The results from the Pitcher List Experts Mocks are in, and the consensus is that Walker Buehler will be a top five starting pitcher in 2020. He was the fifth starter taken in two of the three leagues and was the third starter taken in the third league. This coincides with the results of the 2 Early Mocks, in which Buehler emerged with the fifth-highest ADP among starting pitchers.
I don’t get it.
I do understand why Buehler would be considered part of the second tier that lies just below the Big Four of Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom. He got better at inducing whiffs and chases in 2019, had the seventh-highest K-BB% (24.2 percent) among qualified starters. Buehler should get plenty of run support from the Dodgers’ offense, and he is 25 with room to get even better. In bumping up his innings total from 137.1 innings in 2018 to 182.1 innings in 2019, he is on the right track to becoming a consistent innings eater.
With all of this in his favor, Buehler’s appeal as a top five starter is not just limited to those of us who participate in industry mocks. A majority of respondents to a Twitter poll I published agreed that he belonged in the top five.
Poll: Would you take Walker Buehler as one of the first five SPs in 2020 drafts?
— Al Melchior (@almelchiorBB) November 25, 2019
Yet from at least a couple of perspectives, his inclusion in the top five doesn’t make sense. I’ll start with the simplest one first. Buehler ranked 12th among starting pitchers in 5×5 Roto value for 2019. It is more than reasonable to project that he will be even more valuable in 2020, if for no other reason that he should pitch more innings while not experiencing skills decline. Still, seven spots is a lot of ground to make up to get into the top five, and it’s asking a lot to assume Buehler will improve enough to leapfrog Zack Greinke, Jack Flaherty and Stephen Strasburg among others. That doesn’t even take into account that he would have to outearn Blake Snell and Mike Clevinger, neither of whom pitched a full season in 2019, or be better than a potentially resurgent Chris Sale.
The second argument against Buehler in the top five is the even more compelling one. To be good enough to hang with Cole, Scherzer et. al., it is important to be among the best pitchers in the majors at getting strikeouts and minimizing walks. In turn, it is critical to be among the best at inducing swinging strikes as well as chases on out-of-zone pitches. Cole, Scherzer and Verlander were the top three pitchers for SwStr% in 2019, and deGrom ranked fifth. Buehler, meanwhile, was all the way down at 20th out of 61 qualified pitchers. deGrom and Verlander were the top two starters in O-Swing%, and Scherzer ranked 10th. Cole lagged behind at 16th, but he was still six spots ahead of Buehler.
We can argue that Buehler will get better in both of these regards and close the gap on the Big Four in 2020. He is not, however, clearly the most likely candidate to catch up to them. Shane Bieber ranked in the top 15 in both SwStr% and O-Swing% and already has a 210-plus inning season under his belt. Though he did not make the cutoff for a qualified starter, Clevinger posted a 15.2 percent SwStr% that was higher than Bieber’s and only 0.2 percentage points below deGrom’s. Jack Flaherty’s 13.8 percent SwStr% was also superior to Buehler’s 12.1 percent mark, and though his O-Swing% was 1.5 percentage points lower at 32.4 percent, it was above-average and contributed to a 7.1 percent walk rate and an 0.97 WHIP (more on this later).
Buehler is clearly in the discussion to rank just behind the Big Four, but he does not have a clear advantage over the likes of Bieber, Clevinger and Flaherty. One could argue that Buehler may compensate for getting fewer whiffs and chases than Bieber, because the latter of these righties has been among the worst pitchers in the majors at limiting exit velocities on flyballs and line drives as well as on grounders over the last two seasons. As the table below shows, that deficiency has made Bieber an average pitcher in terms of batting average allowed and slugging percentage allowed, even in spite of his superb whiff rate from 2019. Buehler has been below the median in average exit velocity on flyballs and line drives (EV FB/LD), but above the median in average exit velocity on ground balls (EV GB). That would explain how he has been able to allow only 0.9 home runs per nine innings over the last two seasons, though his EV GB is at odds with his .211 Avg allowed. When factoring in that Buehler has compiled one of the majors’ lowest rates of pulled grounders allowed over the last two years (46.7 percent), it makes it hard to expect that he will continue to hold opponents to such a low batting average. This part of Buehler’s profile might make it worthwhile to take a chance on Bieber instead, given his superior history of getting swinging strikes and avoiding walks.
Flaherty and Clevinger are even better alternatives to Buehler, given that they have been better than average at limiting exit velocities on balls in the air and on the ground. All three starters can be counted on to limit the long ball, but Flaherty and Clevinger could have an edge in limiting hits when balls are in play, due to their lower EV GB over the last two seasons. Even though Buehler was better at getting chases on out-of-zone pitches than they were this season, Flaherty and Clevinger aren’t necessarily less helpful for WHIP than him, because of their potential for a low BABIP.
In short, both Flaherty and Clevinger have been better at getting whiffs than Buehler, and neither is a greater liability in the ERA and WHIP categories. If there is a reason to choose Buehler ahead of either of them, greater run support is probably the best one. I’d rather have Flaherty or Clevinger, who already have 195-inning seasons to their credit. It’s close to a tossup between them as to whom I will rank fifth among starting pitchers, but as of now, I am giving Flaherty the edge, with the park factors for their respective home venues and Clevinger’s 2019 IL stint for a back strain being the tiebreakers.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.