has outperformed every pitcher in the second half except for Jacob deGrom. Were this an actual postseason game (instead of just feeling like one), it would feature the two youngest starters since 2007, when Franklin Morales of the Rockies faced Kyle Kendrick and the Phillies in Game Two of the NLDS. There have only been 13 playoff matchups in history featuring two players as young as Buehler and Marquez, and this is probably the best one we’ve seen (even though, again, this isn’t technically a playoff game) since Carlos Zambrano and Josh Beckett faced off in the 2003 NLCS. Other matchups of note include Steve Avery versus Scott Erickson in the 1991 World Series and Dwight Gooden against Roger Clemens in the 1986 World Series. Walker Buehler and German Marquez is one of the greatest young matchups in a game of this magnitude that we’ve ever seen. Here’s hoping it delivers.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

I was hoping there’d be an article about this! Very interesting decision. Not pitching him yesterday and immediately scoring 9 runs was definitely the right call.