Compared to their position-playing counterparts, the track record of teenage major-league pitchers is fairly hit or miss. For every Fernando Valenzuela or Dwight Gooden, there are two or three Todd Van Poppels or Ed Correas.
With that said, the last decade or so his provided a higher hit rate for these wunderkinds. Teams are much more cognizant of a player’s service time now, and much more cautious with pitchers arms than ever before. It therefore takes a really special prospect to earn a call-up before completing his second decade on the planet. So while we’re seeing better teenage pitchers than ever, we’re also seeing fewer:
Since 2000, we’ve only had five teenagers throw a pitch in the big leagues: Edwin Jackson (2003), Felix Hernandez (2005), Madison Bumgarner (2009), Dylan Bundy (2012), and Julio Urias (2016). Their Baseball America top 100 ranking coming into each of those years was 99, 2, 9, 10, and 4, respectively, and it should be noted that Jackson’s stock skyrocketed during that 2003 season — he would be ranked fourth in BA’s 2004 Top 100.
In other words, you don’t get called up to the big leagues before your 20th birthday these days unless there is very little doubt that you are going to be a stud. If the worst case scenario is Edwin Jackson, then you’re doing something right.
I write that as a reminder of just how high the expectations were for Bundy when he got his first cup of coffee with the Orioles back in September 2012. The description that got thrown around a lot back then was “polished.” ESPN’s Keith Law said at the beginning of 2012 that Bundy — who had yet to make his professional debut after being drafted out of high school, remember — should have started the year at Double-A.
That would be unheard of for a pitcher with Bundy’s experience at the time, but it was a fair argument considering how talented he was. Regardless, even though Baltimore took the cautious approach of starting him in Low-A, he still ended that season making a couple of appearances out of Buck Showalter’s bullpen. As cautious as the Orioles were to begin with, Bundy performed so well that he left them almost no choice but to keep moving him up the ladder until he hit the ceiling.
That inning and two-thirds Bundy got in Baltimore have come back to bite the organization in a big way, however, as Bundy started having arm trouble the following spring training, and was going under the knife by June after a failed rehab. In addition to the year-plus he missed from that surgery, Bundy experienced shoulder trouble upon his return. From 2013 to 2015, he would throw just 65 1⁄3 innings, and none above Double-A. And because of that early call-up, Bundy’s service clock was ticking all the while.
That meant that by the time Opening Day 2016 rolled around, Bundy was out of minor league options. Despite his arm problems, Baltimore had basically no choice to stick him in their bullpen to start the season and hope things worked out for the best.
Fortunately, that’s mainly what happened. Bundy didn’t reemerge as the best young pitcher in baseball overnight, but he was solid in limited action out of the bullpen. In 38 innings as a reliever, he was just about a league-average pitcher, if a bit too dependent on pop-ups. That was great for a guy who had hardly played in three years, but the plan was always to transition Bundy back into the rotation once he got his feet under him, and that’s precisely what the Orioles did after the All-Star break:
Dylan Bundy pre-/post-ASG splits
There is good and bad here, of course. For one, it’s clearly a great sign that Bundy was able to make 14 consecutive starts down the stretch of the season. It shows that, if nothing else, Bundy was healthy once again. He also showed that he hasn’t lost the ability to miss bats — that 23.5 percent strikeout rate is a really nice figure for a starting pitcher.
On the other hand, when batters did make contact against Bundy as a starter, the ball was generally being hit hard, and in the air. It would be very tough to survive in the rotation pushing two home runs per nine. He can survive with a 40+ percent fly ball rate — Bumgarner and Max Scherzer do alright — but in order to shore up that profile, Bundy will have to miss even more bats, and further refine his command. Plus a little more luck on those fly balls wouldn’t help either.
Bundy certainly has the stuff to make the necessary improvements. Tommy John didn’t rob him of that, at least. As a starter, his fastball sat just a shade under 95 miles per hour, and he can run it up into the upper 90s with some nice fade when he really wants to:
He likes to work up in the zone with it, however, and that’s where his home run problems emerge. 11 of the 18 dingers Bundy surrendered came off of a fastball:
I’m speculating here, but this might but be an example of a young pitcher knowing that he throws hard, but making the mistake of thinking that big leaguers won’t catch up to it, even if he leaves it out over the plate. There’s certainly an adjustment to be made with the fastball, either way, as Bundy’s location with it did not work out last season.
Bundy supplemented the heater with a couple of secondaries: a mediocre changeup, and a more promising, slurvy breaking ball. He threw both pitches about a fifth of the time last season, but batters were able to do quite a bit of damage against the changeup, slugging .483 when they put it in play. The breaking ball, however, looks like something Bundy should look to throw more often, as he would occasionally make hitters look foolish for offering at it:
It’s hard to make it as a major league starter without a third pitch, however, and if Bundy can’t rely on that changeup he’s going to have to add to his arsenal. In fact, there is perhaps no pitcher in baseball more in need of a third pitch more than Bundy. Fortunately, making that addition may well prove to be easier for him than it is for most pitchers.
That’s because, after they drafted him, the Orioles took away what was widely thought to be Bundy’s best pitch as an amateur: the cutter. Actually, the thing moves so much that there’s debate as to whether it’s more of a slider than a cutter. The Orioles reasoning for scrapping the pitch seemed to be two-fold: 1) They didn’t want Bundy overrelying on one dominant pitch and wanted him to develop all of his pitches; and 2) there was an organizational resistance to cutters as a matter of principal.
It appears, however, that whatever was bothering Dan Duquette and the Orioles about cutters five years ago has receded with time, as Bundy has begun to use it again this spring. If the pitch is anywhere close to as good as it was purported to be during Bundy’s halcyon days as a prospect, then maybe it’s not too late to give up on him eventually becoming an ace after all.
Regardless, after some tumultuous years when it looked like Bundy might become the last addition to the list of what-ifs regarding young pitchers, it looks at the very least like the Orioles have a solid back end starter on their hands. It might not be what they expected when they gave Bundy the call at 19, but at 24 his career might just be getting started, even if it feels like he’s been around forever. For his sake, and the Orioles’, let’s hope that it is.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.