It’s a real treat to face the Los Angeles Dodgers lately, ain’t it? A real picnic. First, you have to hope your pitching isn’t lit up by Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, Justin Turner and the rest of the boys in blue. In the somewhat unlikely event you don’t give up six homers, your offense has to face what’s becoming a rather frightening collection of starters.
First, you have the current favorite for the National League Cy Young, Hyun-Jin Ryu. (We profiled him a few weeks ago. Spoiler: He’s awesome.) Ryu will carve you up with every trick and technique in the book; he changes speeds, moves around the zone, messes with timing and generally gives batters fits. But hey, maybe you avoid Ryu. Great!
Clayton Kershaw is a future Hall of Famer and is coming off one of the greatest peaks a hurler has ever had. Uh oh! But, by the grace of the scheduling gods maybe you avoid him too. Phew!
Enter Walker Buehler. Your luck has probably just run out. Buehler, on the later side of 24, flashed elite potential in his nearly 130 innings last year, punching out more than a man per nine and pitching to a 3.04 FIP. Pretty darn good. The stuff is special; his fastball sits in the upper 90s and has elite spin. He throws it a lot and hitters are managing a meager .217 batting average against it. That heater elevates two pretty damn good breaking balls to elite status, especially the curve; hitters are missing 45 percent of the time against it.
Buehler took to the Dodger Stadium mound on Friday, June 21 and turned in an epic performance against the Colorado Rockies. Let’s study that ninth inning, where Buehler managed an epic climax to his evening.
Buehler’s velocity opens the plate, provides him nasty options
Up first for Colorado in this 2-2 game is Raimel Tapia. Buehler starts him with a fastball that misses for ball one.
Buehler’s next pitch is a fastball that clips the bottom of the strike zone for strike one.
Buehler hangs the 1-1 slider but manages to keep it just enough inside to stop Tapia from driving it. The count now swings firmly in the favor of Buehler, who has plenty of options for a strikeout. Like most of the pitchers we detail in this series, being down 1-2 to Buehler is not a fun predicament.
This is a heck of a pitch in sequence. Buehler worked up for ball one, down for strike one, middle-in for strike two and now goes back up and away to try for the strikeout. Credit to Tapia for slapping it away, but note that desperate swing. Analysts talk a lot about velocity and spin rate; here they are in action. Buehler, in a pitcher’s count, threw a pitch that Tapia could do nothing with. That’s smart.
Buehler hangs another slider, this one outside of the previous fastball to run the count 2-2. It’s possible he thought Tapia would chase, especially because fastballs and sliders tend to look similar out of the hand. Good take by the Rockies outfielder.
Wow. Buehler decides to go right back to the fastball and eats Tapia up with it for the punchout. Located belt high but snug on the outside corner, Tapia’s only hope is to squib it foul and step in again. But no dice; velocity and spin rate, my dude. Velocity and spin rate.
Oh, and this is Buehler’s 102nd pitch of the night and his 13th strikeout.
With one down, up steps Charlie Blackmon and his lovely beard. Blackmon drove a fastball in just about the same spot as the one Tapia whiffed on over the right field wall for a homer in the sixth. Perhaps knowing this, Buehler goes to the slider to open the at-bat but again leaves in a rough spot and allows a single. Blackmon reaches with one out.
That baserunner changes the calculus. Buehler was working carefully with the score tied but could still try for strikeouts if the opportunity arose. Now, though, with the Rockies best hitters coming and Blackmon on base, he can’t get cute. The object is to win, not to strike out as many as you can. (Obviously, sometimes those two objectives intersect.)
Up steps David Dahl. He’s greeted with a cutter on the black for strike one. This is a really well-located pitch; the movement at least opens up the chance for Dahl to bounce into a double play.
Excellent sequencing. Buehler climbs the ladder with a nasty fastball that Dahl slaps foul. The Dodgers righty has now shown him heat in two different spots and has the count firmly in his favor. Because Buehler has worked the at-bat to his advantage, he can safely reach for a strikeout here, likely by going out of the zone (in any direction).
Searching for a strikeout, Buehler turns to that ridiculous curve and dismantles Dahl. Going below the zone like this was wise; it’s a change in eye level, for one, and for two by burying it so low, the risk of hanging it is mitigated — plus, Buehler knows he can trust Russell Martin to smother the ball if Dahl had taken it.
But alas, Dahl can’t resist, and who could blame him. Buehler drops a hammer here, a perfectly executed curve in an essentially perfectly executed at-bat.
Nolan Arenado, the Rockies best player and perhaps the best third baseman in the world, is Colorado’s last chance in the ninth. Arenado took Buehler deep earlier in the game too, hammering a slider — left smack dab in the middle of the zone — past the left field wall. Arenado can make this game 4-2 in a heartbeat.
Sitting at 106 pitches, Buehler goes with his best to open the at-bat, drilling the top of the zone with a 95 MPH fastball for strike one.
Buehler runs the 0-1 fastball way up and in for a ball. Unlikely he wanted to put the ball there, but maybe. It would seem to open up the lower half of the strike zone.
Whattaya know. Buehler places a cutter down and in for called strike two. Arenado glances back at the umpire, but come on. That’s a strike.
Buehler has worked the Rockies slugger inside with each pitch in the at-bat. With a fastball like his, who can blame him? Buehler comes high and tight with another fastball and Arenado pops it foul. It’s possible Buehler wanted this one a touch higher, but it’s still a good pitch.
This is a brilliant pitch. Buehler unleashes a hard 97 MPH fastball well above the zone and Arenado can’t resist, swinging right under it to end the inning and give the Dodger righty a whopping 16 strikeouts on the night. Arenado knows he swung at Buehler’s pitch and can’t be pleased with himself about it.
All credit to Walker Buehler, though. His approach to Arenado showed pitching insight to go with his impressive stuff. Russell Martin, a veteran behind the plate, surely helps with that, but ultimately Buehler delivers the pitches. Heck of a performance.
Ryu, Buehler and Kershaw form quite a rotation
I looked and looked for reasons to bet against the Dodgers coming into the season. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because they’re excellent again. This team is primed for another trip deep into October, led by an excellent rotation and perhaps the MVP, Cody Bellinger.
Make no mistake, the baseball playoffs are random, but throwing those arms and that slugger at an opponent has to breed at least a little confidence.