‘He’s just that talented’: Stories from Walker Buehler’s rise as Dodgers ace

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler throws to the plate.
Named the opening day starter for the first time in his career, Walker Buehler is now firmly established as the Dodgers’ ace.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Karen Walker had never heard anyone use the word “perennial” in a speech before.

That’s the running joke, anyway, between Walker Buehler’s mom and the coach who helped teach him how to pitch.

It traces back to Buehler’s senior year at Henry Clay High in Lexington, Ky., during a postseason banquet for the baseball team. Walker was in the crowd when Ben Shaffar, the squad’s pitching coach and Buehler’s mentor, stood up in front of the room to say a few words about her son.

By then, Buehler’s star was already on the rise. He was an all-state pitcher. He was on his way to playing at Vanderbilt University. And it was clear a professional career was in his future.

Shaffar, however, sensed even more. He recognized the young right-hander’s rare combination of qualities, from his elastic frame to his advanced pitching acumen to his persistent internal drive. A former minor leaguer, Shaffar saw parallels between Buehler and some of the eventual big league stars he once played alongside.


So, after Buehler was honored with one team award after the next, Shaffar stood up and made a prediction.

For the first time since 2010, Clayton Kershaw won’t be the Dodgers’ opening day starter for a reason other than injury. Walker Buehler gets the nod.

March 24, 2022

“Everybody is looking at a guy that can be a perennial All-Star,” he announced. “A perennial frontline [major leaguer].”

Recalling the story by phone recently, Shaffar chuckled.

“He’s making me look pretty smart,” he said, “with what he’s accomplishing today.”

Indeed, a decade later, Buehler has made good on those lofty expectations.

He became a first-round pick. He quickly ascended to the big leagues. He shined in the playoffs and won a World Series. And April 8 he’ll be the opening day starter for the first time in his career, taking the ball in the Dodgers’ opener against the Colorado Rockies.

“The success that he’s had, I’m not surprised,” said Shaffar, one of the many influences in Buehler’s rise as one of baseball’s best pitchers, and perhaps the best arm on the Dodgers star-studded staff.

“Of course it’s surreal when you’re winning World Series, you’re making All-Star games and you’re pitching opening day for the L.A. Dodgers. That’s pretty cool stuff. But at the same time, not surprised.”

He isn’t alone, either.



Tim Corbin remembers the bullpen sessions.

Vanderbilt pitcher Walker Buehler yells after striking out a Georgia Tech batter June 2, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn.
(Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

That’s where, in the fall of 2012, the Vanderbilt head coach began to realize just what his program had in its new right-handed freshman — blown away by how the ball jumped from Buehler’s hand, and by the comprehensive pitching concepts formulating in his mind.

“He was talking about manipulating the ball, he was talking about grips, he was talking about delivery,” Corbin said. “You could sense that he had more of an advanced thought process about the delivery and how to pitch than any other kid his age. I always told him, if baseball doesn’t work, he’s gonna end up being a teacher or a coach inside the sport.”

As it turned out, Plan A came together just fine.

Over three years at Vanderbilt, Buehler grew into his long, lanky frame. He added velocity to his fastball. And he transformed into a top prospect, selected 24th overall by the Dodgers after his junior year in 2015.

He built a foundation for his pro career, too, matching his baseball intelligence with a meticulous intensity that Corbin believes carries on today.

“I don’t think much has changed in him,” the coach said. “The confidence on the mound, the compete is the same.”

So does anything look different when Corbin watches Buehler with the Dodgers now?

“Yeah,” he laughed, making note of Buehler’s trademark wardrobe choice as a big leaguer. “Just tighter pants.”



Phil Bickford still relives the playoff games.

Not any October occasions under big league lights but, rather, summer contests along the north Atlantic coast.

Before they were teammates on the Dodgers, Bickford and Buehler played together in the Cape Cod Baseball League, a collegiate showcase circuit featuring the country’s top amateur players.

“The stuff is there, right? The talent’s there. But he posted every fifth day. He went out and did what he was supposed to do and pitched really well, super consistent. That was really cool to see.”

— Clayton Kershaw on Walker Buehler’s 2021 performance

Buehler was a late arrival during the 2014 season after helping Vanderbilt win the College World Series. But even amid one of the sport’s most talent-rich environments, it didn’t take long for the right-hander to stand out.

“You could tell,” Bickford said. “The [Cape Cod] talent is incredible. Every team has 15 to 20 guys drafted. You could tell [with Walker] though. It was just different.”


That became clear during the Cape Cod playoffs, when Buehler threw 7⅓ scoreless innings in one start and eight scoreless in the next. Standing at his locker last week, Bickford could still recall the stat lines.

“You’re just like, ‘Dang, this is something special,’” he said.


Carson Fulmer cherishes the friendship.

It was the first thing the right-hander thought of when he was selected by the Dodgers in the minor league Rule 5 draft this winter, knowing that years removed from their time together anchoring Vanderbilt’s weekend rotation, Fulmer and Buehler would be reunited.

“He’s one of my best friends,” Fulmer said. “And he’s one of my best pitching coaches.”

Unlike Buehler, Fulmer’s big league career has yet to flourish, with the former eighth overall draft pick posting a 6.41 ERA over 74 career appearances with four organizations.

Once fearful of a patchwork pitching plan, the Dodgers are confident their pitchers will be built up close to normal despite condensed spring training.

March 28, 2022

Coming to the Dodgers, however, has been a breath of fresh air — not only because of the organization’s reputation of developing pitchers, but also because, before he was sent to minor league camp last week, Fulmer got to reconnect with his old teammate.

Fulmer’s stall was next to Buehler’s in the Dodgers clubhouse at Camelback Ranch this month, and he said Buehler was one of his biggest sounding boards as he worked through adjustments over the course of the spring.


In many ways, it was similar to the conversations they had in college. Except that now, there was one subtle difference.

“He thinks the same way he did in college,” Fulmer said. “But he’s just experienced. He’s been on the biggest stage. He’s had success here.”


It was one of Brandon Gomes’ first assignments with the Dodgers.

Before he became the club’s general manager and shortly after his playing career ended, Gomes was hired as a minor league pitching coordinator in 2017. And within his first couple weeks on the job, he began working with Buehler while the pitcher plotted a return from Tommy John surgery.

While Buehler entered the campaign healthy, he still didn’t appear to be close to the big leagues, instead starting the year in high Class A.

Gomes, however, saw a roadmap quickly develop, realizing “that he’s just that talented, that we can just keep pushing him.”

Walker Buehler releases a pitch against the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 7, 2017
Walker Buehler makes his major league debut as a relief pitcher against the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 7, 2017, at Dodger Stadium.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Indeed, Buehler progressed to double-A by mid-May, then triple-A in late July. His MLB debut came as a reliever in September. And after a brief return to the minors to start the 2018 season, he cemented his place in the Dodgers rotation less than a month into the year — blossoming into an ace over the four seasons since.

“He’s layering on what he’s learned over each season,” Gomes said. “He keeps soaking up things and evolving in a way to be a more dynamic pitcher, to continually give himself options.”


Austin Barnes first noticed the fastball.

When the catcher started working with Buehler upon his arrival in the majors, it was the pitch that impressed him most in the right-hander’s arsenal.

“Really explosive,” Barnes called it. “Really special.”

For as much as Buehler likes to tinker with his pitches, tweaking grips or adjusting arm slots between — and sometimes even during — starts, the four-seamer has become his bread and butter, ranking above average in the majors in velocity and among the best in spin rate.


Barnes was behind the plate the night Buehler threw perhaps his most important heaters, too, when in Game 6 of the 2020 National League Championship Series he famously escaped a bases-loaded jam by pumping almost nothing but four-seamers past three straight Atlanta Braves batters.

It became one of the defining moments of Buehler’s young career, and of the Dodgers’ run to the title.

“He was just composed and focused on making each pitch,” Barnes recalled. “He’s always had confidence, and in moments like that, he just goes on it.”


Mark Prior has watched most of Buehler’s major league career up close, first as the Dodgers bullpen coach in 2018 and 2019, then as the pitching coach since being promoted in 2020.

He’s seen countless areas of growth in Buehler’s game over the years, from the incorporation of cutters and changeups that helped Buehler become more efficient, to the way the fifth-year big leaguer learned to balance recovery and preparation between starts.


“He’s evolved,” Prior said. “He’s learned how to manage workloads. And not just the workload in the game, but everything that goes into it.”

“I don’t think much has changed in him. The confidence on the mound, the compete is the same.”

— Tim Corbin, who coached Walker Buehler at Vanderbilt

The numbers back it up. Since the start of 2019, Buehler not only ranks among MLB leaders in ERA (2.89, good for fourth), strikeouts (469, which ranks 11th) and wins above replacement (11.1, according to Fangraphs, which is seventh), but he’s also top-20 in starts and innings pitched.

“He doesn’t want to just be a workhorse for one year,” Prior said. “He wants to be able to do something consistently.”


Clayton Kershaw cites last season as the defining moment.

Buehler already accomplished much before 2021: an All-Star appearance, a playoff track record and a World Series ring. But he had yet to have a 200-inning season, a campaign where he made every start every time through the rotation.


Kershaw knows as well as anyone the grind of such a task, the mental wear and physical toll of a season with no extended breaks — one outing after another, every fifth game, for six months in a row.

So it wasn’t lost on Kershaw when Buehler led the majors with 33 starts last season, posting a 2.47 ERA over 207 ⅔ innings, the first 200-inning season by any Dodger pitcher since Kershaw and Zack Greinke each reached the threshold in 2015. Or when Buehler made four more starts in the postseason, including two on short rest for the first time in his career.

“The one thing you can say about Walker, that I respect a lot, is what happened last year,” Kershaw said. “He just continued to take the ball every fifth day. Continued to do it. Continued to do it. All the way through the postseason. Continued to do it.

Dodgers' Walker Buehler, left and Clayton Kershaw play a bit of football for fun
Dodgers pitchers Walker Buehler, left, and Clayton Kershaw play football before Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against Atlanta on Oct. 20 at Dodger Stadium.
(Jae Hong / Associated Press)

“He was a workhorse. And I just love the fact he rose to that occasion and did it. The stuff is there, right? The talent’s there. But he posted every fifth day. He went out and did what he was supposed to do and pitched really well, super consistent. That was really cool to see.”

That’s why, when Buehler was named the opening day starter by manager Dave Roberts last week, taking over a role Kershaw has held (except in years he’s been injured) for more than a decade, the Dodgers’ veteran ace had no issue ceding the honor to their newest star pitcher.


After five MLB seasons, and more than a decade impressing coaches and teammates and one future Hall of Famer in particular, Buehler’s ascent to the top of the Dodgers rotation was complete.

“He deserves it,” Kershaw said. “I don’t know if happy’s the right word, but I’m proud of him. I think he’s done a lot of great things. ... I think, more than anything, we just trust him on the mound and it’s big. I think when a team has trust in you, it’s a good feeling and we’re excited to have him out there.”