The course of Dylan Bundy’s career is an interesting one. Things started off really, really good. The Tulsa, Oklahoma native was a phenom coming out of high school, posting an 11-0 record, 0.20 ERA and 20.0 K/9 in his senior year and becoming the first baseball player to earn Gatorade’s High School Athlete of the Year Award (previous recipients: Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love). Bundy was subsequently selected fourth overall in the 2011 draft by the Baltimore Orioles and made his professional debut with the A-level Delmarva Shoebirds in 2012, where the 19-year old amassed what is likely one of the best professional pitching debuts in minor league history: 30 innings pitched, zero earned runs, 40 strikeouts, two walks and five hits (in case you’re wondering, that’s a 0.23 WHIP).
Bundy’s success continued upon promotion to Baltimore’s high-A and AA affiliates that season, posting ERAs in the range of 2.84 to 3.24 although with less dominant strikeout and walk rates. All told, Bundy ended the 2012 season with a 2.08 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 combined across three minor league levels and two relief appearances with the Baltimore Orioles late in the season. Baseball America ranked Bundy as the 2nd best prospect in baseball heading into the 2013 season, ahead of names like Wil Myers, Jose Fernandez (RIP), Gerrit Cole, Xander Bogaerts and Miguel Sano.
But the hype train ground to a screeching halt in 2013 spring training, when Bundy suffered from decreased velocity and complained of elbow soreness. After a visit to the dreaded Dr. James Andrews, he opted for Tommy John Surgery in June and was officially shut down for the 2013 season. Bundy rehabbed over the 2013-14 offseason and made his first official appearance in almost two years with the Baltimore’s low-A affiliate in June 2014. All told, the comeback was relative a success, with Bundy logging 41 1/3 innings at low-A and high-A to the tune of a 3.27 ERA and 8.1 K/9.
Bundy started 2015 with the AA Bowie Baysox and looked like his old self through the first month of the season. However, after a five earned run, reduced pitch velocity outing on May 15th against the Richmond Flying Squirrels (what a team name), something seemed off. Shortly thereafter Bundy was sidelined for the rest of 2015 with rotator cuff calcific tendinitis. The kid couldn’t catch a break.
Just as it seemed like all hope was lost for the now 23-year old Bundy, a full summer and offseason of rehab resulted in an impressive 2016 spring training. Orioles’ brass took notice of his 3.65 ERA and eight strikeouts across 12 1/3 spring innings and rewarded Bundy with a spot in Baltimore’s bullpen to open the season. 42 months since making his MLB debut as a 19-year old in 2012, Bundy pitched a solid eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins on April 7, 2016. He followed that up with another 37 innings of 3.08 ERA baseball and earned a promotion to the team’s scuffling starting rotation in mid-July.
Bundy went on to pitch 71 2/3 innings across 14 starts with the Orioles over the rest of the season. While his 4.50 ERA as a starter didn’t impress, the peripheral skills did, with a 23.5% strikeout rate, acceptable walk rate and lots of induced weak contact. Arrows were finally starting to point up for Bundy’s career trajectory as he entered 2017 with a firm position in Baltimore’s rotation.
Bundy’s start to 2017 has been a revelation, at least based on traditional baseball metrics. His 3.05 ERA paces the Orioles and is eighth in the AL, while his 11 quality starts are tied for the MLB lead. He’s gone at least six innings in 13 of his 14 starts. Without Bundy, the already bad Orioles pitching staff would be undeniably putrid.
However, there are some very concerning trends in Bundy’s performance. To start, his strikeouts are down significantly, as is his ability to induce swinging strikes. Arguably the most important factor in determining pitcher performance is his ability to strike batters out and get whiffs, so that’s an immediate red flag.
Moving on to Bundy’s batted profile, he’s now allowing more line drives and fly balls and correspondingly less ground balls. While he was never a groundball pitcher, it is worrisome to see a pitcher’s flyball rate approach the mid to high 40%s, especially for one pitching in the AL East. Bundy has proven to be homer-prone thus far in his career, and that only looks to get worse. To be fair, Bundy’s high flyball rate, along with his high infield flyball rate (IFFB%), do allow him to regulate batting average fairly well. His .257 career BABIP is largely the result of a lot of weak pop-ups, however very few pitchers are able to sustain a BABIP that low. Worse yet, Bundy is allowing much more hard contact this season, with his hard hit rate increasing from 27.7% in 2016 to 34.0% in 2017.
All of this has combined to give Bundy an xFIP of 4.94, which ranks 90th out of 112 starters who have pitched at least 50 innings this season. It’s likely that Bundy’s BABIP spikes hard over the next several months if he keeps allowing hard contact. An increased BABIP combined with his lack of strikeouts and proclivity for flyballs will result in an ERA north of 4.50 going forward if things don’t improve.
What is the main culprit behind Bundy’s lower strikeout rate, higher flyball rate and higher hard hit rate? A drop in fastball velocity, and a big one at that. Bundy, who routinely hit 100 MPH with his fastball in high school and his early minor league career, has suffered inevitable velocity depreciation due to his multitude of injuries. But declining from the high-90s to the mid-90s isn’t so bad. Bundy used his four-seam fastball 57.4% of the time as a starter in 2016 and averaged 94.8 MPH on the pitch. Thus far in 2017 Bundy is averaging 92.3 MPH on his four-seamer, a massive 2.5 MPH drop. A similar decline is evident in his seldom used two-seam fastball. While Bundy’s 2016 starter velocity was probably a bit inflated due to the freshness of his arm from the lack of innings he pitched (109 2/3 total across starts and reliefs), a 2.5 MPH drop is startling and a major cause for concern.
Not surprisingly, the swing and miss rate on Bundy’s four-seamer has plummeted from 11.4% to 6.3%. Batters are also hitting the pitch harder, with a slugging percentage against (SLGA) of .520 in 2017, up from .457 in 2016. His two-seamer, which has been used 7.0% of the time in 2017, is getting crushed to the tune of a .607 SLGA. Bundy’s ineffective fastball has also resulted in a less effective changeup, as his changeup’s whiff rate has fallen from 20.8% to 13.2%, although it is still resulting in weak contact with a .259 SLGA. Bundy’s curveball has also deteriorated, allowing an above average .480 SLGA compared to a minuscule .156 last season.
Outside of his reduced velocity, the biggest change to Bundy’s pitches in 2017 has been
the addition of a slider, which he is tossing 20.9% of the time this season. The slider was a pitch that Bundy used to throw in high school and the minor leagues, however he iced it after his Tommy John surgery and rotator cuff issues. Perhaps sensing that his fastball wasn’t what it once was, with an increasing need to diversify his breaking pitches, Bundy has reintroduced the pitch this season to great success. An elite 22.4% whiff rate indicates untapped strikeout potential, while a .219 SLGA shows that hitters are having difficulty squaring it up when they do make contact.
Bundy, at 24, is at a point where he needs to reinvent himself if he wants to stave off a crash landing as his 2017 batted ball luck evens out. His fastball, which was his calling card only four years ago, is now his biggest weakness. His strengths lie in his increased control and diverse breaking ball arsenal, which feature two plus pitches in his slider and changeup, and one potentially plus pitch in his curveball. This is a potentially disconcerting realization to undergo at the spry age of 24, as the concept of reinventing a pitching arsenal to counter a bad fastball is something usually reserved for starters in their early to mid-30s (e.g., CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez).
To Bundy’s credit, he’s already adapting. The addition of a slider has kept him afloat thus far in 2017, however he is still throwing a fastball variation over 51% of the time. Bundy needs to rely even more heavily on his off-speed pitches going forward if he wants to avoid a massive regression in his ERA and overall performance.