In Dylan Bundy, the Orioles Have Hope

Confusion and “what ifs” among the industry on Orioles’ starter Dylan Bundy are everywhere, so I’ll cut through the present state of takes like a knife: Bundy is a great starting pitcher.

Red flags and disapproval rise because of circumstances surrounding Bundy that make it easy to dislike his past, present, and even future. I get it. His struggles with injuries, and Baltimore notoriously failing to develop viable starters, are two tenets the anti-Bundy fan club champions. But when any pitcher puts together multiple oh-my-god outings at different points in a season, underlying causes for those sprinkles of success reveal important trends.

One theme in Bundy’s flashes of success is a pitch the Orioles nixed as an option in the past, fearing excessive stress on his elbow. Some call it a slider, others a cutter, and the Baltimore Sun moderates the argument with a simple hyphen. It’s a pitch that possesses average to below-average break on both horizontal and vertical planes, yet still generates impressive swing-and-miss capabilities. Bundy’s cutter-slider — the Baltimore Sun method of indifference — sits fifth in whiffs generated per swing among pitches that Baseball Prospectus classifies as a “slider” (95th percentile, >200 pitches thrown). The four names above Bundy are Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Max Scherzer, and Mike Clevinger. Three objectively great pitchers, and an up-and-comer who I’ve profiled before.

Despite possessing average movement, the pitch might benefit from Bundy’s ability to tunnel all of his pitches.

Baseball Prospectus has taken the plunge in quantifying “tunneling” to the masses, and although intimidating at first, the theory makes intuitive sense. The “tunnel point” is the point in time where hitters have to make a decision whether or not to swing, and if hacking, where to do so. Above-average movement past the tunnel point would seemingly make a pitch harder to hit.

Bundy’s “Break Differential” — how much spin-induced movement is generated between the tunnel point and home plate — is 3.7 inches, substantially higher than the major-league average mark of 2.6 inches (87th percentile, 1,000+ pitch pairs). Bundy is also in the 85th percentile for a metric that signals how closely nestled his pitches are at the point of tunnel, known as the “Break:Tunnel Ratio.” We can’t say with certainty that his cutter-slider is the main culprit for this particular kind of niche success, but with the knowledge he uses it more often than any other non-four-seam pitch — especially in two-strike counts — we can infer it has some inflationary quality in this new-age stat.

Inflator number two might be the pitch that takes a back seat to Bundy’s cutter-slider, his changeup.

Bundy’s approach against right-handers is 75% fastball and cutter-slider usage, while versus left-handers, his mix in terms of offspeed is relatively even between the cutter-slider and his other three pitches, with this changeup basking in the spotlight of favoritism at 20%. Bundy uses this changeup when he needs a strike, as the pitch is seen more than three times more often when he is behind in the count rather than ahead, regardless of batter handedness.

After he gets back into counts with his changeup, he turns to the cutter-slider to put away hitters.

The frequency at which he uses his slider, at any point in an at bat, is what simple analysis says correlates to his overall success.

If just throwing his slider more was the reason for his recent success, Bundy’s xFIP in particular wouldn’t be half a run lower in his most recent set of games.

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs mentions that Bundy has gone up in the zone to lefties more often in August, but the effect that approach has on his other pitchers stands out the most. Combing through Bundy’s approach to left-handers and right-handers, you’ll notice an uptick in slider usage, but perhaps the most impressive change is his new ability to strike out left-handers. While his strikeout rate versus right-handers has stayed around the 24-28% mark for most of the season — reaching a high of near 30% in his most recent starts — lefties’ ability to solve the righty have dwindled.

Meddling around 12% for the first four months of the season, in Bundy’s most recent seven starts, that left-hander strikeout rate has more than doubled to 26%. This was the missing piece that allowed him to post a 28% strikeout rate over than span. His ability to pitch up in the zone to lefties allowed for the other pitches in his arsenal to flourish, and as a result, Bundy has become more confident with his cutter-slider, evidenced by its usage. The key is not only using the cutter-slider more, but combining that usage with an approach that makes the pitch more effective, particularly to left-handed bats. Overall trends in Bundy’s game have allowed individual pitches to become more effective, and with his innate ability to deceive hitters post-tunnel point, Baltimore is seeing the potential start to blossom.

In Dylan Bundy, the Orioles have something their fan base has longed for; a 24-year-old arm with an enviable arsenal and the ability to tunnel his pitches in a way that makes each independent part more deadly. There have been growing pains, but his tools have become skills at the major-league level, and it’s hard for me to doubt his intermittent dominance isn’t a sign of greater polishing. Although it would be naive to say his cutter usage is directly tied to good starts, Bundy’s Labor Day meltdown is highlighted by reliance on his fastball and his lowest cutter-slider usage since the beginning of July — sub 20%. Whether the downtick in cutter-slider usage on Monday was because because of comfort with the pitch, or a want to focus elsewhere, at least the Orioles know where Bundy’s strengths are when he spins a great outing.

Use your offspeed, Bundy, and may the baseball gods grant you health like no other. Those are the primary factors to make the step from possessing great skills to being an elite arm.

 

A version of this post can be found at BigThreeSports.com

Lance Brozdowski can be found on Twitter as well, @LanceBrozdow



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Founder of BigThreeSports.com. Writer for Razzball and Viva El Birdos. Host of Two Strike Approach Podcast. Co-Host Razzball Prospect Podcast. Editor in Chief of the Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network.

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