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Dylan Bundy, Junkball Pitcher

It’s time to drop the nostalgia for the flame-throwing Dylan of yesteryear, and embrace the finesse pitcher he’s become.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Junkball: in baseball, a pitch that is difficult to hit due to movement rather than velocity or power, such as a breaking ball or a knuckleball.

It was a warm April night at ONEOK Field in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Owasso High’s ace righty had struck out six of the first nine batters he faced, and his fastball was lighting up the radar gun (last week against Norman North, it touched 100 mph). In just a couple of months, the 18-year-old on the mound would go fourth in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft, selected by the Baltimore Orioles. Dylan Bundy was a rising star.

It’s crazy to think that a guy who could throw 100 as an 18-year-old is hitting 91 on the radar gun now. At 26, Dylan Bundy seems way too young to be a “crafty old veteran.” But that is probably the best way to think of him.

Dylan had “true ace potential” when the Orioles signed him out of high school to a five-year contract for $6.225 million. In his first game at Class A Delmarva, Bundy struck out six out of nine batters. He shot up from Delmarva to the big leagues in a span of six months, debuting against the Red Sox on September 23, 2012, where he pitched a scoreless two-thirds of an inning.

After one more relief appearance, Bundy wouldn’t pitch in another competitive game for 21 months. In spring training 2013, he started having elbow pain and went to get an opinion from Dr. James Andrews, “the Reaper of Elbows.” Bad news: Bundy would need Tommy John surgery.

Less than twelve months later, a recovered Bundy was back on the mound for Class A Aberdeen, where he pitched a solid five innings. Alas, it wouldn’t last.

Early in the 2015 season, down at Bowie, Bundy started feeling pain in his shoulder. No one knew what it was. He was eventually diagnosed with bone growth in his rotator cuff muscle. Bundy was going to avoid surgery, but for weeks the pain wouldn’t go away. Bundy tried everything, including warm baths in the ocean, and eventually started doing yoga. “I came in the next week and suddenly I could move my arm like 30 degrees,” he said. “It moved. It didn’t hurt.” Whether yoga was a miracle cure or Bundy’s body just healed itself, nobody knows. But the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, kind of. A healthy Bundy finally made the big-league team in spring 2016, joining the rotation after the All-Star break, where he’s been ever since. Still, the numbers have hardly been ace-worthy. In five seasons, he’s got a 34-37 record with a 4.63 ERA (4.83 FIP) and a 1.314 WHIP. Bundy had a terrible 2018, the ERA ballooning to 5.45 as he also led the league in losses and home runs allowed, with 41 (David Hess is projected to give up 52 this year).

It’s Bundy’s badly diminished stuff that gives Orioles faithful most cause for concern. In 2016, Dylan’s fastball topped out at 98.6 mph; this season, it’s maxing out at 94.1. Same with the slider, down from an average velocity of 84.5 mph in 2012 to 81 now. Same with the sinker. Same with—you get the idea.

But here’s the thing. Dylan’s stuff is no secret anymore. Yet, especially in early 2018, the media and fans were still hoping for the coming of the Messiah as Bundy finally grew into himself and claimed his rightful title of staff ace. A terrible 2018 doused those flames somewhat. But I think it’s still been hard to let go of the Bundy of yesteryear and be upfront about the pitcher we have today.

During Bundy starts, I often catch myself checking the radar gun and wincing. But one thing Fangraphs makes clear is that we need to stop thinking of the Dylan Bundy slider, curveball, and change-up as “offspeed” pitches and more like primary tools. Bundy’s usage of the fastball has dropped every year he’s pitched, and 2019 marks the first season he’s thrown it less than 50% of the time (48.7%). I consider this a good thing: Bundy knows where his strengths lie, and isn’t trying to be the guy he once was.

After Tommy John, Bundy mostly stopped throwing his cutter, and added a changeup and a slider. (This is a tried-and-true formula for veterans, by the way: at age 41, Nolan Ryan, the greatest power pitcher in history, started pitching to contact and added a changeup to his arsenal because it made his fastball look better.)

Some of Bundy’s best chase numbers are on the changeup/slider combination. The slider in particular, still “a work in progress” back in 2017, has been a difference-maker for him. It was recently ranked as the best slider in the league in terms of whiff rate and induced weak contact. Check out this movement:

The big risk, when you’re a control pitcher, is that you live and die by command and movement. A combination of these is what has allowed soft-tossing guys like Masahiro Tanaka and C.C. Sabathia (or to go back a bit further, Mark Buehrle, or Jamie Moyer) to have longevity. The eyeball test suggests that Bundy often takes a while to warm up, making him especially susceptible to mistakes in early innings. His fastball also remains dangerously flat, so he needs perfect command on it and to mix it in carefully. A sequence like what he threw in the fourth inning to Asdrúbal Cabrera on Tuesday is the right idea:

Fastball inside (ball)
Fastball high and inside (swinging strike)
Curve (foul ball)
Changeup high and inside (swinging strike)

I firmly believe this version of Bundy can be a valuable back-end starter. ZiPS is projecting him to go 5-8 with a 4.80 ERA in 2019. I think this might be high. Remember, after a rocky start, his ERA peaking at 8.76 on April 11, Bundy has lowered his ERA by a full four points since. Plus his fastball-change-slider-curve ratio is still new (whether it’s the product of Astroball analytics, I can’t say) and just starting to stabilize, so we should give him time to test out the new model. Bundy’s fitness and work ethic have never been an issue, and he’s gradually going deeper into games. A former Orioles trainer described him as “just a machine. I wish everyone I worked with had his makeup.”

Above all, Dylan Bundy is a competitor. His love to play chess in the clubhouse is well known, and apparently tells us a lot about how he views pitching. “It’s about making a couple moves ahead. He looks at big league hitters like a chessboard,” says Bundy’s agent, Jay Franklin, who’s known Bundy since he was 13. “On the field or off, he’s always thinking of a way to beat people. When I’m out with him and his brother shooting bows at a target, it’s not just recreational for him. It’s a challenge to compete.”