Rays in for a tough test with Walker Buehler's fastball gaining speed

Sportsnet's Dan Shulman joins Sportsnet Central and discusses the World Series with Ken Reid and what are the keys for both teams moving forward in the series.

Any good scouting report on Walker Buehler will tell you that he’s got five pitches in his arsenal: a four-seamer, cutter, sinker, slider, and curveball. While that’s a factual way to describe what Buehler brings to the table, it might be more accurate to simply say that he brings the heat.

During the regular season, Buehler’s four-seamer averaged 96.8 m.p.h. It also had 97th percentile spin, the third-best vertical movement on any four-seamer, plus hitters managed a .102 batting average and .119 slugging percentage against it. It was nothing short of an unstoppable pitch.

In the playoffs, it’s gotten even better.

Whether it’s the adrenaline, or an increased distance from the blister issues that plagued Buehler throughout the summer, the right-hander has taken things up a notch. In his four post-season starts he’s seen a slight uptick in velocity, a slight improvement in vertical movement, and significantly more success with missing bats.

The best example of this phenomenon came in Game 6 of the NLCS when Buehler got into a bases-loaded, no-out jam, but worked all the way out of it on the strength of his fastball alone. Against Austin Riley he threw three straight 98-plus m.p.h. heaters and got him chasing at a beauty on the corner.

Then he fed Nick Markakis six consecutive fastballs, finishing with a triple-digit flourish well within the zone that the veteran simply couldn’t react to.

He even got 0-2 on the last man, Cristian Pache, with two fastballs and a cutter, before finishing the inning on a slider that the outfielder was well out in front of — leading to a groundout. The sequence was a showing of pure dominance, and the type of display we rarely see in a league where fastball rates have been dropping for years.

Buehler can overpower teams in a way that few starters are capable of, which is particularly disconcerting for the Tampa Bay Rays because they haven’t handled fastballs very well at all this year.

Sixteen Rays took at least 25 trips to the plate this season, and here’s how they did against fastballs according to Statcast’s Run Value metric:

Only Brandon Lowe, Randy Arozarena, Willy Adames, and Kevin Kiermaier, produced above-average results against heaters this season. If you want to poke holes in that quartet you could also point out that the duo of Adames and Kiemaier went 2-for-18 with 14 strikeouts against fastballs 97 m.p.h. or harder — the type they’re liable to see from Buehler.

One third of the lineup they’re likely to roll out in Game 3 (Austin Meadows, Ji-Man Choi, and Mike Zunino) had both real and expected batting averages below .200 against four-seamers. Neither Yandy Diaz nor Manuel Margot got a single extra-base hit against one.

The sample sizes here are undoubtedly small, and many of these players — like Choi and Meadows — have not had this issue prior to 2020. If we’re talking about true talent, these guys can probably do better against the hard stuff. Choi, for instance, has had a great deal of success against Gerrit Cole, which indicates that he’s not intimidated by an elite fastball.

Unfortunately for the Rays, while true talent and regression to the mean wins over the course of a full season, in a single game (or two if Buehler’s spot comes around again), how players are performing in the moment takes precedence. Right now, the Rays are rolling out a lineup that’s struggled with fastballs this year. Buehler always has one of the best in the business, and it looks especially dangerous at this moment.

That makes this a tough matchup for Tampa, and their best hopes for a breakthrough in this game belong to Arozarena — hardly a surprise considering his record-breaking October — and Lowe, who finally woke up from his post-season slumber on Wednesday night. Beyond that, they might have a lot of guys waiting on Buehler to throw anything but a fastball.

It’s not a bad strategy in theory, but in practice the Dodgers right-hander is happy to dare you beat him on his best pitch. The Braves found that out the hard way in one of the highest-leverage moments of their season. In Game 3, the Rays could learn a similar lesson.

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