The Orioles, to put it bluntly, haven’t had the best of luck at developing pitching. (They haven’t been particularly successful with acquiring it, either, but that’s another matter for the moment.) Starting pitchers who both (a) have been signed and developed by Baltimore and (b) have also thrown at least 50 innings since 2011 have combined for an underwhelming 10.7 WAR.
Dylan Bundy was supposed to be the crown jewel of Baltimore’s renaissance. He was, at one point, considered to be the best pitching prospect in all of baseball. The idea was, he supposed to arrive in Baltimore and serve as the club’s ace. It hasn’t happened yet. Bundy missed time with Tommy John surgery and other injuries. He made his return last year, making the Opening Day roster, in part, because he’d exhausted his option years after signing a big league deal when he was drafted. He pitched out of the bullpen and then moved to the rotation.
His first full season wasn’t a smashing success. Though he showed flashes of brilliance, his 4.70 FIP left a lot to be desired. When he was on, though, he was on.
This isn’t an exact science, of course, and shouldn’t be taken as gospel. As Tony Blengino recently noted in a piece about contact management, though, Bundy is exceptional at generating pop ups, which are high-probability outs, and an effective way to suppress BABIP. Bundy has also displayed a knack for limiting exit velocity on his batted balls. Duffy featured a similar profile and converted that success into a breakout in 2016. Bundy’s already striking batters out at a higher rate than the 2015 iteration of Duffy. If Bundy can keep inducing pop ups at his current rate, all while limiting damage in other ways, he could be a special pitcher this year.
We’ve got the Orioles projected exactly at .500, and we view Kevin Gausman and Bundy as the first- and third-best starters on the team, sandwiched around Wade Miley. Not one of the group is projected for an ERA under four. That’s not exactly a shock given that they play in Cameden Yards, and that the group is either young or prone to mixed results (or both). The Birds do have enviable depth, though, with much of the Triple-A staff (Logan Verrett, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, and Gabriel Ynoa) capable of taking the ball for a few spot starts if nothing else. None of them would be ideal long-term replacements for an injured arm. That puts pressure on Gausman, and especially Bundy, to stay healthy and produce. Both men are more than capable of being a reliable option every fifth day.
We know he’s got the stuff, as shown in the video above. The Orioles lack a true ace and have for years. It might be unrealistic to expect Bundy to step into that role this year. But he could provide some much-needed reliability and steadiness for a rotation that’s begging for it, and if he performs even better than that, the Orioles are off to the races.
There’s another factor in Bundy’s favor, too. As Travis Sawchik noted yesterday, Bundy is finally free to throw his cutter. Bundy’s optimistic that the offering could help him keep batters off-balance, and if he can do that, he’s even more dangerous. The O’s would take that in a heartbeat.
The best-case scenario, of course, is that Bundy suddenly performs like scouts and evaluators originally thought he could. The worst is that his arm falls apart again. The Orioles would gladly take the middle ground, but it’s something closer towards the mountaintop that they’ll require in order to facilitate a postseason run. They need Bundy to buck the trend of pitching-development mishaps, to lead the charge with Gausman, to make the playoffs. All the runs the team projects to score will mean little if they give them right back.
It’s been a long time coming, but it’s here, right now, right in front of us. The Bundy era may very well be about to begin in Baltimore, and Baltimore may finally produce an ace. The Orioles will need it to happen if they want to win.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.