Walker Buehler delivers increased velocity with a bit of rust in return for the Dodgers

The return of 29-year-old right-hander Walker Buehler to the Dodger Stadium mound on Monday was a welcome sight not just for his team and its fans but also for a broader baseball world that lately has been inundated with bad news regarding our favorite pitchers’ health status.

Buehler’s return is small consolation in relation to the staggering number of arms we’ve lost to the injured list in recent months, but it’s an exciting development nevertheless, especially considering the trajectory the Dodgers starter seemed to be on before he got hurt. From 2018 to 2021, Buehler was a top-10 starting pitcher in baseball by most measures, and he seemed to only be getting better. Watching him get injured just as he seemed to be peaking was a tough pill to swallow, and one can imagine that feeling was tenfold for Buehler and those around him.

Fresh off an exquisite campaign in which he finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting, Buehler was the 2022 Opening Day starter for the Dodgers — a notable sign of his status considering the loaded rotation around him. That group featured three All-Stars (Clayton Kershaw, Tyler Anderson, Tony Gonsolin) and two other southpaws who went on to enjoy career seasons (Julio Urias, Andrew Heaney). Buehler, though, had his season cut short when he hit the shelf due to elbow issues in June, resulting in Tommy John surgery in late August — the second of his career, roughly seven years removed from his first procedure shortly after he was drafted by the Dodgers in 2015.

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Fast-forward to his long-awaited return nearly two years later, and Buehler joins a similarly star-studded rotation, albeit one made up of entirely new characters. On Tuesday, 25-year-old phenom Yoshinobu Yamamoto will follow Buehler in just his eighth MLB start. After that, Gavin Stone — who was in Double-A the last time Buehler pitched for L.A. — will take the hill. Next will come Tyler Glasnow, who was rehabbing his own Tommy John surgery with the Rays two years ago. Buehler’s final new rotation-mate is veteran lefty James Paxton, who delivered a season-high 6 2/3 innings on Sunday vs. Atlanta. Several familiar faces also remain in the organization — Kershaw, Gonsolin and Dustin May, among others — each working their way back from injury.

The assortment of high-profile acquisitions, brought in this winter due in large part to the number of arms projected to start the season on the IL, have each made strong first impressions. But for the Dodgers, there’s immense comfort and joy in seeing a homegrown star such as Buehler complete the rehab journey and reestablish himself as a fixture of the rotation.

And it was a prolonged ramp-up back into action for the talented righty. Buehler pitched in Triple-A last September, with cautious whispers of a possible return in the postseason before the Dodgers decided to shut him down and focus on a fully healthy return in 2024, when there could be no looming concerns about whether they’d rushed him back too quickly. In turn, the Dodgers continued to take it easy with Buehler entering 2024, allowing him a full month of rehab starts before activating him for Monday’s outing against Miami.

In his six rehab outings (one with Low-A Rancho Cucamonga, five with Triple-A Oklahoma City), Buehler generally looked like himself, even if the results (4.15 ERA in 21 2/3 IP) were fairly pedestrian. The pitch mix he displayed in his five Triple-A starts closely resembled what he showed in his 12 starts in 2022 but with a tick less velocity across the board. His fastball averaged 94 mph and maxed out at 95.9 — some healthy heat but a notch below the 95.2 mph average and 97.8 mph he touched in 2022, let alone the triple digits he routinely hit earlier in his career.

In the weeks leading up to his return to the majors, Buehler spoke about how he wouldn’t really know what he was capable of velocity-wise until he was back on the Dodger Stadium mound, with the adrenaline of facing MLB hitters. In other words, a pitcher can amp himself up only so much in front of a few thousand fans in a minor-league ballpark.

“Physically, it’s hard to get your arm to do certain things that it takes to throw really hard and know where it’s going — adrenaline is a big part of that,” Buehler said last week on the “Just Baseball” podcast. “We’re kinda hoping that adrenaline gets me to a different place, and then you can kinda start holding that because you do it every week.”

It didn’t take long Monday for Buehler to be proven correct. His first pitch of the night was 96.1 mph. Seven pitches later, he hit 97.6. Of the 77 total pitches he threw in his return, his 22 four-seamers averaged 95.9 mph — 0.7 mph harder than what he showed in 12 starts in 2022.

But while the velocity immediately resurfaced in an exciting way, the rust was clearly present in Buehler’s first few frames. He allowed two runs in the first inning on a couple of hard-hit balls from Bryan De La Cruz and Jesús Sánchez. In the second inning, he surrendered a homer to Nick Gordon and then dropped a toss from Freddie Freeman while covering first base on a groundout. His command of his breaking stuff was shaky, and he wore down a bit as the game went on, resulting in his completing only four innings.

Buehler’s rehab outings offered a lower-stakes environment in which he could shake off the rust without worrying about results. But in his first start for the 2024 Dodgers, he enjoyed a different kind of safety net: run support provided by the best lineup in baseball.

It took all of two batters for Buehler’s teammates to erase the two-run lead he staked the Marlins in the top of the first. A four-pitch walk to Mookie Betts was promptly followed by a titanic blast to center field from Shohei Ohtani, his league-leading 11th of the season. A couple of pitches later, Freddie Freeman launched an impressive round-tripper of his own to give the Dodgers the lead.

After Buehler allowed the Marlins to tie the game in the second inning, Dodgers No. 9 hitter James Outman responded with a titanic homer to center field in the bottom half of the inning to put LA up 5-3 en route to the 6-3 victory.

Buehler won’t always be guaranteed this kind of immediate response on days when he doesn’t have it, but this offensive firepower isn’t going anywhere. It likely won’t be long before he starts rattling off dominant outings of seven scoreless innings in which run support is barely needed, but for the outings when he isn’t at his best — of which there could be several as he works his way back into top condition — it has to be comforting to know he has an army of MVP candidates in the lineup ready to back him up.

With his first start in the books, a massive season lies ahead for Buehler as an individual and as a member of the Dodgers. As Los Angeles barrels toward another 100-win season and a 12th consecutive trip to the playoffs, Buehler is surely eager to contribute once again to the Dodgers’ annual championship goal. His most recent postseason start came in Game 6 of the 2021 NLCS, when he was the losing pitcher in the series clincher for Atlanta, and he’s surely ready to write a better ending for himself and his team this October.

What’s more, he’ll be gearing up for his first time as a free agent. For as lengthy as Buehler’s absence was, the timing of his return now affords him the opportunity to reassert himself as one of baseball’s best arms and in turn garner a serious payday on the open market this winter, either with the Dodgers or elsewhere.

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