When it comes to developing pitching prospects, few organizations have earned a worse reputation than the Baltimore Orioles. Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Hunter Harvey, Kevin Gausman, and Brian Matusz are just a few recent examples of otherwise promising hurlers who have had their development and career trajectories ruined, or at least seriously derailed, by their time spent with Baltimore. And there is perhaps no more egregious example of the Orioles’ mismanagement than the disappointing development of Dylan Bundy.
Bundy was one of the most highly touted prep pitching prospects of the last decade when he came out of high school in Owassa, Oklahoma in 2011. The Orioles selected him fourth overall in that summer’s MLB Draft and signed him to a major league contract, immediately placing him on the 40-man roster. He made his professional debut the following year in 2012, and after 23 starts and 103.2 minor league innings (with a 2.08 ERA), he was called up to the majors and recorded his first MLB appearance on September 23rd, 2012 at the tender age of 19. He tossed 1.2 scoreless innings across two appearances before the end of the season, and entered 2013 as the #2 overall ranked prospect in the game by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline. Almost every scout who saw him agreed that Bundy was destined to become an impact starter. He looked like a surefire ace.
But a heavy high school workload, as well as Baltimore’s unconventional coaching methods, started to catch up with Bundy that spring. A balky elbow led to Tommy John surgery in June that cost him all of 2013 and most of 2014. He did return to make nine starts and pitch 41.1 innings in the minor leagues before the end of the year, but was once again shut down with shoulder issues after throwing just 22.0 innings across eight starts in Double-A in 2015. The following spring in 2016, Bundy, who had been on the 40-man roster this whole time, reported to camp out of minor league actions and needing to win a spot on the Opening Day roster or be exposed to waivers. He pitched well during Spring Training and began the year as a long man in the Orioles’ bullpen.
Bundy would show some early promise during his first real exposure to the big leagues, working to a solid 4.02 ERA in 109.2 innings as a rookie while starting 14 games among 36 appearances. He finally became a full-time member of the rotation in 2017, starting 28 games and piling up 169.2 innings with a 4.24 ERA and 4.38 FIP, both marks 3% better than league average. Bundy’s ability to generate swinging-strikes, limit walks, and suppress hard contact continued to trend in the right direction in 2018, but his capacity for preventing home runs began to dissipate. Bundy gave up a league-leading 41 long balls (2.15 HR/9) on his way to a 5.45 ERA in 31 starts and 171.2 innings pitched, though he did punch out batters at a 9.65 K/9 rate while yielding only 2.8 BB/9.
So far in 2019, gopher ball problems have continued to plague Bundy. He’s served up 21 dingers in 98.0 innings (1.93 HR/9) and has lost almost a full tick on his fastball since 2017, down to 91.5 MPH. He owns a 5.14 ERA, and both FIP- (109) and DRA- (114) agree that he has indeed been a below-average performer.
But there are some compelling elements to Bundy’s game. Though his fastball velocity is no longer what it was before his injuries, he ranks in the 88th percentile in spin rate for the pitch and is missing more bats than ever. His 13.1% swinging-strike rate is the highest total of his career, and his 9.37 K/9 rate is right in line with his work from last season. The walks are up slightly (3.21 BB/9), but Bundy has excelled at limiting hard contact. His 30.6% rate of hard contact allowed ranks as tied for the 7th-stingiest total in baseball (min. 50 IP) and Statcast’s expected statistics suggest that he may be experiencing some bad luck this year while under-performing his batted ball profile. Bundy ranks in the 66th percentile of the league when it comes to expected batting average, and the 34 point difference in his actual wOBA allowed and his expected wOBA is one of the widest gaps in the league.
The Orioles have fielded the worst defense in the AL according to Defensive Runs Saved (-73) and Camden Yards has played like even more of a hitter’s paradise this year than Miller Park according to Baseball Reference’s one-year park factors. And even with that working against him, Dylan Bundy has performed like a decent enough back-end starter at a time when the average American League starter owns a 4.71 ERA with a 1.51 HR/9 rate and is allowing hard contact at a 38.4% rate. He has consistently taken his turn in the rotation every fifth day this year, missing just one start when he had a minimum-length IL stint with knee tendinitis. He has also generally kept his team in ballgames, going at least five innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs 12 times in his 19 starts.
Dylan Bundy is still only 26 years old. He is earning a mere $2.8 mil salary in 2019 and has two more seasons of arbitration control remaining before becoming eligible for free agency. Over the last four seasons he has established a pretty safe floor as a generally dependable back-end starter and is someone who can at the very least, be a stable source of some not-terrible innings when taken in context with today’s pitching environment. And he is available, a trade candidate on a last-place team who is seen around the league as more of a fall-back piece at this year’s deadline and is someone that won’t command a huge return in terms of prospects.
At the very least, the David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers need to add some innings to their starting rotation before the July 31st deadline. Slingin’ Stearns and his brain trust could do worse than bringing Dylan Bundy into the fold, who is already a decent starter that could have some further upside to be unlocked if he could be freed from his unjust, career-long sentence to pitching in the Orioles organization and figure out how to shave a hair off his home run rate.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant