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Is Dodgers Rookie Walker Buehler a Potential Frontline Starter?

With Clayton Kershaw on the disabled list, Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler will assume greater responsibilities. How good is the 23-year-old?

The Dodgers assumed in spring training that Walker Buehler would be part of their plans at some point this season.  They also likely assumed he would be adding to one of the team’s greatest strengths. With Clayton Kershaw leading a rotation that, on paper, was one of the best in the league, Buehler looked like an extravagance. Now, he’s a necessity.

Kershaw is on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis, an injury that generally costs a pitcher about four to six weeks. Hyun-jin Ryu is out until at least the All-Star break because of a groin injury. Rich Hill just returned from the DL after missing three weeks because of various issues with his left middle finger, and hasn’t completed a fully healthy season since 2007. Buehler is here to stay.

Buehler’s hastened promotion to a wounded rotation isn’t the only unexpected turn for the Dodgers. They aren’t asking him to fortify one the strengths leading them to their sixth straight NL West crown. Instead, they’re asking him to help bring them back from the brink. The Dodgers entered play on Thursday, Buehler’s fourth start of the season, 16–20 and eight games behind the Diamondbacks in the division.

Buehler has thrown the ball well in his first three starts, pitching to a 1.13 ERA, 2.09 FIP and 1.06 WHIP with 19 strikeouts against seven walks in 16 innings. Now that he’s in the spotlight for the Dodgers, his repertoire demands a full examination. Buehler throws four pitches: a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball and slider. He has thrown the four-seamer just about half the time this year, with the other three offerings all at the exact same 16.9% usage rate.

Buehler doesn’t get a ton of swing and miss with his fastballs. Or, at least, he hasn’t in his brief major league career. The four-seamer has generated six whiffs on 90 pitches, while hitters have swung at and missed the two-seamer twice on 31 offerings (Statcast does not yet have pitch type data available for his third start). Still, those pitches do a lot of heavy lifting for the 23-year-old. Hitters have four hits against the four-seamer and one against the two-seamer, all singles.

The most interesting thing about Buehler’s four-seamer is that it has some arm-side run, which can give it the sort of horizontal movement associated with a two-seamer. Here’s an extreme version of that.

Here’s a look at a four-seamer from Buehler with more typical run. It’s not as filthy, but still impressive and an element of the pitch that makes it a little more confounding than a standard four-seam fastball.

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The two-seamer clocks in at 94–95 mph, and Buehler will use it to hitters from both sides of the plate. Watch below as he backdoors it to Austin Slater to get a called strike three, and then runs it away from Brandon Belt to induce a weak groundout.

Two-seamers may be a bit passé in the launch angle revolution since they are easier to elevate than four-seamers, but Buehler will be able to use his as a weapon. It helps, of course, that the pitch sits in the mid-90s, rather than the low-90s speeds associated with a garden variety two-seamer. It’s the command, though, that really makes the pitch special. Unlike a four-seamer, a two-seamer doesn’t get by on sheer power. There’s some deception to the pitch, as we saw in both GIFs above. The mid-90s speed helps, but Buehler got Slater because he gave up on the pitch before it darted back over the outside corner, and he retired Belt because the pitch ended up few inches away from where he thought it would be when he started his swing. Launch angles aren’t going to fell Buehler’s two-seamer.

The slider has been Buehler’s best whiff pitch in his first three starts. He got five whiffs with it the first 31 times he threw it, good for a swinging-strike rate of 16.1%. Here’s one of those on a strikeout of Belt.

That’s not to knock the curveball, which has plenty of downward tilt, as well. It simply hasn’t generated the swing and miss in the same volume for Buehler thus far. This strike three to Andrew McCutchen, however, shows how good it can be.

Yes, those pitches do look awfully similar. Check the velocities, though. Strike three to Brandon Belt came in at 89 mph. Strike three to McCutchen was at 85 mph. That difference is crucial for any pitcher. The movement and release point will make it hard on hitters to determine which is which, while the difference in speed can keep them completely off-balance.

The Dodgers didn’t want Buehler to join the rotation like this, but that’s part of the reason why he was a luxury just two months ago. Now that he has been pressed into action, he’s showing his top-of-the-rotation potential.