You Can Dream on Dylan Bundy Againon August 14, 2020 at 1:00 pm

You Can Dream on Dylan Bundy Again

Dylan Bundy‘s first four starts last season were emblematic of a few different things. They told the story of the 2019 Orioles, a team that would set records for pitching futility. They told the story of last year’s juiced ball, which helped facilitate the highest league-wide home run rate in history. And they told the story, once again, of how far Bundy’s star had fallen. Once considered a generational pitching prospect, a Tommy John surgery combined with other injuries wedged three whole years between Bundy’s first season of big league action and his second. As time passed, dreams of him becoming a bona fide ace faded, as he instead turned into something closer to an average back-end starter — from 2017-18, his first two years as a full-time starter, he had an ERA- of 110 and a FIP- of 106, below-average marks that could usually be blamed on problems with the long ball. Through four starts in 2019, those issues persisted; he threw just 17.1 innings and allowed 15 runs on 18 hits, with a whopping seven homers allowed to go with nine walks and 22 strikeouts.

It is that backdrop that has made Bundy’s first four starts of this season almost entirely unrecognizable. He’s thrown 28.2 innings and allowed just five runs on 15 hits, three walks, and two homers. He has struck out 35 hitters. Pick a pitching category right now, and Bundy, 27, is probably either leading it or trailing only a handful of guys.

We’re only talking about four starts, but you’d be forgiven if you didn’t expect to see Bundy leading the majors in WAR at any point this season, regardless of sample size. And if you check on his Statcast rates, it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

There was always a good chance we would notice a few differences in Bundy this season. It’s his first with the Angels after spending nearly a decade in Baltimore, the organization he’d been a part of since he was just 18 years old. A well-regarded pitching prospect struggling with the Orioles before being traded to another team and totally reshaping his career isn’t exactly unheard of, nor is the concept of any player making a few tweaks after a getting a fresh set of eyes on him after spending a long time with one team. There was good reason to suspect Bundy would be different in Los Angeles — we just didn’t know how, or the extent to which he would benefit from it.

Just over a quarter of the way into the shortened 2020 season, we have a few different answers. The most obvious change has shown up in Bundy’s pitch mix, where a formerly fastball-dominant approach has given way to one more reliant on secondary pitches, particularly his slider.

The decreased emphasis on Bundy’s fastball has been a long time coming. As a prospect, the heater was his calling card — a monster that exploded out of his bulky frame and threatened triple digits, something that was even less common for a teenager 10 years ago than it is now. Unfortunately, not all fastballs are built to last, and in Bundy’s case, injuries have helped zap just about every ounce of life it once had. After averaging 94.4 mph in his first extended major league look in 2016, its velocity has fallen precipitously, now down to just 90.5 mph on average. Despite this, Bundy had always held onto the four-seamer as his featured offering, and he got hurt for it. From 2018-19, only two pitchers had worse fastballs than Bundy, as measured by our pitch weights.

If your starting point is that dire, just about any adjustment to which pitch you throw most often is likely to be beneficial. Fortunately for Bundy, he has a very good slider to lean on. He doesn’t throw it particularly hard, but he does get 83rd percentile spin on it, according to Statcast. In 169 plate appearances that ended with the slider last year, Bundy held opponents to a .152 average, .265 slugging percentage, and .219 wOBA. Despite throwing it more liberally in 2020, those numbers have somehow only gotten better — in 31 PAs, batters have hit .033, slugged .067, and produced a .062 wOBA. Their xwOBA against the pitch is just .118, and an astonishing 58% of swings at it have been whiffs.

Bundy’s most recent start, a seven-inning shutout performance against Oakland in which he struck out 10 batters, was also his most slider-heavy of the year. He threw 35 of them in 103 pitches, and induced nine whiffs on 14 swings. He struck out six hitters with the slider, including this one that froze Matt Chapman:

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And this one that dispatched Austin Allen:

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And this one that eluded Marcus Semien:

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Bundy’s adjustments as an Angel extend beyond what he’s throwing, however, to include the situations he’s putting himself in. According to Statcast, he’s been ahead in the count for a higher percentage of his pitches than any other starter in baseball this season, a stat he ranked 40th in a season ago, and his first-pitch strike rate of 64.2% is the highest of his career. He’s getting ahead like this despite being more unpredictable early in the count that ever before. Here are Bundy’s pitch type distributions by count, with 2019 on the left and 2020 on the right.

Where Bundy used to pour in fastballs to try and get ahead early, he now uses more of a kitchen sink approach, using his curveball to get ahead just as often as he does his fastball. That’s a surprise for hitters, who only see a first pitch curveball in about 10% of plate appearances, while also being quite effective at helping Bundy minimize his reliance on his poor four-seamer. The reason he is able to throw so many first-pitch curves is because he’s very good at throwing them for strikes — since last season, he has raised his in-zone rate with the curve from 42% to nearly 60%. Once he’s ahead in the count, he can lean even more heavily on his slider and other secondary pitches, which means his ability to get the curveball over for a strike greatly reduces the odds a hitter will ever get a fastball in the strike zone during that plate appearance. As we’ve seen this season, that can go a very long way.

Looking around baseball, it’s hard to think of a team more in need of a breakout like this than Los Angeles. Los Angeles had the least-valuable group of starters in baseball last season, and set out to obtain a superstar in Gerrit Cole over the winter, only to fall short of the Yankees’ bid. That left the team scrambling for back-up plans, which led to signing former Braves right-hander Julio Teheran and trading for Bundy as well as former Diamondbacks swingman Matt Andriese. Teheran and Andriese have managed just a combined 6.1 innings in three total starts this year, and have allowed 11 runs on 11 hits and seven walks. The team was also expecting a boon from Shohei Ohtani‘s return to the mound after Tommy John surgery, but that quickly turned sour, with two starts and a forearm strain so disastrous that he has already been shut down from pitching for the remainder of this season. Of the 1.3 WAR Angels starters have compiled in 2020, 1.1 belongs to Bundy. He’s been the ace the team coveted over the winter, for about 1.5% the salary commitment that Cole received.

That’s not entirely fair, of course. Cole has been an ace for most of his career; Bundy has been one for four starts. It’s still too early to say how much of his success is real, and what the league’s adjustment to him will look like once everyone’s scouting reports are updated and fully digested. The early returns are encouraging enough, however, to say with some degree of certainty that Bundy has a better chance to succeed now than he has in years. With a 90-mph fastball and an arsenal full of junk, this aren’t the tools scouts in 2011 expected Bundy to be dominating with. But that’s the thing about baseball’s most outlandishly gifted players. Sometimes, they just find a way.

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