Dodgers: In Kershaw’s Health, Walker Buehler Brings Peace
“So much rhythm and fluidity,” Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman said in a tweet. “I rarely enjoy seeing other’s mechanics but this right here is strength and mobility. Effortless.”
It was Walker Buehler he was talking about: the Dodgers’ 23-year-old sophomore season ace and second in command to his teammate and perhaps mentor Clayton Kershaw.
Buehler has long had high expectations. A first-round pick back in 2015, his electric fastball and powerful yet crafty curveball have always projected to land him at the top of an MLB rotation. That until he had his post-draft physical.
They checked his elbow. The results were disheartening.
Buehler would need Tommy John Surgery. Micro-tears in his Ulnar Collateral Ligament were enough for the Dodgers to pump the breaks on their newest prospect as they opted to put him under the knife. He would be out 12 to 18 months.
Recovery, doubt and rehab were the next year’s story for Buehler and his fans and he would see no professional action in 2015.
Buehler, now 21-years-old, pitched in three 2016 games. Of them, two were from the bullpen and one as the game’s starter. He finished the season in Low-A.
For the Dodgers, it was a moment of faith restored. Buehler looked sharp after a year-long layoff from the game in which he had so much promise. Promise that would show itself quickly in 2017.
It was set to be Buehler’s first real season of professional baseball. He would begin it in Rancho Cucamonga with the High-A Quakes and would finish it a major leaguer making eight appearances, all in relief, for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There he struggled. They were growing pains though, nothing more. The 22-year-old flamethrowing phenom had jumped from the third lowest level of professional baseball to the highest in a matter of months and the journey plus the spotlight got to him.
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However, in 2018, Buehler shined. He threw 137.1 innings with a 2.62 ERA and 151 strikeouts. His ERA+ that year was 148 becoming the first Dodger pitcher since Zack Greinke’s incredible 2015 season to top Kershaw in the category.
For the Dodgers, that season and the beginning of this one were outfitted with the excitement of Buehler and the cloud of Kershaw’s health. Last year it was his back right now it is his shoulder. The Dodgers ace freshly re-signed on a three-year deal has less battled hitters as much as he has had to battle himself.
In the past, an injury to Kershaw meant to the Dodgers what it would to a race car driver sitting in fourth place with just two laps left in the race. It is a rush to get to the front, it is a rush to get Kershaw back.
The Dodgers find themselves in that racecar situation right now. Kershaw can hardly play catch let alone pitch and the idea that he could miss his first Opening Day start since Vicente Padilla took the day one mound in 2010, is becoming all the more real as each day passes.
If this was last year, the year before or the year before that, the Dodgers would be sent into a frenzy. But, with Buehler on the roster, they can find peace.
Buehler is the Dodgers future ace. Father time is undefeated and one day it will force Clayton Kershaw out of the game he has so long been dominating. When that day comes, it will be Buehler who will step into his shoes and last year he proved in just 137.1 innings that he is ready and capable to do it.
“We have a front-line rotation piece now,” manager Dave Roberts said last September.
Last year, Buehler ranked in the top 5 percent of all pitchers with a minimum of 250 plate appearances against in wOBA at .247. That number put him one spot below AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and three spots ahead of Max Scherzer.
Buehler was a rookie, yes but he did not pitch like one.
In 2019 there will be scouting reports and there will be film. But, at or near the front of a Dodger rotation built on a foundation of analytical thinking and approaches, Buehler will adjust to the league’s adjustments.
In years past, when Kershaw fell victim to an injury there was panic. But, with the Dodgers’ future ace on the roster in Walker Buehler, there should be no fear. Buehler is Kershaw’s new Greinke. He is younger, his stuff is more powerful and he could be here to stay. Buehler’s presence is not a changing of the guards rather is an addition of one. Kershaw has a true fallback option, his pressure to perform less, his impact of injury softer. Walker Buehler is the piece the Dodgers have long been looking for and he is here.