The Dodgers are used to depending on young talent. In the 90s, they had five straight Rookie of the Year award winners. In 2013, the struggling Dodgers called up Yasiel Puig, who (along with Hanley Ramirez) turned the season around for the first of five consecutive NL West titles. In 2016, Corey Seager took home the Rookie of the Year award. Last season, the Dodgers had a 9-11 record before calling up Cody Bellinger, who also won the award.
Due to injuries, the Dodgers have two rookies that look like they could be in the conversation for the award following this season. An injury to Puig opened the door for Alex Verdugo (and the door remained open with Seager’s injury), and Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu combined to give Buehler a chance crack the rotation. Hill is due back tomorrow, but the mystery of the injury to Clayton Kershaw opens the door for Buehler to have a huge impact on this season.
Buehler’s second look at the bigs has gone much better than his first. Last season, Buehler made his debut out of the bullpen in September and allowed eight runs in 9 1/3 innings. Four of his eight outings were scoreless, but he allowed at least one base runner in every outing and walked eight batters with 12 strikeouts.
As a starter, Buehler has fared a bit better. Take his raw stats with a grain of salt, as Buehler’s faced San Francisco (21st in runs scored this season), San Diego (23rd) and Miami (30th). However, in 16 innings Buehler has allowed two runs, 10 hits and has a much better 19:7 K:BB ratio. In his last outing, Buehler tossed six no-hit innings against the Padres in Mexico and struck out a career-high eight batters while walking three.
The Padres lead the majors in strikeouts, but Buehler was especially nasty despite the rainy conditions in Monterrey. Buehler’s value has been apparent, and his 0.6 fWAR has already matched that of Kershaw and Ryu, who have thrown 44 and 29 2/3 innings, respectively. Kenta Maeda leads the Dodgers with a 0.7 fWAR, but that’s also in 31 1/3 innings.
Buehler hasn’t faced the most potent offenses in baseball, but he’s still done a remarkable job limiting hard contact. Buehler is one of 15 pitchers in baseball with more than 25 batted balls against that has yet to allow a barrel (here’s Statcast’s definition of a barrel). Of the 372 pitchers with more than 25 batted balls against, Buehler’s 86.0 MPH exit velocity is the 71st-lowest. Only three relief pitchers have fewer “hard-hit” balls (exit velocity greater than 95 MPH) than Buehler’s six.
We get blinded by the flashiness and the velocity, but Buehler has excelled so far at forcing weak contact. Keep in mind that Buehler still only has 132 professional innings under his belt, so there should be plenty for him to learn. If they keep him on regular rest for the forseeable future, Buehler should continue to get eased in as a starter. His next two starts are currently lined up to be against the Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins, so he could really get rolling into the end of the month. However, it’s tough to see him taking the ball on a consistent rotation for the rest of the season.
Buehler’s thrown 16 innings with the Dodgers after beginning the year in Triple-A OKC, where he threw 13 innings. Before the season, manager Dave Roberts gave a 140-150 inning estimate on where they’d like Buehler to be at, including the postseason. He’s up likely much quicker than the Dodgers would have hoped, so they’ll have to get creative to keep his innings at bay while still having him as a figurehead in the rotation. Even the 140-150 range is a bit aggressive, as Buehler only threw 88 innings last season. At Vanderbilt, Buehler maxed out at 102 1/3 innings in the 2014-15 season.
If Buehler makes 22 more starts and lasts exactly five innings each time out, he’ll hit 139 innings. It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if they skip him a few times, but Buehler’s lined up to be a huge piece of the 2018 puzzle for the Dodgers.
Verdugo’s imminent future with the Dodgers may be more in limbo. Puig is scheduled to return from the disabled list on Wednesday, and despite his offensive struggles, will likely walk right back into his role in right field. The Seager injury makes things very interesting, as Chris Taylor has been moved to shortstop and center field is now open for some combination of Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez and Verdugo. Pederson and Hernandez have both played well, and with Matt Kemp not being a disaster in left and being one of the best hitters on the team, it’s tough to see where Verdugo fits right now.
It might get to a point where no matter how productive he is in limited at-bats, it’s more vital to get him consistent playing time at his age, making a demotion to an everyday role in Oklahoma City the easy call. However, Verdugo has also been more impressive than he was last year as a September call-up.
Last season went poorly for Verdugo on the major league side, as he posted a .174/.240/.304 triple slash in 25 plate appearances. He also overslept and showed up late on September 15, which led to him only getting seven plate appearances over the final 18 games.
Verdugo’s been much better so far this season. In 31 plate appearances, Verdugo has a .286/.333/.429 triple slash line. Dustin claimed before the season that Verdugo had the best strike zone discipline in the system. Verdugo is running a 12.9 K% and a 6.5 BB%, but even more impressive than his discipline might be his rate of contact. By my own math (so there’s a decent chance I counted incorrectly), Verdugo has swung at 66 pitches. He’s swung and missed only nine times. He might have been a little amped for the series in Mexico, as he only had swung and missed on three of 37 pitches entering the weekend.
He can also do this:
I’ve been slightly confused why he’s been playing left field and Kemp has been playing right field, but Kemp hasn’t been a complete disaster in the outfield yet. Verdugo is one of the only Dodgers’ options at the moment that can play good defense at all three outfield spots, so it’ll be interesting to see how he progresses. His arm in the outfield is extremely strong, so while he might not be able to stick in center defensively, he should be a strong option at the corners.
The Dodgers have been decimated with bad news of late. Over the recent 11-game road trip, the Dodgers lost Seager for the season and Kershaw for the foreseeable future, leaving them without their hitter and pitcher fWAR leaders from last season. They had lost 60 percent of their starting rotation (before Hill’s return) and 50 percent of their expected starting lineup. Entering the season, the depth was arguably weaker than it has been in recent years. The bullpen, which has managed to stay healthy, has been bad, with their two most important relievers struggling hard early on.
It’s not fun right now, but by no means is this season over. They’ll need to continue getting contributions from unexpected places, but it’s nice for them to have two top prospects that are major-league ready to call on. Buehler and Verdugo were expected to be big pieces of the Dodgers’ future success, but the time has come for them to play a vital role.