Walker Buehler May Be Key to What Comes Next for Dodgers

The Dodgers made a big trade with the Braves over the weekend, and Jeff Sullivan did a great job of illustrating how, for Los Angeles, it mostly represented a trade of debt this season for debt next season. The deal allows the club to avoid the tax threshold for a year, resetting their penalty and allowing them (if they choose) to cross back over the threshold next year at less cost.

There’s certainly a reason they’d make that choice: next year’s offseason features a number of top free agents, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper chief among them. But we’re not done yet with the current offseason yet, and it’s an offseason following a World Series appearance for the Dodgers. What’s left for them to do? And what does Walker Buehler’s curveball have to do with it?

Just to be clear: it’s not just idle speculation by Sullivan that avoiding the tax was the object of the weekend’s trade. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said as much to Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register on Saturday.

“It’s been a focal point for us this winter. We’ve had numerous conversations related to it,” Friedman said Saturday.

“Obviously one of the main considerations in this deal were economic. But they’re part of the bigger picture, the longer-term plan, and it’s a necessary strategic part of moves yet to come. Whether that’s this offseason, in July or next year, this move allows for increased flexibility going forward.”

The long-term implications are important. They won’t want to go over the cap if they just made a huge trade to get under it. But that leaves questions regarding the short-term implications. How far under the cap did the Dodgers get? And what does that mean for this offseason?

Eric Stephen over at True Blue LA took a comprehensive look at the situation, pointing out that, if you use the best available arbitration projections, remove costs that don’t contribute to luxury-tax numbers (like the major-league money due to Erisbel Arruebarrena and Yaisel Sierra), and use the correct average annual value numbers, etc., you see that the Dodgers are currently around $171 million for their tax number.

If correct, this figure suggests that, absent further cost-cutting moves, the Dodgers still have around $27 million to spend before they hit the $19y million luxury-tax number again.

But that might be too simplistic. It’s possible that the club will want to preserve some kind of buffer so that they can take on a midseason contract and fill a need heading into the playoffs. Last year, the Dodgers accepted nearly $4 million of Yu Darvish’s salary, for example, and Stephen estimates their total number at $7.2 million. Between the “let’s make sure we’re under” and the “let’s leave enough to add a player at the deadline” and the pending details of the Tom Koehler contract, and you may say that the Dodgers still have $15-20 million to spend.

They’ve been linked to outfielders like Lorenzo Cain and Andrew McCutchen, both of whom would take up most of that money. But it’s also important to note that two big position-player headliners of next year’s free-agency class — both Harper and Charlie Blackmon — play the outfield.

You might also notice that the most notable free agents departing Los Angeles this past offseason were pitchers. Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, and Tony Watson were all useful for a team that had the third-best pitching staff this past season. It might make a lot of sense for them to buy a reliever or two — and maybe a veteran starting pitcher to give them back some of the depth they lost when they traded away Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy.

You might notice that the budget is probably not big enough to pursue a second ace, or even to bring back Darvish. The median crowdsource figure for Darvish has him at $25 million a year, and Jake Arrieta at $22 million.

In an offseason that looks like it might only produce a few smaller signings for the Dodgers, designed mostly to beef up the bullpen and make a modest addition to the rotation or outfield, it’s fair to look at the rotation behind Clayton Kershaw and wonder who merits the No. 2 slot. Rich Hill is obviously capable of fulling that role when healthy, but his injury history suggests that a backup plan should be present. The same is true of Alex Wood, especially following his late-season fade in 2017.

The Dodgers don’t necessarily need to make a trade for a high-upside starter with wipeout stuff, though. In fact, they already possess a pitcher who matches that description, one who displayed the best curveball (by velocity and movement) in the second half of this past season. He’s seventh on their current depth chart.

Best Curveballs by Velo & Movement
Player Curves Drop off Fastball Velocity Whiff% GB% Combo Z Score
Walker Buehler 45 -17.9 83.6 6.7% 100.0% 2.9
Craig Kimbrel 239 -13.7 87.6 18.0% 83.3% 2.7
Alex Cobb 438 -19.4 81.3 8.7% 87.0% 2.7
Corey Knebel 222 -19.3 81.0 10.4% 80.0% 2.6
Ryan Garton 24 -18.6 80.9 8.3% 100.0% 2.3
Cody Allen 329 -15.4 84.3 21.9% 44.8% 2.3
Joe Kelly 108 -14.7 85.0 13.0% 44.4% 2.2
Drew Pomeranz 718 -19.1 79.9 10.5% 90.1% 2.2
Ryan Madson 91 -15.6 83.5 14.3% 100.0% 2.1
Matt Barnes 237 -17.8 81.1 14.8% 69.7% 2.1
Ross Stripling 188 -17.8 80.9 15.4% 70.6% 2.0
Wade Davis 121 -15.3 83.5 14.1% 70.0% 2.0
Garrett Richards 31 -19.0 79.4 12.9% 100.0% 2.0
Lucas Giolito 104 -19.9 78.4 2.9% 93.3% 2.0
Brandon Workman 163 -17.3 81.2 9.8% 62.5% 2.0
Daniel Coulombe 235 -16.8 81.2 8.1% 92.7% 1.8
Justin Grimm 171 -16.2 81.9 19.9% 57.9% 1.8
Dovydas Neverauskas 107 -14.3 83.8 18.7% 66.7% 1.8
David Robertson 284 -15.1 82.9 23.6% 84.2% 1.8
Tommy Hunter 136 -12.8 85.2 12.5% 36.4% 1.7
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball / Pitch Info
Second-half stats on curves.
Combo Z Score = z-scores for drop and velo added together.

Buehler obviously had a difficult debut, recording an ERA over seven and the home-run rate to support it. Also, his curveball didn’t even get a ton of whiffs. But it should.

Research suggests that curveball velo is great for whiffs and that drop off the fastball is great for grounders. Those two traits, when paired together, make for great curveballs. Spin is included on the table above, though it’s exhibited no significant relationship with whiff rate in my research. It does show a small relationship to grounders — and we do know that some front offices (including the Dodgers) — have selected for curveball spin.

Buehler is in the top 10% when it comes to drop. His riding fastball and huge curveball are a great combo in that the ride on the former improves the perceived drop on the latter. He’s in the top 10% when it comes to curve velocity; even if he loses a tick when he steps into the rotation, it’ll be a strength. He’s in the top 20% in spin and, maybe in a related matter, every single curve that was put in play was a grounder.

With a big fastball, a good spin combination on his fastball and curve, and a high-velocity cutter/slider with slider-like drop, Buehler has the tools he needs to be an exciting young pitcher. In many ways, he looks like a young (plus fastball) Alex Cobb, who rode a high-spin fastball and curveball combo to good success last season in a difficult league and division. That’s interesting because Cobb is the best pitcher that the Dodgers can afford without going over the luxury tax — FanGraphs readers put the former Ray into a contract that would average $14 million a year, at least.

Maybe the Dodgers already have Alex Cobb, though. Maybe the newly budget-conscious National League champs look to the seventh starting pitcher on their own depth chart for cheap upside and spend their remaining budget elsewhere.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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4 years ago

Buehler had a great year in his return from TJS and was fantastic until his late promotion to AAA and MLB. I look forward to the Dodgers prospect list to see if Eric thinks his performance drop off was fatigue related after not pitching in 2016 or if it was indicative of a need for further command improvement. In his brief MLB stint he got hammered because he was consistently behind in the count.

If it was just fatigue he is probably ready to contribute to the MLB squad next year. If the command needs work he may not yet be there.

4 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Yeah I saw the same thing. Amazing stuff but always behind in the count. The stuff you can’t teach is there. Very excited for what 2018 has in store for him.

4 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I saw him pitch. He did not look tired. It simply looked like the first time in his life that the hitters were not over-matched. He looked good but his execution wasn’t great – he didn’t get any luck either. You need one of the two to succeed.