On Aug. 1, 2012, an Orioles front office executive with a BP subscription would have seen two Baltimore prospects in the top five on Kevin Goldstein’s midseason top 50. Manny Machado was fifth. Dylan Bundy was third. It was a good time to be Baltimore, especially after Machado debuted a week later, and Bundy six weeks after that.
In the next three seasons, the Orioles averaged 87 wins per season, made the 2014 ALCS, and saw Machado produce 16 WARP. Dylan Bundy, meanwhile, never stood on the mound in the majors, and pitched a total of just 63 innings in the minors.
But today, he might be as important to the Orioles’ playoff run as Machado is.
Each season, come the dog days of summer, there are teams in the hunt who pull a story out of their hats: Francisco Rodriguez or Cody Ross or Terrance Gore or Raul Ibanez. These stories capture the hearts of hometown fans and the fascination of baseball people all over, and they ignite sparks of optimism around the teams blessed to find them
This season, just six starts into his budding career as a starter, Dylan Bundy is that story in Baltimore.
Hopes were high for the fourth pick of the 2011 draft, especially after his minor-league debut (30 innings, no earned runs, 40 strikeouts for Delmarva) endorsed a rapid rise through the Orioles system. But this cruel dream of baseball often mars long-range visions. Tommy John surgery cost him the entire 2013 season, and after he was shut down in 2015 Bundy nor Orioles fans could be sure that any future redemption was coming.
He was essentially forced into the majors this year by his service time. As Jeff Long wrote before the season,
Therein lies the rub for Baltimore. Bundy, a product of an old draft system, has been on the Orioles’ 40-man roster since signing out of the draft. Each season since then they’ve sent him to the minors, burning an option each time. Come Opening Day, Bundy will be out of options. He needs to be on the Orioles’ roster or on waivers. The problem is that Bundy has thrown just 67 innings since the end of the 2012 season, meaning that his arm is in no shape to slot into the back end of the Orioles’ rotation.
The solution was to put him in the bullpen, where he struggled. Batters hit .354/.407/.495 against him in his first 24 innings, with an ERA near 5 and just 13 strikeouts with eight walks. He struck out 19 of the next 52 batters he faced, didn’t allow a run in his final 14 innings of relief, and joined the rotation in early July.
The move has made all the difference for the Orioles rotation, which had been one of the worst from a contender in recent (and maybe not recent) history. The Orioles may have added Wade Miley at the trade deadline, but by moving Bundy to the starting rotation as they geared up for the second half, they found the real upgrade they needed.
In just six starts (all stats through Tuesday), Bundy is striking out 23.4 percent of hitters, while walking just 6.9 percent of them (league average is around 7.5 percent). Given that he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery—a notorious thief of control—that makes the situation all the more impressive. His 2.93 ERA is the eighth-best among AL pitchers (minimum 70 innings), and as a starter it’s even better—2.76. the 8th best ERA of AL pitchers (min. 70 IP).
In short, he’s creating a story baseball folks crave in Baltimore. Great story.
How does it end? That’s the question that certainly has the baseball world holding its breath. Bundy’s velocity was on a smooth incline for the first three months of a year, rising steadily from 92.82 mph in his third outing to 96.60 in his final relief appearance. He held onto most of that heat in his first start, but since then has been tracking back down; the effect is not subtle:
Now combine that with Bundy’s innings total: 70 2/3 through Tuesday. For a pitcher with a 150-innings limit, we’d say Buck Showalter had managed this perfectly, keeping Bundy fresh and ready to pitch deep into October if necessary. But the Orioles have previously offered a vision far short of 150 innings. The Orioles have clearly changed their plans for him:
On June 10 in Toronto, manager Buck Showalter said this of Bundy: “We are hopefully going to get 60 to 75 innings out of him (this season) and be ready to go next year. The big thing we have to decide is if and when about adding his slider/cutter back. That may be next spring.
Now it’s just a matter of finding out how far they’ll go. While Bundy approaches and passes his limit, he’s also going deeper into games—92 pitches in his last outing, a season-high.
Bundy has been brilliant at times this year, with a changeup that has the second-best swing rate in baseball and a .192 batting average against. He’s had, at times, elite velocity for a starting pitcher. He’s had a walk rate that continues to improve, with just five walks over his past five starts. He’s also got room to make another big leap forward, it appears, as his once-vaunted curveball has generally not worked very well this year, and he's not yet throwing the slider/cutter. He’s on a team that has been desperately in need of playoff-quality starting pitching, and that, thanks to him, now has it every fifth day.
“I’m going to tell you something," Dan Duquette told Steve Melewski. "I have been very careful with pitchers only to see them get hurt. I have been more aggressive with some and seen them pitch well. So this is not an exact science where you say you can only do this or that. There are some guidelines you can follow, but pitching is a very delicate thing and we’ll see where it goes.”
It’s players such as Bundy in months such as August that make these stories. Baseball doesn’t know what the future holds for Bundy, and neither does he. But what baseball does know is that right now Bundy is giving his team one of the best chances they’ve had in quite some time to be a strong contender. This is a great August story. The best.
But you hold your breath every time a pitcher like Dylan Bundy takes the mound. The Orioles do, too, and for that reason it seems unlikely this is going to turn out to be a great October story.
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