This Rookie Could Lead the Dodgers to the Promised Land
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because playoff baseball moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss the next big star.
By Sean Braswell
Walker Buehler can’t seem to stop cursing. After pitching the Los Angeles Dodgers to their sixth straight National League West title on Monday, the 24-year-old let drop his second F-bomb on live television in the past 17 days. “This is the loudest I’ve ever seen this place,” Buehler said, addressing celebrating fans in Dodger Stadium. “We need this the whole fucking playoffs.”
Some expletive-laden exuberance, however, is probably warranted. Buehler, who started the season in the minor leagues, has risen to become the most dominant Dodgers rookie pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela — and Fernandomania — took L.A. by storm in 1981. And there seems little doubt that the young fireballer, currently in line to pitch Game 3 of the division series against the Atlanta Braves, which gets underway tonight, is ready for the challenge of playoff baseball. In fact, Buehler might be just what the Dodgers, who lost last year’s World Series in a heartbreaking seven games to the Houston Astros, finally need to bring the Dodgers their first championship since 1988.
This time last year, Buehler was also very excited to be in Dodger Stadium, even if it was just to cheer on his teammates from the stands. The baby-faced hurler, who did not make the team’s playoff roster last year, tweeted out a photo of himself and his younger sister at Game 2 of the World Series.
— Walker Buehler (@buehlersdayoff) October 26, 2017
Now T-shirts worn by Dodgers fans in those same stands read “Walker Buehler, you’re my hero” — a reference to a line in the classic film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which, even though it came out nearly a decade before he was born in 1994, this Buehler has been quick to adopt, both in his social media tags (@buehlersdayoff) and posts.
And, like Ferris, Walker does not lack for confidence. Coming into the one-game tiebreaker against the Dodgers on Monday, the Colorado Rockies’ hitters had been red-hot, routinely putting-up double digits in runs. Buehler gave their bats a day off, allowing one hit and no runs in six and two-thirds innings. Did he expect to win such a big game? “I won’t say yes,” the smiling Buehler told reporters afterward. “But yes.”
It’s rare that the Next Big Thing in a baseball organization actually pans out, but Buehler more or less had to for the Dodgers this season. A native of Lexington, Kentucky, the lanky 6-foot-2, 175-pound right-hander played college ball at Vanderbilt University, where he led the Commodores to the 2014 College World Series championship, Then the Dodgers picked him in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft and signed him for $1.78 million the following summer. It was a calculated risk by the franchise: Two months after signing, the injured pitcher underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow and did not make his professional debut until 2016.
Despite being widely regarded as the organization’s No. 1 prospect, Buehler was not expected to factor so heavily into this year’s plans. Then, three Dodgers starters — Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill — all got injured in quick succession to start the season, and Buehler got the call. In his first Major League start in April, he pitched five shutout innings. The Dodgers won his first three starts and he was off to the races, closing out the season 8–5 with a 2.62 earned run average and 0.96 walks-plus-hits per innings pitched.
Buehler’s swagger on and off the mound — arguably a much better fit for L.A.’s star-studded surroundings than current Dodgers ace Kershaw’s more reserved dominance — has impressed his coaches and teammates. “He’s got some big balls. I mean, there’s no other way to say it,” Kershaw said on Monday during the Dodgers celebration. But it’s Buehler’s arsenal of six pitches, including a 96–98 mph four-seam fastball, a nasty curveball and an above-average slider (all missing bats at a whiff rate of 27 to 30 percent), that has opponents reeling.
To be sure, Buehler, who, in a sport overrun by hirsute men, looks like a teenager growing facial hair for the first time, is still young — and still on the road back from major surgery. In spring training, the Dodgers estimated that their young hurler would be limited to 140–150 innings this season. Well, Buehler is over 137 innings now, and could easily end up above 180 if the Dodgers go all the way again (the team did not immediately respond to requests for comment).
If Buehler does continue to pitch this October, and pitch well, then this may be the year that the Dodgers not only win the World Series, but start the process of passing the “ace” mantle from Kershaw to their latest pitching phenom. It’s a distinction that the exuberant Buehler seems ready to handle. “I apologize to all the children, all the parents, all listening ears,” Buehler later said after his latest expletive. “But I’m from Kentucky. We don’t really hold back when we’re a little excited.” And that’s something all Dodgers fans can identify with at the moment.