Coming into the 2020 season, there were four pitchers that were considered to be among the elite. There was Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole, who had established themselves as the best two pitchers in baseball. There was the elder duo of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, the ageless aces who were typically going three and four respectively. Just behind those four, and considered by many to already be in the same tier, was a 25-year-old budding superstar for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He possessed arguably the best arsenal in all of baseball. Many were calling for him to take over Clayton Kershaw’s role as staff ace. That someone was Walker Buehler.
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Walker Buehler 2020 Review
Fast forward to today, and we now know that Buehler didn’t quite live up to those expectations. Two trips to the injured list diminished what was an otherwise stellar season, as evidenced in his below stat line:
The ratios were excellent as always, there is no debating that. First, the 3.44 ERA is a good number. In fact, an argument could be made that maintaining a mid-3.00’s ERA, despite battling a lingering blister issue, is a feat that only several pitchers could accomplish. Second, his WHIP was below 1.00, there isn’t an explanation necessary there. Among pitchers that threw over 30 innings, Buehler finished tied for eighth in all of baseball with his 0.95 WHIP. Finally, the 42 strikeouts Buehler racked up led to a solid 28.6% strikeout rate, which ranked him in the top 25 among starters with more than 30-innings pitched. In sum, when Buehler was on the mound, he was really good.
Then came the playoffs, and the baseball world saw exactly why Buehler was receiving so much pre-season attention. In fact, he was great. Below you can see just how good Buehler was:
When factoring in his playoffs with his regular season, Buehler’s total stat line can be compared to that of the top pitchers. In sum, his 81 strikeouts would have ranked him 16th among all starters. The 2.79 ERA would have ranked him inside the top 25, and the 1.06 WHIP would have also been in the top 25. Those numbers would have qualified Buehler as a top 10 pitcher.
Batted Ball Data
Examining Walker Buehler’s 2020 data, there are good to great numbers across the board, as evidenced by the above baseball savant profile. In case you didn’t know, red is a good thing, and his percentiles are filled with red. While some of the ratios aren’t elite, they are good enough. A 74th-percentile strikeout rate, a 69th-percentile xERA (nice), a 69th-percentile (nice again), and a 62nd-percentile whiff rate are good numbers.
Walker Buehler has always been an excellent groundball pitcher, but that was not the case in 2020. His 36.6% groundball rate was a career-low, and nine percent below league average. That is extremely surprising from a pitcher who gets as much movement as he does. It directly correlates with Buehler turning into a heavy fastball pitcher. In 2018, Buehler’s four-seam percentage sat around 40.8% and had an average launch angle against of 12-degrees. In 2020, he threw the pitch 53.8% of the time and had an average launch angle against of 26-degrees. You will hear this argument multiple times, but I really believe Buehler can be much better by keeping his fastball elevated and upping his slider and curveball usage.
Buehler’s Hard Hit Problem: The Curveball
There is one noticeable negative trend in his profile. That is the 20th-percentile exit velocity and 53rd-percentile hard-hit rate. We can’t ignore these numbers, so naturally we need to dive deeper. First, we look to see if there were any noticeable trends when giving up hard contact. One thing stood out quickly. Buehler loves throwing his curveball, and it is an effective pitch. After all, it had a .250 batting average against, with a 40% strikeout rate, and a 50% whiff rate. However, the 94.2-mph average exit velocity was eye-popping. In other terms, nearly every time a hitter made contact with the curveball, it was hit hard.
His home runs allowed by pitch type confirms that. Despite throwing his curveball on 16% of his pitches, the pitch gave up three home runs, his highest of any pitch. For reference, he threw his four-seam fastball 323 times in 2020 and gave up zero home runs with it. Below you can see where he oftentimes was hanging the curve and paying for it:
Yes, it is also unfortunate to the two hitters that were highlighted above. After all, most pitchers get hit hard by Mike Trout and Fernando Tatis Jr. But Walker Buehler is supposed to be elite, hanging curveballs just can’t happen. Let’s be clear, overall Buehler located his curveball well (as can be seen below). But when he didn’t, he paid for it. In the future, it could be ideal for Buehler to use another secondary pitch more frequently.
His curveball is not the sole cause of his high exit velocity average. Buehler is a heavy fastball pitcher, and as is the case with any heavy fastball pitcher, will give up hard-hit balls. With that said, his fastball is good, really freaking good. So I won’t shoulder the blame too much on that. As previously mentioned, he threw the pitch 53.8% of the time and gave up zero home runs.
Slider and Cutter Decline: Cause of the Blisters?
While the data presented above for the curveball is a small sample, the pitch really has not performed well the past two seasons. From a swing and miss standpoint, it produces excellent numbers. But most curveballs do. What it doesn’t do is get batters out often enough when it is put in play. Prior to 2020, Buehler had a pitch that did it all. That was his slider. In 2018 and 2019, Buehler’s slider was his primary non-fastball option.
In 2020, it took a backseat to his cutter early in the year, and then it all but disappeared until he got to the playoffs.
Strange for a pitch that had been so effective for three years prior. His slider had never had a batting average against above .209 or a whiff rate below 30%. So what happened in 2020? Buehler only threw the pitch 7.2% of the time. While it only had a .100 batting average against, it oddly only had a dreadful 4.8% whiff rate. Strange. Right after the dramatic dip in slider usage, Buehler hit the injured list for the first time following an August 22nd start with blister issues. Well that must be the cause of the blisters, right?
That is not what Dave Roberts said. In fact, Roberts claimed it was because of another pitch, the cutter. As the slider tailed off, the cutter usage went up. His cutter was undeniably a good pitch, coming in at 92.7-mph with elite movement. It maintained a .258 batting average against with a 34.0% whiff rate in 2020. However as the cutter usage went up, so did the blister issue. After the initial trip to the injured list, Buehler threw two starts. In those two starts, he had his highest cutter usage of the entire season in each.
Then came the second trip to the injured list, and this one took an extra week to come back from. In his last start of the season, Buehler only threw his cutter 4.6% of the time, his lowest total of the season. That all but confirmed that it indeed was the cutter that was giving him the issue. Buehler actually performed very well despite throwing his fastball 63.1% of the time, throwing 4.0 innings, giving up one hit, and striking out six. But his slider usage was still down in that final game. I thought we just confirmed that the slider wasn’t the issue? Why not throw a good pitch more often? If the playoffs told us anything, it’s that Buehler and company also recognized this.
2020 Playoff Performance
In case you weren’t one of the hundreds of analyst that didn’t see this coming a mile away, Walker Buehler was awesome in the playoffs (as previously mentioned). We all knew that after Buehler’s value plummeted following the regular season, he would find a way to reel people back in during the playoffs. Pitching in 5 games, Buehler maintained a 1.80 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and a 37.5% strikeout rate. That will change opinions quickly, and it has definitely changed mine.
What changed? Well for starters, he was healthy. Second, he was simply blowing hitters away since he typically wasn’t seeing them a third time through the order. As is the case for most pitchers, they tend to struggle the third time through a lineup. Just look at Buehler’s numbers in his career according to Fangraphs:
It’s hard to catch up to a pitcher who is throwing 97-mph with limited exposure. A third time though, this can make all the distance. So that’s definitely a factor in why he was so good. But another key factor was the heavier usage of his slider and curveball. As previously mentioned, Buehler nearly stopped using his slider after only after only a few starts into the season. He came out of the gate throwing it in the playoffs.
The 29% slider+curveball usage (11% slider, 18% curveball) was a full six percent higher than his season average (7% slider, 16% curveball). It was not a coincidence he had that insane 37.5% strikeout rate, while also seeing an increase in his walk rate. This is what I want to see Buehler do, but up the slider even more. Jacob deGrom threw his slider 35% of the time. Gerrit Cole threw his 24% of the time. It’s time for Buehler to up that slider usage if the blister issue truly isn’t due to the pitch.
There really isn’t much to dislike about Walker Buehler. He has velocity, he has control, and he has movement on all of his pitches. The talent is so easy to see, that I wouldn’t blame fantasy players for going right back to where they were taking him last year as the fourth pitcher off the board.
The worries with him are the innings and his injury history. The innings aren’t as much of a concern since he threw 182.1 innings in 2019. The Dodgers aren’t going to hold him back if he’s healthy. And that is the key focus with Buehler, keeping him healthy. The blister issues are a huge concern, but the Dodgers seemed to be confident in getting it under control. In fact, Buehler’s last three games saw him return to throwing his cutter over 10% of the time. Hopefully, that is a sign of things to come, and Buehler has figured out how to throw the pitch without damaging his finger.
Due to the blister issue, I would feel better taking him somewhere between the SP6-SP8 range. However, if you told me that Buehler was guaranteed to pitch over 175 innings in 2021, I wouldn’t hesitate to take him fourth behind the elite trio of deGrom, Cole, and Bieber. Walker Buehler is every bit as talented as those three, he just needs to figure out the next step to unlocking his potential. That potential of being the best pitcher in all of baseball.
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