You don’t have to look far around the internet to learn that the Orioles have questions surrounding their 2018 rotation. Those questions and doubts are well-documented, fair and admittedly somewhat concerning as the calendar turns over to just one month before the start of spring training.
We don’t know when they’ll be answered, but there is one pretty sure thing as the spring months inch closer — Dylan Bundy’s role as the team’s ace.
If you take a look at Bundy’s ERA from 2016 and 2017, you might consider him to have fallen off last season. And that’s a fair analysis when considering run prevention. But it doesn’t take too much of a deeper dive to understand that Bundy did in fact improve significantly over the course of 2017. He put on a performance that wasn’t always perfect, but one that signaled 2018 potentially being the breakout year that the Orioles desperately need.
The ERA jump from 4.02 to 4.24 seems to say that limited — if any — improvements were made last season. After all, the goal of the pitcher’s game is to prevent runs; Bundy did allow more over the entire year. But it’s a bit of a strange uptick when you consider that he improved rather significantly in hits per nine innings (8.9 to 8.1), walks per nine (3.4 to 2.7) and stayed consistent in nine-inning averages with strikeouts (8.5 to 8.1) and home runs (1.5 to 1.4).
Those basic numbers don’t spell out any reason why the ERA should have increased, which is why the idea that an outside factor had to have altered his performance emerges.
Of course, that factor could be an obvious one that was discussed for much of the season — the adjustment of his arsenal and pitch selection with the addition of his new slider (it’s a cutter to some, slider to others, but most outlets go with the slider label).
Adding that pitch back into the fold was valuable for the long-term and clearly improves his chances at being an ace for Buck Showalter — there’s little doubt about that.
But when we’re looking back at his first season working a fresh offering into his regular rotation, there’s reason to believe it might’ve caused a few growing pains. He used the slider 22 percent of the time, completely altering his usage rates. Below, from Brooks Baseball, on how that slider became his second most-tossed pitch in 2017:
Is the adjustment of learning when to throw which pitch why his hard-hit percentage (per Fangraphs) jumped from 28.0% to 36.5% from ‘16 to ‘17? And furthermore, is that hard contact rate the reason the ERA jumped? It’s impossible to totally pinpoint, but it doesn’t seem as though that’s an unreasonable estimate ... simple growing pains with a new feel on the mound.
Regardless, even though the end results weren’t ideal, it’s clear that Bundy was an improved pitcher in 2017. Aside from that ERA, the numbers don’t lie.
And not only did Bundy use the slider more throughout 2017, but it was good. Very good. It generated whiffs at an eye-opening rate and baffled lineups all season long.
Against the slider, opposing batters managed a .177 average and a mere .252 slugging percentage. It generated the most strikeouts for Bundy over the year and ended up being his go-to pitch against right-handed hitters.
A bit of a fun fact off of that — when Bundy was ahead in the count against right-handed batters, he used the slider a whopping 41 percent of the time. With two strikes overall, that number stayed steady at 38 percent. If he can continue to build on the strengths of the pitch and gain comfort with it in all counts, it’s going to be as valuable of an offering as any Orioles pitcher owns in 2018.
If there’s a time for Bundy to make the leap from middle-of-the-rotation arm to ace of a franchise, this would be the year. His command took a major step forward in 2017, and the emergence of the slider couldn’t come at a better time for the 25-year-old.