March 2nd, 2018
Walker Buehler was drafted in the 1st round of the MLB draft in 2015 out of Vanderbilt University by the Dodgers, after an incredibly successful career there that included being a part of two college world series teams including the 2014 national championship squad. Shortly after getting drafted, Walker was diagnosed with a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery to repair it. Walker did not make his professional debut until August of 2016, and since then, his stock has skyrocketed. Last year, Walker began the season at High-A and would eventually finish the year pitching out of the bullpen for the Dodgers. In 88.2 inning in the Minors, Buehler had a 3.35 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, .201 BAA, a 34.9 K% and an 8.7% BB%, and then in 9.1 innings with the Dodgers he struck out 12 batters while showcasing an impressive arsenal of offerings. Walker enters the 2018 season ranked as the Dodgers #1 prospect and #12 in all of baseball by MLB.com.
In high school, Jonathan had the opportunity to play with Walker when they were teammates on Marucci Elite, a showcase team out of Baton Rouge for the 2010 WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Florida. This shared bond between Jonathan and Walker pegged him as someone we were extremely excited to potentially talk to. Walker shared a ton of incredible insights with us that we are excited to share with you all!
Matthew de Marte: You are a #VandyBoy. How special is this program to you and why do you think they have so much success producing top talent every year?
WB: I think it is a combination of things. I think the caliber of player we get is higher than a lot of schools to be honest, just because typically a guy who commits to Vanderbilt actually wants to come to Vanderbilt. They are not just picking the coolest hat to put on. A lot of our guys come from good educational backgrounds, and we have a lot of smart guys come and play here. They understand that signing for x-amount does not mean they are going to be set up for the rest of their life. Going to college, especially at a place like Vandy, is going to help them not just as baseball players, but long-term having that degree it is a leg up in most fields.
MD: Kyle Boddy has tweeted about your Tommy John surgery before. Boddy says it was a blessing for you and allowed for your pitch arsenal to improve. How much do you think getting TJ has actually had a positive impact on your career?
WB: It is hard to say it hasn’t. The year after, the year that I was finally healthy and got to where I am now. You know it is interesting, I do not know how much the surgery helps. It’s the rehab, lifting, thinking, and sitting at your house by yourself where you learn more from it than just repairing a ligament. I think from the outside view, I know Kyle and what he is saying is not untrue, I just think that there is a lot else that goes into it. The surgery is kind of the catalyst for that stuff. Once you blow out, you realize maybe there was some stuff I wasn’t doing right or doing enough of or taking care of myself the right way or whatever it may be. You learn that stuff real quick when you are out for a year.
MD: Do you consider yourself a “Driveline guy?”
WB: I wouldn’t say I am a Driveline guy. I have never trained there. I have done a lot of research on the weighted ball stuff and talked to Kyle (Boddy) a lot about it. I would say I am about as involved in it as you can be without training there. I do some lessons here and there, and I incorporate some of that stuff. I won’t give a 12-year-old kid a weighted ball, but I will talk to a 16/17-year-old kid about how it could potentially help them with velocity. To me at least, I don’t know what Kyle would say, the throwing of the weighted ball is probably the least important part of that program. I think the recovery stuff they have created; the ability to go in and move weight and lift the way that they do is extremely important. I think what comes about from weighted balls is improved arm action. For a lot of guys that means shortened arm action and more efficient which I think leads to the velocity gains that some of these guys get from the program.
MD: I just want to touch upon something you mentioned in your previous answer. You mentioned weight lifting. Would you say before incorporating Driveline protocols were you not lifting as heavy?
WB: No, we lifted pretty heavy in college. Our strength and conditioning program was pretty good, and you can see that just with the size of a lot of our guys. What happens is when you are in a rehab program, you don’t have to not be sore because you don’t have to pitch. You can dig in and get after it in the weight room in a way during a typical season you can’t. That’s where that kind of stuff started, and then you take that into your routine. Then you can do more weight and not be sore. I have experience with the Driveline program. Probably the closest that I have is when they had the first group of guys the Dodgers took through the program and had Kyle at our place. So I more or less got to watch them lift as opposed to lifting with them. They get after it, trying to create strength in every part of your body is a huge deal. Especially when you are trying to recreate and replicate a specific delivery over two hours and a 100 pitches, it is a big deal.
MD: What are your favorite aspects of the Driveline program?
WB: The recovery is key. I do my own recovery protocol, but that is the thing they probably do substantially better than anyone else. Not many people focus on recovery, and that is one of their big things, so they cover that gap very well if that makes sense. To me, the program is about creating better arm action and the arm spiral theory is something that I have looked into and tried to understand because for some people that happens naturally and I think I am one of those people. I think learning how to create that movement and make it as efficient as possible is the biggest thing that if you work with them or train like them somewhere else. That should be the goal, to create that arm action. It is not going to be for everyone, not everyone can do it, but if you train it correctly, you are going to have a lot better chance of doing it. I think that Kyle has found a way to get a pretty high percentage of guys to clean their arm action, and that is a big deal.
MD: It sounds like you do a good amount of research on your own. Besides Kyle and the Driveline team, is there anyone else whose stuff you have looked into and researched that have had a significant impact on you?
WB: I had a pitching coach in high school who I worked with privately who then began to work with my high school team my junior and senior year. His name is Ben Shoffer. He set me up with some really good mechanical cues as I was growing up and learning how to create some leverage out of my body. I am not a super tall guy, but I feel like I can throw the ball with some velocity and downhill to it, which is all leverage based. I think from there, then working with a guy like Scott Brown (Vandy pitching coach). He will give you all the puzzle pieces in the world and kind of direct you, but he is going to let you figure it out. I have taken that mentality of watching guys and watching simple highlight videos of certain guys and how they execute different things. Then you sit there and try and feel it in your own body and you get on a mound and try it, and it feels right, and then you can move from there. You just build this catalog of information because it’s not always going to go right and one cue isn’t always going to make you do the right thing, so learning as many ways to tell yourself the same four or five things that are staples in your delivery I think are really big.
MD: Are you doing anything with pitch design this offseason to boost your already impressive arsenal?
WB: For me, it is all about trying to simplify and make sure things spin the right way and are doing what I want. I have been working on my slider a lot this offseason and trying to create a little bit bigger pitch shape because last year it would be a cutter at times, a slider at times, and sometimes it would back up. It didn’t work at the highest level, so for me, it is trying to create a little bit bigger pitch shape so that I can move it across the zone better and get more swing and misses off of it. As opposed to it being a ground ball here it is pitch. You are always trying to work on commanding everything better. Learning, visually to a hitter that starts as a strike and ends as a ball and a pitch that starts as a ball and ends as a strike has been my biggest point of emphasis.
MD: How critical were your relief appearances last year to your preparation for the upcoming season?
WB: They are huge. It gives you what a snapshot of what it is really like there. Obviously pitching at Dodger Stadium or wherever else we were playing there is a lot of pressure, but not having to start the game there is a different kind of pressure of having ownership of the game. That is what I have always done, I have always been a starter. Being able to go and get your feet wet without having the whole game on your back is invaluable for a younger guy like myself.
MD: As a member of a pitching staff with so many unique success stories (Kershaw, 3-time Cy Young winner, Rich Hill, independent ball back to the Majors, or Kenley Jansen, converted catcher) how do you utilize teammates like this to aid in your development?
WB: You just watch them. These guys have all had so much success. Kershaw, in how he goes about his everyday business, is special and different from anyone else. There is no stone unturned. You have a guy like Rich, who obviously found a big-time second wind in his career and it is pretty unbelievable what he has done and what he continues to do. Kenley is a guy who learned how to throw this pitch that no one in the world can throw. You have seen over the past few years he has evolved to add a slider and a 2-seamer. He has this innate ability to talk about this stuff very simply and not overthink himself and know what he does works. He is always confident in that one pitch. There are little things you can take from each guy, but just their habits and the way they prepare are second to none.
MD: Coming out of high school, you had a peak velocity of 92. Fast forward, five years later, your fastball averaged 98.2 MPH in your stint in the Majors. How did you add so much velocity as you have progressed through college and the Dodgers’ system?
WB: In high school, I wasn’t a big weight room guy and was a little bit smaller than I am now. I never really understood how to create a throwing program and learn how to throw fastballs that spin right. I think I have to give credit to the staff at Vandy and the Dodgers guys as well that put me in a position to be strong enough to handle that velocity. It has just been pretty cool. I threw a little bit harder my senior year of high school than the perfect game number. Obviously, nothing like it has been in the past year-year and a half. I think you grow into your body a little bit, and you understand how your body works, and you train it the right way, and typically good things are going to happen. Fortunately for me, they have.
MD: MLB Pipeline recently ranked your curveball as the top curveball of any prospect in baseball. What makes this pitch so special and how have you developed it over the years?
WB: It’s interesting – I always threw a regular gripped curveball. Two of the better breaking pitches I saw in college were Carson Fulmer’s curveball and Hayden Stone’s slider. They both threw them with a spiked grip. When I came back from surgery, I said I was going to learn how to throw this pitch. This is going to be my new curveball. It has picked up in velocity, and it has a good shape to it some of the time. I don’t think any publication can say one pitch is better than another. I think hitters can tell you that. It is a pretty cool honor they put me in that conversation; it has been a good pitch for me.
MD: What has been the biggest challenge in getting hitters out as you quickly progressed from High-A to the Big Leagues this past year? What is the biggest difference you noticed with hitters as you moved through each level of Minor League ball and the Majors?
WB: They are just more selective, and they don’t miss. They wait for something they have envisioned coming to them, and they can stick to their plan. They will take a pitcher’s pitch instead of getting themselves out with it. It is just interesting. I have told people that a Major Leaguer’s 2-1 swing is better than any Triple-A or Double-A guy’s 2-0 swing. Their ability to hit a ball with authority is just so much higher the higher you go. A High-A guy can get a good swing off once in a while. A Double-A guy can get a couple of good swings off every game. A Triple-A guy is not going to get himself out as much. A big leaguer is all of it. The swing that is their average swing still can hit the ball out of the yard. That is 1-9, in Double-A there are maybe three of those guys, in Triple-A maybe four or five guys. In the big leagues, pretty much any guy can hit with authority in any count.
MD: It is noted that Justin Verlander benefited when he was traded to the Astros because of the information the analytics team provided him with. How do you use analytics (or see the Dodgers organization implementing analytics) to make yourself a better pitcher and prepare for an appearance?
WB: I think the answer to that is two parts. You have arguably to two biggest analytics teams in the Astros and Dodgers. That’s your World Series this year. It turns from somebody telling you what spin rate is to somebody telling you what a pitch is doing, how it looks to a guy. You are getting a road map to get guys out instead of hoping you picked out the right thing on video. Obviously, Verlander was a different beast in the playoffs and down the stretch than he has been the past few years. I am sure the analytics had something to do with it, but he still has to go out there and execute it. Having that roadmap is definitely something that can’t harm you. You get to this point, you’ve had some success; now with the new data, you can learn why or how, or that you can improve upon something or this is not as good as you think it is. You are able to select what you want to attack with better. The other side to that is that the Astros and Dodgers do some of the best jobs in baseball in taking care of their players and in feeding guys better. Accommodations are better in certain organizations, and the way the draft changed in 2012. Players have more leverage regarding choosing a team they want to play for. In terms of telling teams, I would go to college if you even pick me or you are one of the teams that there is a dollar figure that would work for me. What is happening is these incredibly talented players are realizing that this draft is giving them some leverage, and they end up going to a team that fits their needs better, one that they know treats players better. You see the Astros signing Correa and McCullers in the same draft and what that has turned into on the field is huge. I think that this new draft has put even more emphasis on having a mesh between big-time player development and also treating the players better than before. I think that is a big testament to the two organizations that were there in the end. They get players that want to be there and buy in and get the results.