The Tampa Bay Rays will face Los Angeles starter Walker Buehler as the Dodgers’ emerging ace takes the mound for game three of the World Series.
In addition to the impressive beginning to his career (3.15 ERA in 365.2 innings over three years), Buehler has started 10 postseason games, throwing 55.1 total innings with a 2.44 ERA and 73 strikeouts. In 2020, he has pitched 19 innings over four games, racking up 29 strikeouts and allowing only four hits.
Buehler is a tough matchup for any team, including the strikeout-prone Rays. But not everything has gone smoothly for the young righty in 2020.
Buehler has been on the Injured List twice this season due to a blister on his right hand. This is key, as the blister has recently led to him using his curveball more than his cutter as his secondary pitch.
Buehler throws a high-90s fastball, a low-90s cutter, a high-80s cutter, and a low-80s curve. They’re all good pitches, and he can throw any of them to both righties and lefties, with the curve generally playing the biggest role in his plan against left-handed hitting, the slider a more significant role against right-handed hitting, and the cutter used evenly against both.
But what pitches he leans on in any given game is not entirely his choice. As his manager, Dave Roberts said after Buehler’s first NLCS start, which blister is acting up affects what Buehler is able to throw:
Roberts later clarified that “it,” singular, is not the correct way to characterize Buehler’s issue; instead, the right-hander has been dealing with multiple blisters for more than a month. The one on his middle finger affects him most when he attempts to put spin on his curveball. The one on his index finger interferes with his slider and cutter.
This matters because Buehler generally uses those pithces in different areas, with his cutter living in the strike zone much more than his curve, which he uses to get hitters to chase.
We saw this play out in his two starts in the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves.
In game one, he utilized his cutter 11% of the time and threw his curve 23% of the time, with 35% of his curveballs resulting in a ball. This helped contribute to his five walks in the game.
But in game six, Buehler came out throwing a closer mix to his typical game plan. He increased his cutter usage to 15% of his pitches and reduced the curve down to 11% resulting in no walks, though he did give up four more hits.
If he has the confidence and ability to throw his cutter when he needs to, and only go to the curve when he’s looking for that chase, he could have a dominant outing.
Strikeouts will be the key in this game
You can expect to see Buehler tally his fair share of strikeouts in game three. He’s racked up at least six strikeouts in all of his postseason starts and the Rays have been a feast or famine offense with homers and strikeouts.
To be fair, the Rays know that those strikeouts are a necessary evil in their approach. But against a pitcher who has given up plenty of hard hits, ranking in the bottom 20th percentile of allowed exit velocity, the Rays will need to figure out a way to put the ball in play to capitalize.
“When you’ve got to prepare as a hitter to cover 98 to 100 mph but also cover the 88 to 90 mph breaking ball, you know, tip your cap you’re going to see strikeouts in this game,” Rays Manager Kevin Cash said Thursday to the media.
Strikeouts are a byproduct of the evolution of modern pitchers and something the Rays will have to deal with, but the way they approach this game will need to depend on what version of Buehler rolls into game three. If he comes with a curveball-heavy approach, the Rays will need to be patient at the plate, not chase below the zone, and take their walks. If he’s cutter heavy, they may need a more aggressive approach to succeed, attacking fastballs and cutters in the zone.
In either circumstance, if the Rays are to win game three, they will have to figure out a way to minimize the strikeouts against one of the better strikeout pitchers in the game right now. Otherwise the Rays will simply run out of time.