If the Orioles have any chance at being remotely competitive in 2019, their pitching staff is going to have to improve by leaps and bounds over the last two seasons.
At the forefront of that needed improvement stands Dylan Bundy.
The Orioles drafted Bundy with the fourth overall pick in 2011, when he was touted as the best high school pitching prospect in the country. In his first season of professional baseball in 2012, Bundy went 9-3 with a 2.08 ERA in 23 starts between Delmarva, Frederick, and Bowie, prompting a September call-up to the big league club, where he pitched 1.2 innings in two games, allowing a hit and a walk.
Bundy appeared to be everything the Orioles thought he could be upon drafting him, giving the club hopes of its first homegrown ace since Mike Mussina. The 20-year old was so impressive, in fact, that both Baseball America and MLB.com rated him as the number two prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2013 season.
And that’s when the wheels fell off.
Bundy was diagnosed with forearm discomfort – that was later called a flexor mass strain – during spring training in 2013. It wasn’t until June that the diagnosis was changed to an Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) tear, meaning that Bundy’s entire 2013 season would be lost to Tommy John Surgery.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld
A year later, Bundy returned to the mound and went 1-3 with a 3.27 ERA in nine starts between Aberdeen and Frederick. The following season, Bundy would make just eight starts before being shut down indefinitely with bone calcification in his right shoulder. Though he did make two starts in the Arizona Fall League, his Orioles career was still very much in doubt, especially since Bundy either had to be on the MLB roster in 2016 or be exposed to waivers, which almost certainly would have meant he would have been lost to another team.
Bundy did make the team out of spring training in 2016 as a reliever and in the second half of the season, after being inserted into the rotation, he became one of the Orioles’ most reliable starters down the stretch as the team earned a playoff berth.
In fact, between ’16 and ’17, Bundy went 23-15 while pitching to a 4.16 ERA. 2018, however, saw him take a significant step backwards, and that regression has spilled over to spring training this season.
Last season got off to a great start for Bundy, the lone bright spot early on in a lost season for the franchise. Through his first five starts, Bundy was 1-2 with a 1.42 ERA. Opposing batters were hitting just .220 with one HR against him, and Bundy was averaging more than 11 K/9. And though he experienced a bit of a mechanical hiccup over his next three starts (0-3, 19.00 ERA, 9 HR), Bundy seemed be on pace for a career year entering his start against the Atlanta Braves on June 23rd.
Through 15 starts, Bundy was 5-7 with a 3.81 ERA when he took the ball that evening in Atlanta. When he exited the game, he had allowed just two earned runs over 6.1 innings, lowering his ERA to 3.75. What we didn’t know at the time was that Bundy had injured his ankle running the bases during the game, an injury that would cause him to miss his next two starts. The Bundy that returned was simply not the same pitcher.
In his first 16 starts, Bundy allowed 1.69 HR/9 IP, a little higher than his career average, but fairly normal for the righty. In the 15 starts following the ankle injury, Bundy allowed 23 HR in 75.2 IP (2.75 HR/9) while going 2-9 and pitching to a 7.61 ERA.
He claimed he was healthy, but the proof was in the numbers. Something was obviously wrong. A season that looked individually promising for Bundy ended mercifully with an 8-16 record, a 5.45 ERA, and an MLB-leading 41 home runs allowed.
With a full offseason to get healthy, Bundy entered spring training in 2019 as a veteran anchor on a staff and team with more holes than a tennis racket. Unfortunately for the Orioles, the same issues that plagued Bundy to end the nightmare that was 2018 haven’t seemed to dissipate in 2019, at least not early on. Through three Grapefruit league starts, Bundy owns a 13.50 ERA and has allowed 15 hits and three home runs in just 6.2 IP.
Now, just as you shouldn’t get too excited about a hot spring (insert token Jake Fox reference here), you also shouldn’t get too down about a slow start to spring either. Pitchers usually use the first several spring starts to work on things to get ready for the season. It’s not really pertinent to focus on results until the final two or three starts in Florida/Arizona.
Pitchers like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester have pitched to ERAs of 6.48 and 5.19 this spring, respectively. Nobody is questioning their “Ace” status. On the flip side, Mike Wright is the only pitcher in the majors with at least 9 IP to have not allowed a run this spring, and we all know how he’s fared over the course of his career.
Still, it is troublesome to see Bundy’s now pedestrian fastball locate itself time and time again at the top of the strike zone before being deposited into the grandstands.
Last year was difficult for both the pitcher and fans alike.
If Bundy doesn’t rebound, the nightmare will continue to be reality.