GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Dodgers know just how good Walker Buehler is and want to keep him that way, which is why he's the only pitcher in camp who hasn't thrown a bullpen session yet.
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Management is intentionally throttling Buehler back this spring after his total innings spiked from 98 in 2017 to 177 in 2018. And many were high-stress innings, such as the Game 163 National League West tiebreaker, Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and Game 3 of the World Series.
Buehler is 24 with a wiry build similar to two-time National League Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. Despite less than a full season of service, Buehler is also the ace-in-training of a loaded starting rotation headed by Clayton Kershaw.
How good can Buehler be?
"The talent, you can't teach that. It's there, and we know that," Kershaw said. "The ability to spin a breaking ball, the life the fastball has. It's one thing to throw 97, 98, but the life, the movement, he checks those boxes. Now it's just a matter of compete and consistency. We've seen the compete, the mentality is there, not anything I'd change as far as that goes.
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"Now it's just, how do we box that up and do it every fifth day for a full season, for five and 10 seasons? That's what it's going to take. For me, that's the only question mark left. Can you do it for eight months straight, make 32 starts, 38 with the playoffs, and be dominant. I was different, in that I needed to work on pitching. I needed to throw more strikes, to find a third pitch. I needed more refinement to get to that next level.
"He doesn't need that. Every box is checked. Now the only thing is going out every fifth day knowing you'll get a very good start every time out. He pretty much checked it in the second half last year, but do it for a full season and there's no more questions."
Slow-played early last season, which he began at Triple-A, Buehler's first-half production with the Dodgers was affected after he sustained broken ribs from a liner in May. He missed just 13 games then returned despite the injury. His "grit," as Rich Hill put it, earned him clubhouse respect, but also left Buehler with a 3.45 ERA at the break. Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt attributed Buehler's sterling 2.03 second-half ERA to an adjustment the right-hander made to his slider on the fly in August.
Ross Stripling remembers Kenta Maeda showing Buehler how he uses a two-seam grip to throw his wipeout slider. Stripling said he repeatedly tried and failed to replicate the pitch action, but Buehler picked it up immediately.
Stripling, an All-Star last year, said Buehler's personality is intrinsic to his success, from a demeanor that doesn't change on start days, to his aptitude for incorporating analytics into his mechanics and game planning, to a confidence bordering on cockiness.
"Most people come up here not knowing if they can get big leaguers out," Stripling said. "He knew he could get big leaguers out since he was 19 years old. And he does it in the right way, to be outspokenly confident but not be a burden in the locker room. It's a fine line, and he's good at it. He's a guy we like having around, despite how confident he is."
Hill compares Buehler to former Cubs phenom Kerry Wood because of their fastball life and potential ceiling.
"He can be one of the best," Hill said of Buehler. "He just needs to always push the level of creativity. He can associate hearing something, processing it and then implement it in a pitch. That's key to being successful."