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Dylan Bundy struggles in first test but shows signs of progress

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Dylan Bundy's been bad this year, but his May stats give fans reason to hope.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Before he pitched on Sunday, I’d drafted the following paragraph about Dylan Bundy:

While his 2.76 ERA is good, his 4.05 FIP raises eyebrows, and his 5.57 xFIP causes consternation. His ERA is where it is for two reasons: a high strand rate of 80% and a low HR/FB rate of 4.2%. Both metrics indicate on-field success but also imply regression to the mean, especially given his flyball tendencies.

That evening I got the MLB At-Bat alert about the game, winced at the 10-2 score, and tapped through to check if Bundy pitched. He did. While he didn’t walk a batter, he didn’t strike anyone out, and he gave up a three-run jack. His strand rate plummeted to 72.5% and his HR/FB rate nearly doubled. His ERA spiked to 4.58, his FIP rose to 4.78, and his xFIP hit 5.74.

For the season he’s struck out just nine of 77 batters and walked six for a strikeout rate of 11.6% and a walk rate of 7.9%. His K-BB% rate therefore is a paltry 3.7%. In 2015 the only qualified reliever with a lower K-BB rate was Brian Duensing with 1.7%. Duensing was without a job this season until yesterday when he signed with (surprise!) the Orioles. Go figure.

Bundy's strikeout rate is poor, but he could make it work if he was getting lots of ground balls. Unfortunately, he isn’t. His groundball-per-batter-faced rate of 22% is far below the league average of 31%. This flyball-heavy pitching style portends more dingers than his current 7.1% HR/FB rate suggests.

His struggles are understandable

Now that I've convinced you how bad Bundy's been, here's why you should disregard everything I just said:

  • Bundy's only 19.1 innings into his career.
  • He's faced 77 batters this year.
  • He’s 23.
  • He's coming off several injuries to his shoulder, elbow, and forearm, including Tommy John surgery.
  • Because of his contract situation, his struggles are broadcast on ESPN and MASN instead of excerpted in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.
  • He’s subject to the inherent volatility of relief pitching.
  • He’s pitching under a microscope. The Orioles and their fans know the team hasn’t developed a consistently good starting pitcher in nearly a decade. In this environment, one bad outing can turn a fan’s hopes to dust.
  • The team expects to contend in the short- to mid-term. If Bundy were pitching for a rebuilding team, fans would care less about his clunky season.
  • He's pitched mostly in low-leverage innings.

He's getting better

The good news: Bundy’s improved from April to May. Several indicators point to hope. First, his strikeout and walk rates are trending in the right directions:

So is his ratio of ground balls to fly balls:

He's throwing harder:

He's throwing a sinker more often:

He's locating his change-up better:

And batters are swinging and missing more often:

What caused these improvements? Speculating is fruitless. The sample size is too small. Relief pitchers can experience two bad months and go on to dominate the league. Or they can derail completely and implode. We just don’t know that much about post-injury, in-the-majors Dylan Bundy to tell the difference.

There's hope

Dylan Bundy's season still isn't good. So far it's been just this side of "unplayable". But signs of improvement are there. And he's got four months left this year, plus a couple years after that, to prove himself. Hopefully in the starting rotation.

As a fan, I'll go through my own journey of obsessing over Bundy's pitching lines, looking for signs he's made it. Hopefully those signs show up this year. Either way, I'll keep checking. I’d love to never again have to write a paragraph like the one I wrote last Sunday.