Walker Buehler’s Struggles, Questions, and Place in Dodgers Rotation

Walker Buehler hasn't been the pitcher he was before Tommy John surgery, and the Dodgers are waiting for him to find his footing.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 04: Walker Buehler #21 of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks on during the first inning against the New York Mets at Dodger Stadium on June 04, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. The New York Mets won 9-4. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

DENVER — Walker Buehler’s eighth start of the 2024 season came at altitude on Tuesday night. When you’re pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, it’s expected that you will likely draw at least one start in Denver against your National League West rivals in the Colorado Rockies. For Buehler, his turn came in the second game of a four-game series in the Mile High City.

Buehler is no stranger to pitching at Coors Field, having made nine previous starts (and making two other appearances) since his MLB debut in September of 2017. His 4.19 ERA and .276 BABip over 107.1 innings (the most of anywhere outside Chavez Ravine) are neither alarming nor eye-popping given the surroundings in downtown Denver.

This Tuesday night start, however, was different. Still trying to find his previous form after returning from Tommy John surgery, the 29-year-old right-hander still has “the stuff,” according to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, but there’s more to taking the mound than just having the gift of a Major League arm.

That includes solving questions about exactly who you are when you’re forced to reinvent yourseld after an injury.

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“He’s going through it,” Roberts said before Tuesday’s game. “I think that, for any player, certainly a pitcher who’s been away for so long, not necessarily questioning your ability but you really want to see where your stuff plays in this moment in time.

“I think he’s going through that right now. The stuff is certainly good enough. He’s not the same pitcher he was in 2020. He doesn’t need to be. I think, go with what you got that night and help us win a ball game and navigate a lineup. That’s my message to him.”

Roberts has said in the past that it would be around “five to seven starts” before he and the Dodgers would start to expect results from the new-look Buehler, who is focused more on finesse pitches than fastballs in 2024. This year, per Baseball Savant, Buehler’s fastball usage sat at 29.1 percent heading into Tuesday’s start and he threw his sinker 18.8 percent of the time. Compare those numbers to 2022 when fastballs were hurled 34.2 percent of the time and sinkers came in at a paltry 4.6 percent.

Granted, both are smaller sample sizes (Walker threw 65.0 innings before his injury in 2022 and had 33.0 innings under his belt this season heading into Tuesday). It is clear, however, that the Buehler of 2024 is a different beast than the one who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2021.

“The competitor in him wants and expects him to go out there and pitch as an ace tonight, right now,” Roberts said. “But I think it’s a coach’s job to kind of temper expectations at certain times.”

Buehler, however, struggled from the start on Tuesday, allowing the first four Rockies to reach base, including grazing Charlie Blackmon with an 0-2 pitch to lead off the contest. From there, a single and pair of doubles gave Colorado a quick 3-0 edge after Buehler had thrown just 14 pitches.

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After two innings, Colorado had jumped to a 6-1 lead, including a two-run home run from Elehuris Montero. Buehler needed 51 pitches to get through the frame while going over 95 mph on three of those throws.

Another home run, this one on a hanging 2-1 knuckle curve to Brenton Doyle in the fourth inning, would spell the end of the night for Buehler. In all, he surrendered a career-high-tying seven runs on seven hits and struck out just two.

After the outing, Buehler, who has pitched four or fewer innings in four of his eight starts since returning from the injured list on May 6, was blunt about his performance.

“When they (pitches) all suck, you try to figure out which one sucks the least,” Buehler said. “It’s a different thing here (in Denver) as well. In the past, I haven’t thrown the two-seamer here and less curveball. Tonight, it was trying to survive and they did a good job of putting a couple of good swings on pitches.”

Buehler, who threw 70 pitches (with 47 going for strikes), was in line to take the loss before the Dodgers exploded for a stunning seven runs in the top of the ninth to grab an 11-9 come-from-behind victory. He admitted that the Dodgers’ late response was a big positive on what was a disappointing day for him personally.

“The phrase is ‘Get the hook out of your lip’ because you’re on the hook for the loss and the team covers you. You give up seven runs and don’t get the loss. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that,” Buehler said.

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With Yoshinobu Yamamoto on the injured list, Tyler Glasnow is the clear number one pitcher in the Dodgers rotation. After that, Buehler joins Gavin Stone (7-2, 3.01 ERA) and Bobby Miller (expected to return to the mound on Wednesday from a shoulder injury) as potential number twos for the Dodgers. However, Roberts emphasized on Tuesday that his squad simply needed each pitcher to go out and perform when their turn came on the mound rather than worrying about any perceived pecking order.

Buehler, however, is less worried about where he lands in the rotation than concerned about what needs to be done right now to revert to form … and he didn’t dismiss the thought that a break might be needed.

“At some point, we’ve thought about taking a blow, taking a month off, taking a week off, or whatever, trying to figure out how to get me reset,” Buehler said. “It sucks to feel kind of invaluable or like you’re hampering your team.

“At the end of the day, we really like our team and want to be ready for the end of the year. I’m going to do whatever I need to do to feel like I can help our team at the end of the year and do everything in my power to be valuable enough to be on those rosters. I like winning games in the regular season. We all like performing and whatnot, but that’s just not what I play this game for.

“We’ll have conversations and whatever we think we need to do to get me ready for the end of the year, that’s what we are going to do.”