BALTIMORE — Nearly 20 games below .500 three weeks before Memorial Day, the Orioles are a punchline to many in the sports world right now.
But there’s nothing funny about what’s going on with starting pitcher Dylan Bundy despite the best efforts of some on social media. Unlike the many poor performances from players unlikely to be in Baltimore beyond this season, the 25-year-old is supposed to be one of the few long-term answers in place for an organization full of uncertainty from top to bottom.
He represents hope, either as a fixture atop the rotation for years to come or even as a valuable trade chip for a last-place club desperately needing to rebuild.
That’s why Bundy becoming the first pitcher in major league history to allow four home runs in a game without retiring a batter Tuesday night wasn’t a laughing matter for anyone invested in the Orioles. After beginning the 2018 season with a sparkling 1.42 ERA, striking out 40, and allowing only one long ball in 31 2/3 innings, the 25-year-old has allowed an obscene nine homers and 19 earned runs in his last nine innings on the mound, ballooning his season ERA to 5.31.
Those three starts being the extreme opposite of what he did over his first five outings when he looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball will naturally prompt one to wonder whether Bundy is healthy. His well-documented injury history in the minors would make anyone take pause, but both Bundy and Buck Showalter said he felt good physically after Tuesday’s 15-7 loss, a claim the Orioles manager reiterated a day later.
“I know he went out and ran two miles today. He said he feels great,” said Showalter, who added that Bundy is still scheduled to make his next start on Sunday. “Sometimes there’s not a black and white answer. Anytime you have a guy who’s as good a pitcher as Dylan have some of the outings he’s had, it makes you look at it. It’s not as simple as, ‘Well, he’s always struggled in May.’ That’s not what I or Dylan or anybody wants to hear.
“That’s a little different proportion last night. We’ll take a look at him as always during the workday. I know he’s looking forward to getting back out there.”
Bundy’s average fastball velocity on Tuesday was 90.5 miles per hour and 90.6 in the start before that, down from his 91.7 average over his first five starts. That’s not a dramatic red flag by itself, but that decrease, less movement, and the poor command compared to what we’ve typically seen from the young pitcher raise concerns.
Showalter speculated after Tuesday’s game that the young pitcher could be going through a “dead arm” period that many pitchers experience during spring training. Bundy also dealt with some minor groin tightness on the Orioles’ last road trip, but he and Showalter dismissed its significance.
To be clear, no one should have expected him to continue pitching to an ERA well below 2.00, but Bundy was averaging a dominant 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings and opponents had a .325 batting average on balls in play over his first five starts. Those numbers suggest he wasn’t benefiting from luck in the way that even a bad pitcher can sometimes have a shiny ERA with some good fortune over a handful of starts. Bundy was bound to give up a few more long balls after surrendering only one over his first five starts, but the last three outings are a little much to simply chalk it up to some regression to the mean.
The good news is that Bundy is as mentally tough as young pitchers come, making it unlikely that the historic embarrassment of Tuesday night will linger beyond the short-term disappointment of not giving his team a chance to win. If the last three starts are only an extreme example of the ebbs and flows of a season or the result of a mechanical flaw that’s easily correctable, Bundy’s confidence level should be fine moving forward.
This Orioles season has been dreadful from the beginning with the day-to-day results already becoming inconsequential, but watching Bundy every fifth day was supposed to remain a highlight. The thought of him continuing to pitch like this or, even worse, there being an issue with his health makes a season that’s already been a nightmare that much worse.