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Are the Orioles capable of fixing Dylan Bundy?

Dylan Bundy is struggling, and the Orioles don’t seem to totally understand why.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Dylan Bundy took the mound over the weekend on what may be the biggest stage an Orioles pitcher can hope to see during the club’s rebuild: Sunday Night Baseball against the New York Yankees. In a way, Bundy rose to the occasion, allowing four runs over five innings while striking out seven. That line doesn’t look great, but compared to the month of August that the right-hander has endured it was a substantial improvement.

Prior to Sunday’s start, Bundy had given up 21 earned runs in 14.1 innings over his previous three starts. That adds up to a 13.19 ERA, or what some may refer to as “pulling a Tillman.” Bundy has routinely gone into extended funks like this in 2018. From April 26 through May 8, he had a 19.00 ERA in three starts, including the legendary performance against the Royals in which he did not record an out. And then from July 6 through July 20 he had a 10.95 ERA across three games.

The recent struggles are a stark contrast to what Bundy was doing very early on in the year. Through his first five starts of the season, the former fourth overall draft pick had a 1.42 ERA, a .220 batting average against, struck out 40 batters and served up just one home run in 31.2 innings of work. Nowadays, it is a pleasant surprise to see Bundy give up just one home run in a single outing.

The 34 home runs Bundy has allowed are the most in the league (the RangersBartolo Colon is in second with 29). The last time Bundy got out of a game without giving up at least one round-tripper was all the way back on June 23 against the Braves, and wouldn’t you know it, he pitched really well that day: 6.1 innings, two runs, seven hits, two walks, eight strikeouts.

It should be mentioned that the start in Atlanta was the same day that he rolled his ankle on the base paths and had to be placed on the 10-day DL. Since then, he has pitched in nine games, given up 16 home runs, won just one decision, allowed 44 earned runs in 44.2 innings and his season ERA has jumped from 3.75 to 5.37. Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but is seems like an important moment in the year nonetheless.

What is most concerning about this entire situation is that, at least publicly, no one with the Orioles is showing that they completely understand what is causing Bundy’s trouble.

A week ago, MASN’s Steve Melewski posted a blog with quotes from the pitcher and his manager Buck Showalter prior to a game in Toronto. In that piece, Bundy had this to say about reviewing what is going wrong:

“You look at it and everything’s the same, so what are you going to do now,” said Bundy. “Next question. It all goes back to you get away with (poor) pitches sometimes and sometimes you can’t. It seems like I haven’t been able to lately. You don’t want to get erratic and leave pitches over the plate. Mechanically everything is the same and for the most part everything looks the same on the video. Just need to keep the ball down and hit the glove.”

“We’ve looked at it and maybe throwing the curveball some more. But the curveball has to be there for you to throw it more. I think the main thing is the changeup. I need to be more consistent with that than in the past.”

Fast forward to Sunday’s game. Buster Olney, covering the game for ESPN, tweeted out the following:

Dylan Bundy went back to the drawing board before this start, tinkering with the grip on his changeup, but mostly refocusing on his finishing his pitches down in the zone. He had tried to pitch up in the zone and beat Generation Launch Angle, but tonight, he is working down.

What Bundy is saying he was going to try to do against the Blue Jays last week and what Olney is saying Bundy was hoping to do against the Yankees on Sunday sounds identical. Olney packages it as if it is brand new information. That’s not surprising given that Olney is presenting to a national audience that, for the most part, has no idea what Bundy does week in and week out.

Either way, this is not a ground-breaking strategy. Bundy clearly has the ability to get out major league hitters with regularity. He’s done it before, quite recently in fact. Pitching down in the zone and changing speeds is Baseball 101.

The numbers show that Bundy is working with the changeup more. According to Brooks Baseball, he has thrown the pitch nearly 13 percent of the time this month, more than at any point this season. Meanwhile, the usage of his fastball is below 40 percent, similar to where it was back in April when he had so much success. The curveball, which Bundy mentioned, is mostly a “show me” pitch at this point, featuring less than six percent of the time. That, coupled with Bundy’s minor inclusion earlier, indicates he’s not wild about the offering at the moment.

The elephant in the room here is Bundy’s velocity. It’s down. He topped out at an average fastball velo of 96.09 back in July 2016. This month has seen him at 92.01 mph, a slight uptick from July, when he averaged a career low 91.46.

Lower velocity, on its own, is not necessarily a problem. Pitchers that throw slower than Bundy have survived in the big leagues. The issue for Bundy is decreasing movement and a fastball and changeup that are getting closer in velocity.

Back to Brooks again: both Bundy’s fastball and changeup are moving less horizontally and vertically than they were in 2017. Plus, while Bundy has lost speed on the four-seamer, he appears to have gained some mph on the change over last season. The two have maintained about a 7-mph difference, which might be just fine for some pitchers. Beyond the Box Score investigate velocity differences a few seasons ago and found that Zack Greinke was highly effective with a changeup just 3.3 mph slower than his fastball. However, Bundy had a 10 mph difference on the pitches when he debuted in 2012 and about a 9 mph difference when he returned from extended injury in 2016. That is the relationship the two deliveries had when Bundy was learning at the highest level. Now, that dynamic has been altered, and he needs to adjust. Clearly, it is taking some time.

The question then becomes why Bundy is seeing these dips in velocity as a 25-year-old. Yes, he has had injury problems and they put an end to the 100 mph fastball he had as an amateur. But he has shown a big arm at times since returning from those health concerns. Even this year, he gets up into the mid-90s at times. The talent is still in that arm. It’s just hard to find at times.

ESPN’s Keith Law has his opinion:

He’s been overworked the last two years and it shows up in the results. His old fastball is gone, and he’s homer-prone as a result. I know O’s fans were mad I was pessimistic about him when he came back from elbow and shoulder surgeries, but we all had plenty of reason to doubt his durability. Had he been used more carefully, or switched to a relief role, maybe the situation would be different today.

The Orioles have not been ridiculous with the workload they have given Bundy these last few seasons. He threw 109.2 innings in 2016, 169.2 in 2017 and 140.2 so far in 2018. Those aren’t massive inning totals but do weigh heavier on a guy with a significant injury history.

Bundy could do well to be “babied” a bit the remainder of this season and possibly into 2019. The Orioles won’t be competitive, and Bundy may be an important part of their future whether it be as a rotation piece or trade bait. They need to do what they can to set him up for success.

In his career, Bundy has started 12 games with more than six days of rest. In those appearances, he has a 3.62 ERA and a .230/.270/.426 batting line against. Those numbers are from a very small sample size, but they are also much better than how he does on normal rest. In that same vein, Bundy has trouble once he gets up above 75 pitches, when his slugging percentage against jumps from .455 to .510.

It may be time for the Orioles to face facts. Perhaps Bundy is not that “horse” or the “innings eater” that they really wish he was. Rather than forcing a square peg in a round hole, they need to adapt. Steal a page out of the Rays book and make him an opener. Try to give him more rest between outings. Do anything different than what is being done now.

That said, we should all expect to see Bundy again in five days, still working on his change up. Maybe it will work this time.