Walker Buehler doesn’t have the best name for a pitcher, but early in his MLB career, that hasn’t held him back.
In Game 3 of the 2020 World Series, it’ll be Buehler starting for the Dodgers against the Rays. It’s a big game with the series tied at a game apiece, but for Buehler, it’s more than that. The Dodgers’ franchise has a history of producing ace pitchers — the best teams in LA history rode at least one or two arms to glory. Buehler is set up to be next in line of a group that includes Julio Urias and Dustin May to take the reins eventually from Clayton Kershaw. For Buehler, Game 3 is a chance to show the world that he’s the next great Dodgers ace.
Below, we take a look back at some of the best LA pitchers to come before Buehler, and we break down just how good Buehler can really be.
Best pitchers in Los Angeles Dodgers history
Clayton Kershaw (2008-present)
You can argue whether Kershaw or Koufax is the greater Dodgers pitcher, but this list isn’t meant to be in ranking order, so do that arguing elsewhere.
What isn’t arguable is Kershaw’s greatness. He’s a three-time Cy Young Award winner and won the 2014 NL MVP. His career regular season ERA is 2.43, despite pitching now into an era of juiced baseballs and launch-angle swings. Kershaw was drafted by the Dodgers seventh overall out of high school, debuted as a 20-year old and has been with the franchise his entire career.
Sandy Koufax (1955-1966)
For the second six-year period in Koufax’s Dodgers career, he was the best pitcher in baseball. After he began to rely more on his nasty curveball in 1961, Koufax was untouchable from 1962-66. In that span, he struck out 1,444 batters in 1,377 innings while throwing 100 complete games, 33 of those shutouts, four of those no-hitters, including a 1965 perfect game.
Koufax struck out a then-record 382 batters in 1965. But an arthritic condition in Koufax’s elbow caused him pain pitching throughout 1966 and cause him to retire at the age of 30, limiting his accumulation of counting stats in potential later years.
Don Drysdale (1956-1969)
Dysdale developed into a great slightly before Koufax, and as the lefty Koufax found his curveball in 1962, the righty Drysdale won the NL Cy Young Award. Drysdale had a fearsome heater, and he wasn’t afraid to work inside, hitting an NL record 154 batters in his career.
A 2.95 ERA sits as Drysdale’s final career total, buoyed by a 1968 streak of 58.2 consecutive scoreless innings that would later be topped by Orel Hershiser.
Orel Hershiser (1983-94, 2000)
Hersheiser was the ace for the Dodgers’ last World Series title in 1988. He threw two complete games in the Fall Classic against Oakland, including a three-hit shutout in Game 2 when Hersheiser himself put up three hits of his own. He won the Cy Young in that 1988 season, as well.
In Hershiser’s 1983-94 stint with the Dodgers he put up an even 3.00 ERA and won 134 ballgames for L.A.
Fernando Valenzuela (1980-1990)
A chunky left-handed pitcher from Mexico who had a screwball in his arsenal, Valenzuela was one of the more lovable and unique pitchers in baseball history. He threw a complete game in each of his first eight starts in 1981 as a 20-year old to become a national story.
Valenzuela didn’t have as dominating a Dodgers career as some of the other pitchers on this list, but he was as fun or more fun than any of them.
Don Newcombe (1949-51, 1954-58)
Newcombe was the third Black pitcher to appear in a Major League Baseball game, and the first for the Dodgers. He won Rookie of the Year in that 1949 season, going 17-8. He missed two years of his career due to military service.
Newcombe’s best year came in 1956, when he won both the Cy Young Award and MVP of the National League. That came thanks to a 27-7 record and a 3.06 ERA. Newcombe was also one of the best hitting pitchers of all time, batting .271 with 15 career home runs.
Dazzy Vance (1922-32, 1935)
Vance didn’t join the Dodgers until he was 31, and at that point he hadn’t been much of an MLB pitcher. But with a newly added curveball, he led the NL in strikeouts across the next seven seasons total and won 20 games in three separate seasons while even adding a no-hitter.
His best season came in 1924, when he struck out 261 batters and had a 2.16 ERA. His full name was “Charles Arthur Vance,” and he earned the nickname “Dazzy” for a dazzling fastball in his early semipro career.
Don Sutton (1966-80, 1988)
Sutton won 324 games in his MLB career, including 233 with the Dodgers. He just lasted a very long time, and while he never won any sort of major award, his final numbers speak for themselves.
In 1972, Sutton had a career-low 2.08 ERA and struck out 207 hitters.
Is Walker Buehler the heir to Clayton Kershaw?
The Dodgers drafted Buehler 24th overall in 2015 out of the pitching factory that is Vanderbilt University, so there were certainly high expectations for him from the start. But this is also a Dodgers organization that cranks out pitchers throwing 100 with good secondary stuff on a pretty regular basis, so Buehler would have to be a step above the rest to truly inherit Kershaw’s ace role for good.
In some ways, Buehler is nothing like Kershaw. He’s right-handed, not left. He went to college and didn’t debut until he was 22, while Kershaw was in the bigs at 20. Buehler’s a harder thrower without a big loopy curveball. But the dominance approaches early-career Kershaw levels.
Because this is a hitter-friendlier era than when Kershaw broke in, the best way to account for effectiveness in Buehler’s first three full seasons compared to Kershaw’s is to use ERA+, which takes into account the overall league ERA to determine a player’s ability to limit runs (the higher the ERA+, the better). In Kershaw’s first three full seasons, he had an ERA+ of 146. Buehler had an ERA+ of 134 in his first three seasons. Buehler’s 10.3 K/9 does exceed Kershaw’s 9.5 K/9 in those first three seasons, though.
The Dodgers already seem to view Buehler as the new ace in some ways. He got the ball to open their postseason, not Kershaw, which is somewhat about timing but can also be manipulated if LA wanted to go the other way. So that’s more than nothing.
This isn’t to suggest Kershaw’s time as a stud is over. Maybe Buehler is more like the Don Drysdale to Kershaw’s Sandy Koufax, a secondary piece that can have some more effective seasons once Kershaw declines and/or moves on. The Dodgers will certainly need more than one star starter to maintain their stranglehold on the NL West, and Buehler appears to be the right place to start in looking for both Kershaw’s sidekick and future heir.
How good can Walker Buehler be?
Baseball Reference has a metric it calls Similarity Score, where it compares a player’s statistics to other players in an attempt to determine who is most statistically similar. It can often give us an idea of what a player can become.
Some of the pitchers it lists Buehler as most similar with include soon-to-be AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, along with long-time major leaguers David Cone and Matt Morris, neither of whom were superstars but both of whom were very good for a long time.
The most intriguing name to show up in the similarity section is the player Buehler was most similar with through his age-24 season: Tim Lincecum. Lincecum was one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball before a rapid decline in his health and stuff ended his career early. At 6-2, Buehler is bigger than Lincecum and should have better longevity. And viewing it through that post-age 24 lens allows us to ignore the noise created by a weird, shortened season. So maybe Buehler will be the next Lincecum.
For those keeping score at home, Lincecum made four All-Star Games, won three World Series and won the Cy Young in the National League twice. The Dodgers would take outcomes like that for Buehler, with the potential for longevity an added bonus.
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