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Walker Buehler may have a matchup problem with the Red Sox

In a crucial Game Three, the Red Sox pose as a tough matchup for the rookie starter.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Seven Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One of the bigger pieces to the Dodgers World Series run has been rookie right-handed starter Walker Buehler. It’s probably fair to say LA probably wouldn’t be playing tomorrow night without the contributions they’ve received from him. They might not have even played a game in October. With the Dodgers down 2-0 quickly, Buehler will play a big role in the swing of their championship odds in his Game Three start tomorrow night.

Buehler had one of the more dominant debuts among all rookies this year, especially on the pitching side. He led all 39 qualified rooking starting pitchers in ERA, FIP, xFIP, and fWAR. He’s carried that over past game 162, leading the Dodgers to a game 163 win over the Rockies, along with pitching well in the crucial NLCS Game Seven. Now he’ll play a big role in whether the Dodgers go down to the daunting series score of 3-0.

He’s now set to face the Red Sox potent lineup, which is perhaps the best lineup in baseball, a team he has never pitched against in his short career. Boston led baseball in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and wOBA. Singling out their splits against right-handers, they’re even better hitters.

Diving in deeper, it isn’t hard to see how the Red Sox could present a matchup problem for Buehler. Looking at pitch values, you’ll see that Buehler’s prime secondary reliance is his slider. Results-wise, it was his best offering this year. Minimum 100 innings, only Blake Snell and Miles Mikolas threw a better one this year.

Top 10 Slider Pitch Values in 2018

Name Team wSL/C
Name Team wSL/C
Blake Snell Rays 4.05
Miles Mikolas Cardinals 3.11
Walker Buehler Dodgers 3.10
Trevor Bauer Indians 2.89
Mike Foltynewicz Braves 2.80
Tanner Roark Nationals 2.65
German Marquez Rockies 2.25
Chris Sale Red Sox 2.21
Jaime Barria Angels 2.21
Patrick Corbin Diamondbacks 2.15
Minimum 100 IP FanGraphs

Using the league-average xwOBA against sliders as a benchmark (.253), we find that the Red Sox have plenty of their regular hitters sitting above-average on the pitch. As a team, they had the third best xwOBA against sliders. They were the best team against sliders from right-handers.

Red Sox hitters against the slider

Player xwOBA
Player xwOBA
J.D. Martinez 0.335
Mookie Betts 0.334
Xander Bogaerts 0.317
Steve Pearce 0.31
Mitch Moreland 0.308
Rafael Devers 0.303
Andrew Benintendi 0.299
Hanley Ramirez 0.289
Jackie Bradley Jr. 0.28
Sandy Leon 0.266
Eduardo Nunez 0.236
Christian Vazquez 0.214
Brock Holt 0.191
Ian Kinsler 0.136
Minimum 100 results Baseball Savant

Narrowing it down to the tendencies of Buehler’s slider, we find that he throws his slider in the zone more than almost any pitcher in baseball. Among 140 pitchers with at least 300 sliders thrown this year, his 55.4 percent zone-percentage is the sixth highest.

Highest Slider Zone%

Player Results Total Pitches % of Pitches
Player Results Total Pitches % of Pitches
Jameson Taillon 328 550 59.6
Michael Lorenzen 242 419 57.8
Vidal Nuno 189 333 56.8
Jake Arrieta 368 652 56.4
Max Scherzer 320 568 56.3
Walker Buehler 190 343 55.4
Michael Fulmer 277 522 53.1
Zach Eflin 268 507 52.9
Shane Bieber 212 406 52.2
Andrew Miller 165 316 52.2
Minimum 300 sliders thrown Baseball Savant

And guess what the Red Sox are predictably good at...hitting sliders in the zone. Only the Indians were better at that as a team this season.

Team results against in-zone sliders

Rank Player xwOBA
Rank Player xwOBA
1 CLE 0.329
2 BOS 0.317
3 OAK 0.314
4 MIL 0.313
5 PIT 0.311
6 CWS 0.309
7 NYY 0.309
8 TOR 0.308
9 BAL 0.305
10 LAD 0.303
11 SEA 0.303
12 CIN 0.303
13 LAA 0.302
14 ARI 0.299
15 CHC 0.295
16 DET 0.295
17 COL 0.292
18 STL 0.288
19 ATL 0.286
20 HOU 0.284
21 TB 0.278
22 KC 0.277
23 MIN 0.276
24 WSH 0.275
25 MIA 0.272
26 PHI 0.271
27 SD 0.269
28 TEX 0.265
29 NYM 0.258
30 SF 0.251
Baseball Savant

I try to not overrate and look too much into single game analysis, but there is plenty to suggest that Buehler could have his issues with the Red Sox lineup, which a lot of pitchers do anyway. But even with the tough task of facing the Red Sox, the Dodgers will need him to out-duel Rick Porcello. In an almost-must-win matchup, expect the Dodgers to have the short leash in play, probably to a further extent than they had with Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first two games.

With all this being said, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Walker Buehler and the Dodgers rose to the occasion tomorrow night. LA has made it this far, walking off a slow start, dealing with injuries to star players, fighting to the end for a division title, and pushing their way to a second straight pennant. At the moment, the odds are stacked against them.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.