Walker Buehler was leaning toward honoring his commitment to Vanderbilt University after slipping past the first few rounds of the 2012 MLB Draft. But when the Pirates, who drafted Buehler in the 14th round, made a significant last-minute offer, it was up to a group of Commodores coaches to make a final pitch on the benefits of spending a few years on campus.
One of them was Derek Johnson, who is now the pitching coach of the Cincinnati Reds, and who will be in front of a television at home in Nashville when Buehler, 26, starts for the Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday.
“He’s never lacked [confidence], I can promise you that,” Johnson said. “He did come with that.”
Buehler was not the 6-foot-2, 185-pound prototypical pitcher he is today when he arrived at Vandy. He was just as tall but 25 pounds lighter, part of a phenomenal recruiting class that also included Carson Fulmer and Dansby Swanson. At Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., Buehler featured a fastball that sat around 90-92 mph and would bump up “here and there,” as Johnson remembers.
What if Buehler had signed with the Pirates? He would have joined a system that at the time included second-year pros Gerrit Cole, a college product, and Tyler Glasnow, who’d come out of high school.
Cole was pitching in the Majors by 2013. The Pirates promoted Glasnow to the Major Leagues three years later (at age 22), but his development path was rocky, to say the least, and he was traded with Austin Meadows to Tampa Bay at the '18 Trade Deadline. Glasnow started Game 1 of the World Series for the Rays.
Buehler instead did much of his development during three years of college, which were highlighted by a pair of berths in the College World Series and a National Championship in 2014. He was drafted again in ‘15, this time in the first round by the Dodgers. Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery that summer, Buehler zoomed through L.A.’s Minor League system and was pitching in his first MLB World Series in '18, when he held the Red Sox to two hits over seven scoreless innings during a Dodgers win in Game 3.
Two years later, Buehler and the Dodgers are back in the Fall Classic. Friday’s start marks Buehler’s 11th in postseason play. Only Don Gullett (13), Cole Hamels (12), Madison Bumgarner (12) and Steve Avery (12) had more before the age of 27.
“I think he would tell you that the decision he and his family made [to stay in college] was probably a pretty good one,” Johnson said. “I’m not saying he wouldn’t be in the big leagues otherwise, but he was probably setting himself up to do it quicker and be better by coming into the situation he came into at Vanderbilt.”
Said Buehler: “My three years of Vanderbilt, I think there was a lot of failure and a lot of 'manufactured' failure, or making things tough on yourself so that the normal stuff kind of sounds easier. I think that's a big part of it. And just maturing a little bit as a person for sure helps, understanding more that you can bounce back, or that you're not always going to be successful and learning from it instead of letting it kind of consume you. …
“I think a lot of it mirrors our organization here [with the Dodgers] in that you get good players in here and you develop them while trying to develop them as humans as well as players, and kind of create a culture inside of the clubhouse. I think those are kind of the pillars of successful teams.”
Buehler’s most significant challenge in the pro ranks was overcoming injury. The Dodgers had the 24th overall pick in the 2015 Draft, and despite concerns about Buehler’s right elbow, they didn’t expect him to still be on the board when it was their turn to pick, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said in a Dodgers Zoom party with Buehler and other players in May. Sure enough, Buehler needed surgery soon after the Draft, delaying the start of his professional career.
“The silver lining for us was [that] the injury he had gave us the chance to draft him,” Friedman said.
Another Dodger on that Zoom, Ross Stripling, recalled gathering with some other rehabbing players at Camelback Ranch in Arizona to watch Buehler throw a bullpen session with his rebuilt elbow.
“I remember thinking, 'Yeah, whatever, who is this kid?'” Stripling said. “Then, it was like the most amazing thing I’d seen in my life, seven months after surgery and he’s throwing 95 [mph].”
“I got yelled at for that,” Buehler said.
“We kept having to throttle him back,” Friedman said.
Johnson never saw Buehler throw a competitive pitch for Vanderbilt in person. After Buehler’s first semester in school, Johnson departed for the pro ranks, beginning with a job as pitching coordinator in the Cubs’ Minor League system. Later, he was Major League pitching coach for the Brewers and then the Reds.
In 2018, they were in opposite dugouts during a National League Championship Series that pitted Buehler’s Dodgers against Johnson’s Brewers. The series went to a Game 7, in which Buehler struck out seven in 4 2/3 innings before yielding to the bullpen. Six days later, Buehler was pitching in the World Series.
“I didn’t get to coach him a lot, but it’s still a proud moment for someone that you did recruit and who you know,” Johnson said. “Maybe you had a really small part of helping him get to this next level. This guy is special. There’s no question that if he stays healthy, you’re looking at one of the elite pitchers in the league for years.”