The Los Angeles Dodgers have not replicated their brilliant start to last season. Kenley Jansen has become as hittable as he was unhittable last season. Yasmani Grandal, Matt Kemp, and Chase Utley are the Dodgers’ best hitters while last year's stars struggle.
The only part of the 2018 Dodgers team that resembles the 2017 squad is the starting pitching, and that might get even better with the arrival of wiry yet fiery top prospect Walker Buehler, who will make his first MLB start against the Miami Marlins later tonight. So, let’s look at yet another top prospect from the Dodgers.
Dodgers draft an exciting pitcher
The Pittsburgh Pirates, not the Los Angeles Dodgers, were the first team to draft Buehler. The Pirates picked him in the 14th round of the 2012 MLB Draft. Buehler, however, decided to attend Vanderbilt University. He became a regular starter by his sophomore season, his best season for Vanderbilt. In 19 appearances, he made 16 starts, threw 102 innings, and recorded a 2.64 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.76 K/9, and 2.73 BB/9.
During his junior year, he posted similar numbers to his sophomore season. He recorded a 2.95 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 9.37 K/9, and 3.06 BB/9. After his junior year, he declared for the draft again. The Dodgers drafted Buehler with the 24th pick of the first round of the 2015 June Amateur Draft.
A quick ascension to the majors
The Dodgers did not draft Buehler without risk. After he signed a below-slot bonus of approximately $1.77m, he underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2015. Because of the surgery, he pitched only five innings in 2016.
With a newly constructed elbow, Buehler rose quickly through the Dodgers' minor league system in 2017. He started the season with the High-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in the California League, but only made five starts before the Dodgers promoted him to the Double-A Tulsa Drillers. He made 11 starts for the Drillers and consistently overpowered the competition. In 49 innings, he recorded a 3.95 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 2.35 xFIP, 11.76 K/9 and 2.76 BB/9.
By mid-season, Buehler had ascended to the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers. He made 12 appearances, including three starts, and posted a 4.63 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 3.22 xFIP, 13.11 K/9, and 4.24 BB/9. He then completed his rapid ascension through the minors when the Dodgers called him up during the September roster expansions. He threw 9.1 innings in eight appearances and showed flashes of his potential with an 11.57 K/9, but he also struggled and posted a 7.71 ERA, 5.94 FIP, 3.92 xFIP, and showed control issues with a 7.71 BB/9.
Buehler started 2018 back in Triple-A, where he continued to perform. In his made three starts, he boasted an 11.08 K/9 and 2.77 BB/9, along with a 2.08 ERA, 2.61 FIP, and 3.88 xFIP.
What to expect from him
Dodgers fans should not worry about his stats from his cameo appearances last season. 9.1 innings is a small sample size and in that timeframe, he had a .409 BABIP and 50% of the fly balls he allowed resulted in home runs. Both of those numbers are unsustainably high.
With more time, Buehler has the potential to become a front of the rotation starter. He has not always had a heater that touches the triple digits; he only started throwing with overwhelming velocity after his elbow reconstruction. At Vanderbilt, his fastball sat in the 90-96 mph range. His fastball now sits in the 95-100 range and generates an exceptionally high number of swings and misses. Scouts have assigned his fastball a 70 current and future value on the 20/80 scale, showing it is already a dominant pitch. He needs to improve his control, but that should come with experience. Apart from his fastball, he also has a filthy curve ball that froze Charlie Blackmon and a plus slider. He has also developed a changeup, but he lacks consistent command of it.
If Buehler improves his pitch sequencing and also his control, he has the potential to be a cornerstone of the Dodgers rotation for years to come. Even if he does not, he has a three-pitch mix that could make him a dominant late-inning reliever.