It would be easy for the Orioles to have tunnel vision with young starting pitcher Dylan Bundy.
Entering Thursday ranked seventh in the American League in ERA (1.65) and having registered a quality start in each of his five outings, Bundy has been Baltimore’s top pitcher and best player so far in 2017. The Orioles have needed him to pitch like an ace, too, with veteran Chris Tillman still on the disabled list and Opening Day starter Kevin Gausman off to a poor start.
But we’re also talking about a 24-year-old who only eclipsed the 300-inning mark for his entire professional career last week and has battled a number of injuries since being selected fourth overall in the 2011 draft. That’s why you can’t ignore the peripherals from his solid six-inning performance in the Orioles’ 5-4 win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. It was apparent early that he wasn’t close to having his best stuff, making the results that much more impressive.
Bundy’s fastball velocity was down substantially over the first three innings against the Rays, averaging roughly 89 miles per hour. The right-hander entered the night with a season average of 92.3 mph, but his average velocity had also declined slightly in each start before the significant drop early in Wednesday’s outing. The good news is that Bundy’s velocity climbed over the latter half of the outing and averaged just over 91 mph after the third inning, quelling some concerns of a possible injury that even Hall of Famer Jim Palmer shared aloud during MASN’s telecast.
(Graphic courtesy of FanGraphs)
Still, it’s tough to ignore that even his maximum fastball velocity on Wednesday (93.3 mph) was slower than his average as a starter (93.7 mph) in 2016. He managed only seven swinging strikes, a season low and often a barometer of the quality of a pitcher’s stuff. Bundy reminded reporters after the game that he’s mixing in more two-seam fastballs this year — which are typically slower than a pitcher’s four-seamer — but that wouldn’t explain that much of a drop, either.
To be clear, none of this means that Bundy is injured or doomed as he simply may not have been at his best physically, something that happens to any pitcher at least a couple times over the course of a six-month season. Even pitching in shorter stints out of the bullpen in the first half of 2016, Bundy didn’t really see his velocity start to spike until June and July, making you wonder if this is just part of his process of naturally building up arm strength and pacing himself for a long season.
Bundy is too important to both the present and future, however, to completely ignore the data solely because he’s pitching so well. Manager Buck Showalter acknowledged as much, saying he saw what everyone else did and that Bundy is always monitored because of his injury history. For what it’s worth, the pitcher said he felt good at the end of his outing and that he wasn’t concerned about the velocity.
The steady drop does make you wonder if the Orioles need to adjust their approach despite Showalter saying more than once that “the governors are off” the talented pitcher this season. It could be as simple as shaving his pitch count a bit or giving him an extra day of rest whenever possible, something the Orioles haven’t really been able to do this month while mostly going with a four-man rotation in Tillman’s absence. The practice of extra rest was used periodically with former Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen, who was much older than Bundy.
With Tillman possibly returning as early as next week, the Orioles will hope to have more flexibility with a normal five-man rotation.
Seeing how special Bundy has been so far, the organization must do whatever it takes to keep him strong and healthy for all of 2017 and beyond. If that means an extra day of rest here and there or even skipping a start if necessary, it should be an easy call to sacrifice the short term in favor of the big picture.
As easy as it might be to just focus on the results, the Orioles need to keep a watchful eye on a pitcher who is looking more and more like he can be something special. But they have to keep him on the mound for that to happen.