Don’t get me wrong, as I love Walker Buehler in keeper and dynasty formats, as most do. He has electric stuff and the ability to be an ace for years to come. If Clayton Kershaw is going to pass the ceremonial baton to anyone, it’s going to be Buehler. At face value, his 2020 was fine, as he posted a 3.44 ERA (4.36 FIP), with a 10.31 K/9 and 2.70 BB/9. He was limited to just 36.2 innings due to two stints on the injured list for blisters. How serious were the blisters in all actuality? The Dodgers love the injured list, for guys that are injured and not really injured, but I digress.
In the postseason, he was phenomenal. Despite an abnormally high walk rate, he posted a 1.80 ERA across 25 innings of work with a massive 37.5 percent strikeout rate. Did some recency bias push him up a bit in drafts this year? Perhaps, but when you’re going as early as he is, there’s no doubting that he’s among the game’s elite. Does he warrant the selection at his current average draft position? Is he a great value? Is he overpriced? Let’s dive in.
Buehler enjoyed a slight bump in his swinging strike rate last year, but the mark that jumped out to be was that his zone contact rate dropped nearly four percentage points to a career low 80.6 percent.
As you can see, in the zone, the majority of his pitches, sans his slider, generated more whiffs in the strike zone. Aside from just an increase compared to 2019, you’ll see that his curveball, sinker and cutter have enjoyed consecutive seasons of growth in this particular metric. If he can continue to miss bats at this rate, or perhaps even better, it’s only going to help sustain his current strikeout rates but also provide optimism for even more growth.
On the other hand, a trend that needs to be rectified is he’s not inducing as many ground balls. Now, just because he’s inducing less grounders doesn’t mean that he can’t be successful, but his profile is nearly flipping on its head. His launch angle ballooned last year, and the combination of an increasing launch angle and harder contact allowed, it’s a potential recipe for disaster.
What don’t I like from this graphic above? Well, where should I begin?
- Trend line for his four-seamer and cutter are trending up
- His sinker is at a respectable launch angle, but it’s trending up, and sinking fastballs shouldn’t induce a ton of fly balls.
Specifically related to the second point there, why in the hell is Buehler’s SINKING FASTBALL generating the highest FLY BALL rate?
Huh? What a kerfuffle! Home runs have yet to be a major issue for Buehler in his young career, but that narrative could change soon. His HR/9 in 2020 was a rather high 1.72, but the two years prior it was 0.79 and 0.99 respectively. So, is it a concerning trend that’s increased for two straight years, or do we throw 2020 out the window? Well, His launch angle has risen three straight years, while his exit velocity and barrel rate have increased two straight years. The jumps below aren’t noticeably large, but it does show that his exit velocity on specifically fly balls and line drives is steadily increasing, too.
EV on FB/LD
Courtesy of FanGraphs & Baseball Savant
One last thing before we wrap it up here. You should never bank your fantasy team on drafting someone to trade them, or not drafting to later trade for them, but a couple weeks into the season, I could see Buehler being a popular buy-low candidate. He even called himself a slow starter, and when you look for his career, it checks out. His worst months in terms of ERA are March/April, while his best month in terms of ERA is August. For his entire career, his first half ERA is 3.57 and his second half ERA is 2.71. Just something to keep in your back pocket.
Buehler is the seventh pitcher off the board, coming in at pick number 21, firmly putting him in the second round of most drafts. He costs a pretty penny and he’s worth it. I’m not a fan of his decreasing ground ball rates, but the strikeout upside is there and he should get plenty of run support with the loaded Los Angeles offense padding his win total.
If his ground ball rate pushes into the mid-40 percent range (45.3% for his career), he could push a sub-3.00 ERA and 30+ K%, firmly entrenching him in the top five fantasy starter and Cy Young discussion.