After three postseasons filled with Game 1 starts and general excellence, building a reputation as a big-game pitcher, Walker Buehler cemented his path to acehood in 2021, finding consistency throughout his entire season.
No pitcher in MLB lasted six innings more times than Buehler (29 times; two more than anyone else). Nobody allowed two or fewer runs in a start more often than Buehler (25 times). Buehler’s 27 quality starts also paced the majors, four more than anybody else.
They weren’t cheap quality starts, either. Only three of the 27 games saw him allow three runs.
“Walker has always been a big-game pitcher. We’ve seen it year in and year out, beginning with Game 163, him stepping up, taking the ball, and getting big outs for us,” said Justin Turner. “Where I’ve seen him grow the most is the not big game. Taking the ball, competing and being efficient, and getting deeper into games, I think that’s something he’s taken a lot of pride in. He’s really worked hard on it, and you’ve seen that this year.”
Buehler ended the season with a career-high 33 starts and 207⅔ innings, the latter 25 more than his previous best. Gone were the blister concerns that plagued and limited him during 2020, when he averaged under five innings per start. This year, Buehler’s 6.29 innings per start ranked third in the majors.
“I think I checked a lot of boxes for myself and goals I’ve set for myself for a long time, and was finally able to achieve them and stay healthy,” Buehler said. “To make 33 starts is the biggest thing for me, and I feel really proud about that.”
The Dodgers entered the postseason with a three-pitcher starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Buehler, and Julio Urías, the last two of whom blew past their previous career highs in innings. Add in that 2021 was a full season directly following a truncated, 60-game campaign, some fatigue in October was likely inevitable.
Clayton Kershaw re-aggravating his elbow injury in the final weekend of the regular season thinned LA’s rotation, and set up Buehler to be used like Kershaw once was in October. Kershaw started on three days rest annually during the NLDS from 2013-16, his ages 25-28 seasons.
At age 26, Buehler filled that role in 2021. In Game 4 against the Giants, Buehler pitched scoreless baseball into the fifth before surrendering a run. Buehler didn’t pitch deep into the game, but helped the Dodgers keep the NLDS alive.
When Scherzer was scratched from his Game 6 start in the NLCS, Buehler stepped up again, pitching for the second time on three days rest, after having never done so before this October. Buehler got through the Braves order twice by only allowing one run. But the last two batters during his second trip through the lineup both reached, then the 1-1 game turned in the Braves favor when NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario lined a ball into the seats in right field that served as the final blow for the Dodgers season.
“You want to be this Herculean thing, and go out and throw and be really good, but I just wasn’t,” Buehler told reporters in Atlanta after the Dodgers were eliminated. “Game 6, elimination game, you get the ball, you want to be better than that, and I just wasn’t. Hard pill to swallow.”
Buehler’s 2021 postseason was unlike his previous Octobers. He had a 4.91 ERA and 4.81 FIP in four starts, with 18 strikeouts and nine walks in 18⅓ innings. After allowing nine runs in his first two playoff starts in 2018, Buehler allowed seven total runs over his next nine postseason starts, through 2020, allowing more than one run only once during that span. This year, Buehler allowed three runs once and four runs twice in October. The game he only allowed one run in was on three days rest, which Buehler said multiple times during the playoffs didn’t limit him physically.
His career postseason numbers remain excellent, with a 2.94 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 15 starts.
Buehler took the ball in 2021 whenever the Dodgers asked, and put together an excellent season. Even if it didn’t end the way he nor the team wanted.
Stats: 16-4, 2.47 ERA, 3.10 xERA, 3.16 FIP, 207⅔ IP, 212 K, 6.7 bWAR, 5.5 fWAR
Salary: $2.75 million, plus another $1 million of his signing bonus paid in March.
Game of the year
Buehler’s consistency makes this a difficult choice, but we’ll go with May 17 against the Diamondbacks at home. After a single to shortstop by Josh Rojas in the first inning, Buehler did not allow another hit in his seven scoreless innings. He did walk four batters, including three in a row in the fourth inning. But after the bases were loaded, pitching coach Mark Prior paid a mound visit, after which Buehler retired his final 11 batters faced.
“That kind of reset him,” Roberts said after the game. “That’s an aggressive-swinging team, and you’re thinking, ‘If he can get through the fifth inning,’ and he ends up going seven.”
Buehler needed to be stingy, leaving with only a 2-0 lead. He struck out seven on the night.
Buehler will make $6.25 million in 2022 in the final season of a two-year contract signed last February. What originally started as a $3.25 million base salary grew by $3 million — $500,000 for each of 14, 16, 18, 20, 24, and 28 starts in his 33-start 2021 season. Buehler’s 2022 base salary could have increased by another $625,000 had he finished second or third in National League Cy Young voting, or by $1.125 million had he won the award. Buehler finished fourth.
The Dodgers will also pay Buehler the final $1 million installment of his $2 million signing bonus on January 15.
Though Buehler’s contract is up after 2022, Buehler still has two more years of salary arbitration eligibility through 2024 before reaching free agency.