Dylan Bundy Looks Ready to Breakout

LAKELAND, Fla. — Monday perhaps offered a glimpse of the Dylan Bundy we’ve been waiting for on a windy, sunny afternoon at Joker Marchant Stadium.

In the bottom of the first, the Orioles were so sure a bending Bundy curveball froze Nick Castellanos for a third strike that Bundy and the rest of the infield took a collective step to the visiting third-base dugout before home-plate umpire Jerry Layne signaled a strikeout.

Bundy also ended the second, another scoreless inning, with a curveball for a strikeout, this time a swinging strikeout of James McCann. Earlier in the inning, Alex Avila had waved over the top of a changeup for a strikeout. Bundy was generally able to locate a 92-94 mph fastball, throwing 28 of 39 pitches for strikes, a few painting low-and-outside corners. He did not walk a batter. He was able to throw all four of his pitches, including what is perhaps the most interesting new pitch experiment east Andrew Miller’s changeup this spring.

Perhaps most encouraging was the second out of the second inning when Mikie Mahtook buried a darting Bundy cutter into the infield turf for a routine groundout to their baseman Chris Johnson. The cutter is not new to Bundy, of course, but he is re-introducing the pitch this spring in what could be one of the more important adjustments being made in Florida.

As resident pitching guru Eno Sarris identified earlier this spring, the Bundy of 2016 was one of the pitchers in baseball most in need of a new pitch. And unlike any pitcher on that list in that story, unlike any other pitcher we know of experimenting with a new pitch, Bundy’s new offering, his cutter, was once arguably his best offering coming out of Owasso (Oklahoma) High School in 2011. The pitch was described as “a supreme piece of aerodynamic filth” by former-BP-writer-turned-Cubs-scout Jason Parks. The pitch was one of many reasons some felt he should have become the first right-handed prep pitcher to be selected first overall in draft. The pitch is one reason why Eno predicted he would become the ace he was always expected to be this season.

Over the course of three scoreless innings Monday, Bundy offered some hints that such a breakout is looming.

What Bundy said he was most pleased with Monday was the improved execution of a pitch that’s described as a cutter-slider hybrid.

“It was a little bit tighter. It was over the plate more, not so sweepy. I was really happy with that…. They were more quality ones today. I was happy with it,” Bundy said after his second outing of the spring. “I don’t want to use the (cutter-slider) too much. I want to build it up through the spring. That’s been the plan. And I’ve stuck to it.”

I asked Bundy after his start if he decided to add the pitch because of his struggles in going through the order a third time last season. And he indicated the decision was in part rooted to the data:

Third Time’s a Charm?
1st PA vs. Bundy 0.637 67
2nd PA vs. Bundy 0.787 106
3rd PA vs. Bundy 0.960 145
1st PA vs. SP (MLB average) 0.725 96
2nd PA vs. SP (MLB average) 0.753 103
3rd PA vs. SP (MLB average) 0.792 113

“I’d say so,” Bundy said. “(The cutter) just gives me another a pitch I can show guys. I can break out at the beginning of the game or the end of the game. You never know. If you have four pitches to think about, instead of three, I think the percentages there make it a little harder to hit.”

But what’s interesting is that for Bundy to throw the pitch, to trust the pitch, he has to get over a psychological hurdle. He felt the pitch was causing pain in his forearm at the close of 2015 in the Arizona Fall League so he and the Orioles agreed to shelve the pitch.

Forearm pain is a considerable worry for Bundy as he fell victim to the Tommy John epidemic in 2013, after soaring to the top of prospect rankings.

The Orioles asked Bundy to refrain from throwing the pitch in 2012 as Orioles general manager Dan Duquette was quite adamant against using the cutter.

“First of all, the cut fastball, we don’t like it as a pitch, OK? And we don’t like it for young pitchers because it takes away from the development of their curveball, which is a better pitch long-term and also, the velocity of their fastball….

But in Bundy’s case, the 19-year-old right-hander has said that is his best pitch. Have the Orioles taken away Bundy’s top pitch? …

“We don’t like the cutter. We don’t like the cutter as an effective pitch. Name me all the great pitchers that used it as their primary pitch in the big leagues.”

Don’t bring up Mariano Rivera, because I did and Duquette isn’t hearing that one.

“That’s a fastball. That’s a fastball. That’s his only pitch, he’s a one-pitch wonder. It’s his fastball.” …

“Why don’t you take a look at the chart with the average against cutters in the big leagues, batting average against and then come back and tell me that that’s a great pitch,” Duquette said.

In 2016, according to linear weights, MLB hitters produced positive values against fastballs (707.8) and changeups (7.1), and negative values against curveballs (-26.4), cutters (-65.7) and sliders (-630.6), according to FanGraphs leaderboards.

Bundy said he and the Orioles agreed not to throw the pitch last year.

“We all kind of sat down. Me, Dom (Chiti) and Dave (Wallace) and Buck (Showalter) we talked about it at that mini-camp for about 20 to 30 minutes. Whether I should even bother with it at all. We are all agreeing that now is not the best time to throw it.

“That pitch, I was getting around it too much and it was tweaking my forearm. So we are all understanding that right now I need a full year healthy (more) than a cutter/slider.”

Well, the cutter is back this spring.

And it’s back in part because Bundy suspects it will help him be more effective deeper into games. In the small sample of his early career, he’s been dominant the first time through a lineup. What if he can become a little better a second and third time through?

What’s the toughest thing about learning to trust the pitch this spring? A pitch that has perhaps caused Bundy harm? A pitch the organization would rather pitchers not throw?

“Figuring out where it is going to move. How much it is going to move. And if you can throw it for a strike,” Bundy said. “Just trying to figure out the consistent movement of it right now I would say is the hardest part.”

I spoke with new Orioles pitching coach Roger McDowell, who does not believe there are riskier pitch types. He said he and Bundy have toyed with a number of grips this spring.

“Incorrectly thrown pitches, whether it’s a fastball or secondary pitches, any of them that aren’t thrown correctly can stress the arm,” McDowell said. “It’s a pitch he’s made a point of adding to his repertoire to make the other pitches (more effective)… As with any pitch thrown correctly and not overused, if the shape of it is consistent, if it is a pitch you can add and it’s an advantage, I think it’s something you explore.”

After starting last season in the bullpen, Bundy will begin his first major league season as part of the starting rotation. And it is with health, and a return of what may be his best pitch, that could allow him to lead a rotation and become the ace so many thought he would become. Perhaps adding the cutter back increases risk, but it could also lead to great reward.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Writing the “[pitcher with serious history of injuries] is about to break out” article is what we in the internet community refer to as “jinxing it.”

Stay healthy, Dylan.