Every five days, Walker Buehler shines in the spotlight of Los Angeles, titillating the Dodgers faithful for about 100 pitches. But not long ago, he was just one among them. On Oct. 25, 2017, as his team hosted Game 2 of the World Series, he was stuck in line at Dodger Stadium. In the late innings, his sister wanted something from the team store, so they stood and waited as Buehler's teammates clung to a skinny lead.
He had debuted earlier that season but allowed eight runs in 9.1 innings and was left off the postseason roster. He grew anxious waiting. He approached the security guard monitoring the store and asked if there was any way he could just push through the crowd. The guard looked back at him, puzzled. Buehler had an ordinary frame—6'2", 175 pounds—and just a few wisps of hair above his lip and on his chin. Here was a seemingly random 22-year-old asking to cut a long line. The guard had little interest in helping. He had no idea who Buehler was.
Today, those team stores carry countless Buehler No. 21s. Dodgers fans adore him—his velocity, his control, his bravado. They know how far he's come. In 2017, he progressed from Single-A all the way to the majors. In '18, he ascended from impressive rookie (8-5, 2.62 ERA) to World Series hero, firing seven scoreless innings against Boston in Game 3. This year, he's given them even more reason to cheer; as the Dodgers surge again, Buehler is 8-1 with a 3.43 ERA; his 0.97 WHIP is best among pitchers age 25 or younger.
In short order, he has earned mass respect, including from Clayton Kershaw, the team's longtime ace and a part-time mentor to him: "He has the best stuff in the game, or right up there." The wiry, fiery Buehler also has an attitude to match. "He can come off as cocky to some people," says Joc Pederson, one of Buehler's closest teammates. "You gotta get to know him."
Recently, Buehler went viral when he barked at an opposing hitter after striking him out. "Don't fucking look at me," he said. "Sit the fuck down." He notes that he and the hitter—Arizona's Ildemaro Vargas—made up the next day, but the moment was still indicative of his competitive streak. "I didn't like the way he took a couple pitches, so if you strike the guy out, you're gonna say something," he says. "I've yelled and screamed and I act a certain way, but if that's what you have to do to perform, I don't think anyone can say anything about it."
Buehler's approach seems to cut against traditional baseball culture, which often derides bold personalities and casts sweeping character judgments based on bat flips and fist pumps. He's certainly aware of his status as an eccentric.
"I've always had a little Napoleon complex," he says. As a teenager, he chose baseball because he was too small to pursue any other sport. He's attacked it with distinct vigor. "I might not be physically intimidating, but people messed with me, so I've always kinda had a sharp tongue. That's just who I am."
In sunny Los Angeles, where the team is charging toward a third straight pennant, nobody seems to mind.
On a late Friday morning in June, some eight hours before he does what no Dodger has done in at least a hundred years—striking out 16 and walking none in a complete game—Buehler takes his time getting to the door. After a minute or two, he appears in his underwear, with a blanket wrapped over his shoulders.
His one-bedroom pad is located in Marina Del Rey, a stone's throw from the ocean. On rare off days, he likes to rent a scooter and zip from nearby Abbot Kinney Boulevard to Santa Monica and back down to Venice Beach, racing among the rollerbladers.
His apartment looks like it belongs to a 24-year-old: discarded Frooties candy wrappers cover the living room rug, and there are pairs of sneakers everywhere, like on the kitchen counter and all over his desk. In his bedroom, empty Nike and Jordan Brand shoe boxes are stacked high against a window. He apologizes for the mess; he's clearly still sleepy, as the Dodgers won in extras last night.
He speaks in mellow tones and yawns frequently. He begins carving out a sitting area in the living room by throwing away a few delivery bags that had collected by the coffee table and then rearranging the stray pillows and clothes littered across his couch. When he finishes (and changes into the chillest possible outfit, a gray hoodie and light gray shorts), he throws the blanket over himself again and lays down.
He's overly relaxed now, but around the team Buehler perks up. He peppers Kershaw with strategic questions—"no matter how stupid," he says. Recently, he asked Kershaw about his pregame routine, specifically how and why he scouts opposing hitters before each game. Buehler then adopted Kershaw's habit and since then has been on a roll. In his first four June starts, he was unfathomably good: 31 innings pitched, three runs allowed, 42 strikeouts, one walk. "The thing I love about Walker is he's not sensitive," Kershaw says. "Obviously he's a cocky guy, but you can make fun of him, give him a hard time, and he's good with it."
Buehler has found the right manager in Dave Roberts, who embraces individualism. "I think this clubhouse is great and unique in the sense that it's a lot of allowing guys to be themselves," Roberts says. "When you can take a young Walker Buehler, making his way, and understand that there's an arrogance to him, a cockiness, but still really understand it and accept him for who he is because he works his tail off, it's OK."
After all, Buehler is not the only hotshot in L.A. Cody Bellinger has a .356 average with 27 home runs and may be the league's face before long. Kershaw is aging (31), but he's still Clayton Kershaw. A few weeks ago, Max Muncy sent a fly ball into the drink in San Francisco and told eternal Dodgers enemy Madison Bumgarner to "go get it out of the ocean." Dodgers players have proudly worn T-shirts bearing the phrase ever since.
"It's all about culture, man," Buehler says. "In the old days, it was like, 'If he doesn't fit in the clubhouse, it doesn't matter how good he is.' That's shifted a little bit, but you still want a good clubhouse, and you still want to win games. Everyone finds the good in everyone in our team instead of the stuff that may annoy you a little bit. Winning cures all, I guess."
Buehler is almost annoyingly accustomed to winning. Back at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Kentucky, he won three district titles in a row. (He still returns to Lexington during offseasons. Last year, he hosted a charity golf tournament for Kids Cancer Alliance there; this year, he's partnering with Rich Hill's new charity, Field of Genes, a pediatric rare disease foundation, for the event.) At Vanderbilt, Buehler's Commodores won the College World Series title—the school's first—in his sophomore season, bookended by an SEC title his freshman year and a World Series runner-up finish in his final, junior season.
Today, Buehler is a junior union rep, putting to work his major in political science and minors in corporate strategy and sociology. (His father is in commercial banking, and his mother is an attorney.) He follows league trends and finances closely. He's well-versed in concepts like the repeater tax and tanking and payroll, partly thanks to conversations with Dodgers general manager Andrew Friedman. Buehler likes to pick his brain to gain a deeper understanding of team decision-making.
"I think the strike is on the horizon, looming over everybody," Buehler says. The core issue seems to be free agency, which has shown itself to be a flawed process. "There hasn't been one contract recently where you're like, 'That's good for the player.'"
Come draft time, Buehler gravitates to the Dodgers' scouting department to discuss a handful of prospects he likes. He also talks with the team's "mental guys" about mechanics and muscle memory, though he says that concept is actually a myth—"creating the neural pathways is really what it is." He's in touch with the analytics folks in the front office too. They send him a detailed printout (and PDF) after each start, breaking down each of his pitches based on location, velocity, spin rate, movement and so on.
"He really understands game-planning and all the analytics and information that gets thrown our way," Roberts says. "His intelligence, his curiosity, and you layer that on with the [pitch] mix and the arm—it's pretty special."
On the surface, Buehler's repertoire—high heat and a good breaker—doesn't necessarily stand out in an age of electric stuff across the league. And yet it has blown everybody away—not just batters, but teammates. "The fastball is obviously really special," Kershaw says. "Not just the velocity, but," he pauses. "It just," he thinks awhile longer. "It never gets squared up."
Buehler's heater is the sixth-hardest among major league starters and the second-most effective, per FanGraphs. "I think his fastball is a different kind of fastball—the velocity is there, but it's got a lot of life," Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes says. "I think he's wound tight or something. He's a little guy, but he's one of the stronger guys in the league."
Kershaw sees that up close, when the two compete during batting practice on their days off. Ahead of a game in mid-June, he and Buehler go back and forth taking their hacks, putting five or six good swings on the ball before exchanging words and switching places. During one round, Buehler pulls a home run to left on his first swing and then another one a few cuts later. Kershaw then yanks one out to right. On and on they go, the face of the Dodgers and his heir apparent, two aces living out their dreams at the plate. "They're talking normal trash to each other, and it gets pretty comical," Pederson says.
Buehler steps back into the box for another go, with Kershaw looking on, and cracks the first pitch he sees to dead center, clearing the fence. He soon tacks on another one to left. Then the great Kershaw steps back in, determined to reestablish his dominance. On the mound, he has been the standard for a decade now, and it's possible no modern pitcher will match him. Certainly Buehler, with fewer than 250 big league innings to his name, is not there yet. "You have to put seasons together," Buehler says. "I think everybody gets caught up in the singular game, but being a starting pitcher is all about putting together years, back-to-back years."
Right now, though, Kershaw is tiring. All he can seem to muster are low liners that fall into the scattered pregame outfield. He strikes one well—a high fly ball that carries to the warning track, only to fizzle short of the wall.
On this mellow afternoon, Buehler has found a way to win once again. Sure, the Dodgers stand nearly 30 games over .500, meaning they won't play a significant game for four more months. But that's irrelevant now. In the mind of Buehler, "There's always a competition."