Not since the halcyon days of Mike Mussina have Baltimore Orioles fans had as much reason to look forward to every fifth day. That’s the beauty of having a true staff ace, and while it may be a tad premature to place that mantle on Dylan Bundy’s broad shoulders, it certainly is getting close. After battling arm injuries every year since blazing through the farm system in 2012, Bundy appears to be back on track, and in a big way.
The 23-year-old right-hander has started each of his past two starts with five hitless innings. Fatigue ultimately did him in against the Colorado Rockies, and he allowed two home runs on misplaced changeups in the sixth inning. History would not repeat itself last night, as Bundy pitched seven innings of one-hit ball to absolutely stifle the Texas Rangers, one of the league’s best offenses. At no point did the Rangers even remotely raise a threat against Bundy.
Now, over his past three starts, Bundy has a 1.53 ERA, while striking out 20 and walking only two in 17.2 innings. He has shown impressive command of all three of his main pitches — fastball, curveball, changeup. Last night, he threw only 28 balls on 88 pitches, and has thrown strikes at a 67 percent clip over his past three outings. These are elite numbers. Including a few relief outings, Bundy has 37 strikeouts over his past 29.0 innings.
As a starter, Bundy now has a 3.00 ERA in four starts, spanning 21.0 innings. He has struck out 24 and allowed only 13 hits overall, good for a low .173 BAA. The only thing that has hurt Bundy is the long ball. Allowing five home runs in four starts can be written off as nothing more than growing pains as Bundy adjusts to starting in the major leagues.
Bundy throws with a fluid, controlled delivery. It does not vary from pitch to pitch, and the way he generates velocity just looks flat-out easy. His fastball gets up to 97 when he wants it to. Against the Rangers, Bundy was mostly cruising around 94 mph, but did touch 96 several times. He appeared to be finding a happy medium and looked to generate more early-count contact instead of strikeout hunting. The changeup and curveball are both typically thrown in the mid-80s, although Bundy can vary the speed on them greatly, even dipping into the mid-70s. At his best, all three offerings are swing-and-miss pitches because he can throw each for a strike at any point in the count.
Spin it, young man, spin it.
Bundy’s fastball rises, his changeup bottoms out, and his curveball buckles knees. When this young man has it working, he is a threat to throw a no-hitter on any given night. That’s not hyperbole, as evidenced by his back-to-back extended hitless runs. Watching Bundy command all three pitches with ease makes it even more frustrating to witness Kevin Gausman’s continued struggle to command more than a fastball. There is a formidable one-two punch waiting to be formed if Gausman ever figures out the feel for a breaking ball.
The Orioles will need to be careful with Bundy’s innings over the final two months of the year. He is already up to 59.0 innings, and a few more starts will have him approaching 100 innings. Bundy has not thrown more than 41.1 in a single season since 2012, and just barely topped 100 innings in his first professional season. While his arm looks strong now, the Orioles have to realize the fine line they are walking. Manager Buck Showalter alluded to using a six-man rotation to help back Bundy off, but even that may not keep him from approaching a potentially-dangerous innings total.
There are no concrete answers for how to handle and bring along a 23-year-old pitching phenom who is finally healthy after years of difficulty. That obvious, glaring point aside, the Baltimore Orioles appear to have finally found the ace they have been seeking since Mussina took his talents to the Big Apple. Now, proceed with caution.