Dodgers: Walker Buehler has a Great Chance to Win NL Cy Young in 2019
Walker Buehler pitched a stellar rookie campaign for the Dodgers in 2018. He finished the season with an 8-5 record to go along with 2.62 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in 137.1 major league innings pitched. Finishing third in ROY voting behind Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto, a pair of young outfielders from the NL East.
Buehler has excited Dodger fans, and really the entirety of the baseball world, ever since he came up for his cup of coffee in 2017. In that time, he only threw in 8 games with a 7.71 ERA, but he racked up 11 strikeouts in his 9.1 innings, showing off his electric fastball.
We vaguely knew that he had the makings of an ace within him based off of his scouting grades. Buehler’s Fangraphs prospect report gave his fastball and slider perfect scores. And he did not disappoint. Anyone who watched Buehler carve through any lineup he faced, postseason or otherwise, could tell after just a few pitches that he was an ace in the making.
Buehler pitched well for the Dodgers all season, earning himself a chance to start the Dodger’s first home game in the World Series. In the postseason, Buehler started in four games, tossing 23.2 valuable innings, with more than a strikeout per inning, a 3.80 ERA and a sparkling 0.80 WHIP.
Buehler was able to limit baserunners and pitched like a savvy and experienced veteran, despite these four starts being the first playoff appearances of his young major league career.
With his regular season dominance and postseason prowess, Buehler is poised to enter 2019 as a borderline ace with a nearly limitless ceiling. Combining velocity with control, Buehler should be the best young starter int he National League, and really in all of baseball, once again.
However, he also could be more than just the best young starter in the NL. He could be the best pitcher in the NL. Obviously, established aces like Jacob DeGrom, Max Scherzer and the Dodgers’ own newly extended Clayton Kershaw will come into the season as favorites to win the award. But Buehler’s candidacy should not be taken lightly. He has as good a chance as anyone in the NL as long as he can throw enough innings to qualify for the award.
Buehler already throws harder and can get as many strikeouts per nine innings as anyone in the NL. Buehler was tied for being the second hardest thrower in the NL last season, averaging 96.2 mph on his fastball according to PitchFX.
He had at least nine strikeouts in nine of his 23 starts last season and threw at least six innings in 14 starts. His 9.90 strikeout per nine rate ranked 11th amongst NL starters with at least 130 innings pitched.
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He still does not have quite what it takes to be named the best pitcher in the National League though. At least not yet. If Kershaw and Hill can help Buehler improve the effectiveness of his curveball and help him lower his walks, he could grow beyond his impressive rookie level.
Sophomore starters winning the Cy Young award is rare, and I am not claiming that Buehler is a lock or anything close. But he has a chance to expand his repertoire and to throw more innings next season. If he can throw 180 innings with 200 strikeouts, which would be no increase in strikeouts per nine from 2018, and walk less than his 2018 mark of 2.42 BB/9, he could be among the NL’s elite.
While dropping a walk rate seems difficult, it has been the source of transitions into ace hood over the last few years for such fiery young arms such as Luis Severino and Blake Snell and Aaron Nola.
Severino’s jump into the ace tier in 2017 was precipitated by a drop in BB/9 from 3.17 in 2016 to 2.37. For Snell, his 4.11 BB/9 mark in 2017 dropped all the way down to 3.19 BB/9 in his 2018 AL Cy Young campaign, while increasing his K/9 rate to 11.01 from 8.28. If Buehler can find what the hard throwers Severino and Snell were able to, he could make the jump into the elite tier and the Cy Young conversation well before many would expect.
Buehler will enter Spring Training in 2019 with one of the best right arms in the National League. And if everything breaks right, he could be finishing off the year on top of the NL’s pitching landscape.