The Dylan Bundy Hype Train Is Finally Boarding

The Baltimore Orioles’ vision from 2012 is almost fully formed. In 2011, they selected Dylan Bundy with the fourth-overall pick in the draft, and the following year, they did the same with Kevin Gausman. In 2013, Bundy was the No. 2 overall prospect in the game, according to Baseball America. He was Lucas Giolito. Gausman was No. 26 — he was Jose Berrios. Now, three years later, it’s 2016, and the club is in first place. It’s all going to plan. The Orioles are leading the American League East, and it’s all thanks to their dominant starting rotation, led by workhorse aces Bundy and Gausman — among the most dominant one-two punches in the league.

I’m sorry, what’s that? Everything’s true except for the last part? You’re telling me the Orioles are in first place, but their rotation has a 5.00 ERA? They just traded for Wade Miley? Gausman’s never thrown more than 115 innings in a season and has a career-worst 4.45 FIP and Bundy’s only made three major-league starts? Three?

So, maybe the vision from 2012 isn’t fully realized. But the Orioles are winning, and, despite a bit of a circuitous route in getting there, this is the closest that vision’s ever come to being a reality. Because Dylan Bundy is a starter now. Alongside Gausman in the major leagues, and for the first time in their careers, finally. We’ve been waiting for this for years. And, at the risk of delving too deep into sports talk radio host jargon, Bundy feels like he could be a massively important piece for an Orioles club that badly needs a shot in the arm if it wants to make a deep postseason run. I swear I’m not going to use the phrase “X-Factor.”

I want to make it clear: Bundy’s shown very little. Often times, these posts provide one reason or another to believe in a player, whether it be a mechanical change, or a new pitch, or a revamped approach, and we all come away feeling more confident about the player in question. This is a less a persuasive essay regarding the virtues of Bundy’s abilities and moreso an advocation of intrigue. Bundy’s got it in spades; he always has. And deep down, I think we all want him to succeed. No one wants it more than the Baltimore Orioles. They need it.

He’s made three starts. The numbers, overall, haven’t been great. Mostly due to the first one being a real clunker against the Rays, but I’m willing to give that a pass. It doesn’t even sound believable for that to have been Bundy’s first career major-league start. You know how long Bundy’s been wanting that start? We’ll let that one slide. The next one came against the Indians, and it was a beauty. He only lasted five innings — he’s on a pretty strict pitch count — but the five innings were clean. The only run was unearned. Nobody walked, nobody homered. Bundy struck out five and, at times, looked unhittable. He looked even more unhittable in his next outing against the Rockies, because he went perfect through five innings. After facing 15 Rockies hitters, Bundy had struck out eight. On the heels of the Cleveland game, it was the most promising Bundy’s ever looked.

Things came apart in the sixth, with a walk and a couple of homers, and that’s the thing about Bundy — he’s got no experience working through major-league lineups for a third time. He’s got no experience going 90 pitches and six innings deep into a game. He’s not going to be a workhorse — not this year. But you look for the flashes. This page, from the Pitcher List, is full of them. Twelve flashes, rendered into high-definition .gif form. It’s beautiful. Bundy’s always had the raw stuff. That much is undeniable.

Another flash isn’t a flash at all. It’s a steady, bright light. I know I said this wasn’t as much a persuasive piece, but we can’t ignore this much. This much is exciting. Bundy spent the first chunk of the year working out of the Orioles’ bullpen. Here’s this season’s average fastball velocity plotted by game, with the red line splitting the bullpen work and the rotation work:

Brooksbaseball-Chart(1)

If there’s one thing we all understand about the difference between the way a pitcher works as a reliever and the way a pitcher works as a starter, it’s that the reliever-version can throw harder. Almost always does throw harder. Doesn’t have to worry about saving his stuff. When a starter goes to the ‘pen, we expect an extra tick or two. Vice versa the other way around.

Bundy, understandably, had to build the velocity up at the beginning of the year — even out of the bullpen. He just hasn’t thrown many innings lately, and the arm strength needed time. And he gradually built his way up to sitting 96 or so — about where we’d expect him to sit when working an inning or two at a time in relief. But then he went to the rotation, and he held it. In three starts, Bundy’s fastball’s sat 94.5. In his 22 relief appearances, he averaged 93.9. Granted, Bundy’s on a pitch count, so even as a starter he doesn’t have to worry about going too deep, but he’s still turning the lineup over, and he’s doing it with his reliever velocity. It can only be a positive sign.

The other area of intrigue is Bundy’s pitching without a weapon. The Orioles, see, don’t like cutters. And so even though Baseball America called Bundy’s cutter “a third plus fastball” in their 2011 post-draft scouting report, the Orioles told him to scrap it the following season, and he’s still pitching without it. Bundy doesn’t throw a slider either, and so, without the cutter, he doesn’t have a traditional “break-away-from-righties” pitch to rely on. The curve is there, but the curve hasn’t been a great weapon yet — he’s not getting batters to swing at it, and even when they do, it’s not missing bats.

Enter the change. As a starter, Bundy’s gone to the changeup more than a quarter of the time, way up from his usage out of the bullpen. And he’s not discriminating, either, throwing it for two of every 10 pitches against righties and working it inside, as we’re seeing pitchers do more often these days. Bundy’s getting tons of swings and tons of whiffs on the changeup, and it could just be his answer to the missing cutter.

The bigger question is: can Bundy be the answer to the Orioles’ missing rotation? Thanks to his early-season relief work, the plan is for Bundy to remain in the rotation the rest of the year. The answer’s not going to be Wade Miley — he’s just an unexciting, generic, innings-eating sponge. It’s not Yovani Gallardo — he might not be anything at this point. It’s probably not Chris Tillman or Gausman — we’ve seen enough of them by now to expect some dimming after we see the flashes. But that’s the thing about Bundy. We just don’t know.

You never know just how long to dream on hype, but until you’ve been burned by it, it’s just about impossible to quit. We haven’t even had the opportunity to be burned by Bundy’s hype yet, and so here we are. He might not be able to pitch deep into ballgames, but with Baltimore’s bullpen, they might not need him to. Certainly not in the postseason, if they get there. If they do get there, it probably means the rotation turned things around the rest of the way. And if the rotation turns things around the rest of the way, I’ve got a hunch where the difference might have come from. Told you I wasn’t going to use the phrase “X-Factor.”





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Joshua Miller
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Joshua Miller

You have the draft years reversed, Bundy was 2011 and Gausman was 2012.