My article picks for FlashPicks are ice cold, and I’m not happy about it! We’re learning from each loss, and I remain confident we’ll bounce back soon, but today I’m opting for a different approach.
Rather than offer a pick, I’ve decided to dive into one of MLB’s greatest mysteries of the short season so far & break it down here. What’s the deal with Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler?
Los Angeles Dodgers (11-4) at Arizona Diamondbacks (6-10)
Buehler? Great movie – yes – but also a serious question: what the heck is wrong with #21 on the Los Angeles Dodgers?
The former standout has allowed 17 hits, 6 walks and 7 earned runs in just 15.2 innings pitched through 3 starts. Terrible numbers? I suppose that depends how you define terrible. By Walker Buehler standards, I’d expect better.
I believe Earned Runs Average (ERA) is a misleading stat for different reasons but for simplicity’s sake: I’ll mention his 4.02 ERA through 3 starts is his worst since 2017. According to MLB Statcast, his expected Earned Runs Average (xERA) is even worse at 5.85 – an all-time high for him.
His 16.2% strikeout percentage (K%) through 3 starts is also concerning for a guy who was once known as a prolific strikeout pitcher. He consistently posted 26%+ strikeout rates in 5 straight seasons before now.
So what gives?
Without getting too technical – I see the main driver as velocity, or lack thereof (relative to Buehler standards):
I noticed his fastball velocity has dropped every season since he cracked the Big Leagues, and the trend is bleeding through to 2022:
His average 4-seamer zipped to the plate at 95.3 MPH on average last year.
This year, it’s down slightly to 94.6 MPH. Doesn’t feel too much different – but compared to the 98.2 MPH he was flamethrowing his rookie season (2017), it’s a cause for concern.
As velocity drops, it’s harder to generate swings and misses. It’s not rocket science, but that’s what’s driving the lower strikeout rate. His 16.7% Whiff Rate on Fastballs this year is by far the lowest mark of his 5+ year career. The problem doesn’t stop there.
Not only are opponents making more contact – they’re makingbettercontact. Last year, opponents hit just 0.202 with a 0.292 weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) vs. Buehler’s 4-seam Fastball. This year? It’s a small sample, but opponents are slashing 0.500 with a 0.667 wOBA vs. the same pitch.
To be fair, Buehler recognizes the issue and is prepared to respond by using more Cut Fastballs. In media comments after his last start, here’s what he said:
“The only way I feel that I’m getting guys out or getting swings and miss is with the cutter right now. So we’re going to lean on the stuff that I feel like gives us the best chance to win with. … I don’t think there’s any excuse for it. We’re here and I just have to be better.”
A second, equally important issue I noticed relates to Buehler’s struggles when ahead in the count. I find these next stats both fascinating and perplexing:
Walker Buehler is throwing a 1st pitch strike 73.5% of the time (5th best of qualifying pitchers). Normally, that’s a good thing.
Yet, when ahead 0-1 in the count, his results have been disastrous, at least in 2022, as shown below:
Frankly, the 2022 numbers above makes absolutely no sense. Being ahead 0-1 gives the pitcher an advantage, and over time, the trend should reverse. Is there a chance it could happen tonight? Short answer, YES.
Tonight’s opponent, the Arizona Diamondbacks, only swing at the 1st pitch 22.6% of the time. That’s the lowest 1st pitch swing rate in MLB (by far).
That, paired with the fact Buehler likes to throw 1st pitch strikes, bodes well for his chances to be pitching out of favorable counts more often than not tonight.
If I’m right, and you agree the 2022 numbers in the above chart are due for a correction, then I see tonight as the perfect matchup for Walker Buehler to improve his strikeout rate out of 0-1 counts.
I’m not giving up on Walker Buehler yet – but we’ve pinpointed some concerning trends. His fastball is a ghost of Buehler’s past, and he’s failed improve his ancillary pitch mix in a way that’s been meaningful to his results – at least not yet. He does plan to utilize more cutters tonight, but it’s hard to predict how that will go vs. a Diamondbacks lineup that looks decent against cutters.
The silver lining for him relates to the fact tonight’s opponent, the Diamondbacks, takes the 1stpitch more often than any team in MLB. Buehler’s done well getting ahead in counts this year but has struggled mightily once he’s there. It’s a trend that just doesn’t make sense and is due for an obvious correction soon – if not tonight.
I’m refraining from making a pick recommendation today since I’m ice cold, but for what it’s worth, I do think Buehler gets right tonight in the Desert!
Last year, he struck out 7+ Diamondbacks in all 3 starts vs. them, including an 11-strikeout performance in Arizona.
Do I think he’ll get 11+ again? No shot – especially since pitchers no longer hit (which was an easy source of strikeouts last year).
Do I think he could get 6+? I honestly do. The market doesn’t seem to agree (o5.5 Ks is priced at plus money odds), but that’s the beauty of sports betting. Everyone has an opinion, but no one actually knows what will happen. Time will tell!
I hope y’all found today’s breakdown useful, and I look forward to righting the ship soon with my article picks!