You’ll note the title of this post has changed relative to its predecessors. The previous presumption didn’t work, so perhaps an expectation adjustment is in order.
The thing is, Walker Buehler is good. It’s not that Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw aren’t good, but that Buehler has a 68 ERA-, 76 FIP-, and 79 xFIP-, and no-hit the Rockies into the sixth inning in a Game 163 on Monday. It’s also that preparing for Walker Buehler might be difficult, as the below shows:
That’s the sort of profile that looks like the pitch mix and sequencing of a junkballer, but Buehler is absolutely no junkballer. His four-seamer and sinker generate tons of whiffs (yes, he gets whiffs on his sinker), all of his pitches get more grounders than usual and his curve of a “hit me into the dirt” machine, and his only pitch that’s even remotely prone is the same four-seam fastball that’s whiffed on over 30 percent of the time it’s swung at. On the year, the only pitch that’s had net-negative results for him has been his changeup, which is the pitch he throws the least (.346 xwOBA-against in 26 results).
With a six-pitch mix, preparation is very difficult, and as the chart above shows, Buehler doesn’t have many general tendencies either. First time through the order, he tends to throw more fastballs as the first pitch, but since we already saw both Ryu and Kershaw adjust away from doing that, the Braves can’t count on this as a given. Second time through the order, there’s more variation in approach but it’s not easy to summarize (see here) — righties should expect more sinkers when ahead in the count and should try to avoid hitting them weakly for easy outs; lefties should expect more cutters at that point, and more fastballs with two strikes. It’s not clear whether Buehler will go a third time through the order, or whether the Dodgers will sense the blood in the water and go for the jugular with their bullpen, but expect his approach to evolve again if he does so, including heavy use of fastballs to put righties away at that point.
Buehler already faced the Braves once, in June, and his approach was... very specific!
Of course, he probably won’t do the same thing twice. Nor will he necessarily pitch the way he did in Game 163, which is also very different from his overall tendency.
When Buehler started against the Braves, they only managed a run by stringing together a single and a double. In Buehler’s worst start of the year, which came against Philadelphia, he was done in by one big inning, which included a solo homer, an RBI double by Andrew Knapp, and a 3-RBI triple by Carlos Santana (somehow). I don’t know if the Braves, or the universe, has that kind of magic in store for today. I don’t know how they’re preparing for Buehler, whether it’s truly possible to prepare for a guy with his degree of eclecticism, or what their gameplan is. I don’t know if they can beat the Dodgers, but hopefully they do.
If there’s one thing the Braves have done this year, it’s win when their backs have been against some kind of metaphorical wall. They did it a lot with all those walkoffs in April and May, and while the walkoffs themselves disappeared, they still found another gear in many close-and-late scenarios. More broadly, they’ve done it all season, taking minuscule playoff odds and expanding them rather than contracting them. They did it to clinch the division, coming from behind to stomp the Phillies again and again. Can they do something similar tonight? Can they do something similar in this series? Probably not seems the safe bet, but the Braves haven’t exactly been kind to safe bets this entire year.