LOS ANGELES — From the time he was drafted, Walker Buehler’s arrival at Dodger Stadium felt like a question of “when,” not “if.”
Tuesday was the day. Hanging in a corner clubhouse locker next to pitcher Rich Hill, a No. 62 jersey had Buehler’s name on it. The 23-year-old right-hander with a big fastball was ready to begin the next chapter of his career.
Buehler was not, however, ready to speculate about what he could bring to the Dodgers’ bullpen in October.
“I’m not worried about the playoff roster, to be honest,” he said. “I’m so ecstatic to be here and be a part of this team that’s the best team in baseball, I’m not too worried about that right now.”
To a degree, Buehler is still figuring out who he is as a relief pitcher. He’d been a starter his entire life, even as he recovered from the Tommy John surgery performed shortly after the Dodgers made him their first-round draft pick in June 2015.
This year the Dodgers’ front office was faced with a choice. Should they allow Buehler to reach his innings limit as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, or taper back and give the kid two months to see what he can do out of the bullpen? A decision was made. Buehler hasn’t started a game since July.
At first, Buehler struggled. He needed 36 pitches to record four outs in his first relief appearance at Triple-A, allowing three runs. Two scoreless relief appearances followed, each lasting two innings. Buehler then allowed a run in each of his next two outings.
The biggest adjustment, he said, was that “you don’t get to settle in. The 0-0 fastball on your first pitch of the game, typically it’s a given. It’s not. Your attention to detail has to be higher in the bullpen so that when you do get out there you’re all ready to go. … There’s this whole, ‘You can have a rough first (inning) and find yourself’ – that doesn’t work in the bullpen.”.
Now that Buehler has arrived, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he’d look for some low-leverage situations to provide a soft landing. Buehler’s raw tools suggest it might not matter who he faces or when.
In August 2015, Buehler had the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow replaced, a procedure that usually carries a 12- to 18-month recovery. He was facing live hitters less than a year later. The first time he threw live batting practice, Buehler said his fastball was clocked at 94 to 98 mph – faster than he threw as a collegian at…