As of right now, this moment, things are looking good for Dylan Bundy.
The Orioles’ right-hander is scheduled to pitch today, however. And who knows what the story will look like after that.
Bundy, who constantly looks “thisclose” to breaking out and turning into the starting pitcher the Orioles have hoped he’d be since drafting him fourth overall in 2012, has instead gone back and forth between looking like that guy and looking like a lost cause. He’s 26, no longer the 19-year-old Oklahoma kid that had O’s fans hoping for Cy Young awards, and it feels like Baltimore is still no closer to knowing what it has in him despite more than half a decade in the organization.
Right now, the arrow is pointing up. Bundy has posted a 2.28 ERA over his last four starts, and it’s no accident, as his WHIP has stayed below 1 and batters have managed just a .573 OPS against him.
So, there’s that step forward, right? Well, not quite. Bundy had a 1.37 ERA after his first four starts in 2017, went 4-0 and had an ERA of 2.00 for the entire month of August, and still finished the season with a 4.24 mark. He had a 1.42 ERA through his first five starts last year, and then ended up leading the league in home runs allowed while seeing his ERA balloon to 5.45.
So we’ve seen this before. A good run from Bundy doesn’t mean the good times are here to stay.
Plus, even this recent stretch has been more of those ups and downs. On May 4, he threw 7.1 scoreless innings against Tampa Bay. Then he gave up three runs in five innings against the Angels, with his velocity noticeably lower than usual. Then he was good again, allowing no earned runs and striking out seven in 5.2 innings against Cleveland. Then he was so-so again, allowing three runs in 5.2 innings against the Yankees.
So even when he has his stuff figured out, it’s still a guessing game as to whether he’ll still have the answers when he takes the mound again.
There are, however, some stats that point to a key to Bundy’s success - and maybe provide the blueprint for more in his starts to come. One is his ability to keep the ball in the yard. Few pitchers in the majors get punished more for lack of command than Bundy, who allowed 67 home runs over the last two years and has given up 12 already this season. Bundy hardly ever gets away with it if he keeps the ball up, and indeed, as the ERA has gone down, so have the home runs; after allowing nine home runs in his first six starts and pitching to a 6.67 ERA in his first six outings, he’s allowed only three over the four starts since.
The numbers say Bundy has been avoiding the long ball not because opponents aren’t connecting, but because they’re not getting pitches to drive. Bundy only once had six or more ground balls during his six rough starts in April, but he’s passed that mark in all four starts in May. It’s the Zack Britton philosophy; the more ground balls a pitcher gets, the more work the other team has to do to put together runs.
After that, however, it’s hard to find stats that correlate. Command doesn’t; he walked only one in the good start against Tampa Bay, but walked fewer (two each time) in his two bad May starts than in his other good outing (three), and he was worked to the point of 118 pitches in less than six innings in that one.
The swing and miss quality of his pitches doesn’t do it either; he struck out seven in the 5.2 innings against Cleveland, but only four in seven-plus innings against Tampa Bay. And while he allowed fly balls at low rates in his two best starts this month, his best one from April (six innings, two earned runs in a loss to Minnesota April 21) featured the most fly balls he’s allowed in a start this season, so that hurts the notion that keeping the ball out of the air is a prerequisite to success.
So in answering the question of what Bundy does well in his successful starts, it appears that it’s been a different thing each time. His ability to work the bottom of the zone is the closest thing to a common element in his strong starts, but Bundy has shown a variety to get the job done in different ways. Sometimes, like against Tampa Bay four starts ago, he thrives by pounding the zone and staying out of trouble. And sometimes, like against the Indians or the Twins in April, he gets into danger with baserunners and uses the movement on his pitches to escape it.
And sometimes, he’s on the ropes from the first inning on and it’s another short start. Hopefully we don’t see one of those Tuesday. Hopefully, Bundy’s finding a way to not only make it work, but make it keep working.