Dylan Bundy's remarkable start to this year was one of the few bright spots in the Orioles' lost season, and his sudden decline has been equally dumbfounding.
The Orioles have the worst record in the major leagues, a distinction they hadn't had before this season since Aug. 10, 2010, after manager Buck Showalter's eighth game on the job.
But it's worse than that.
The light-hitting Kansas City Royals gave the Orioles a sobering wake-up call in Tuesday night's series opener at Camden Yards. The Orioles had lost 12 straight on the road — the first time a team has gone winless on back-to-back road trips of five games or more since the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys — so getting back home to Camden Yards had to improve their fortunes, right?
No, not even close. Bundy left fastballs over the plate that the Royals treated like batting practice pitches, knocking the right-hander out just seven batters into the game after he allowed four homers.
"It seemed like ball one, strike one and then homers," Bundy said. "So I've just gotta work ahead of guys and I haven't been able to do that the past three starts."
Bundy has a 19.00 ERA over his past three starts, having allowed 22 runs (19 earned) on 23 hits, including nine homers, in just nine innings.
"I think his last two outings, he had an extra day [off]," manager Buck Showalter said Wednesday. "I know last night was with an extra day. ... We'll look at it. Right now, he's scheduled to pitch on Sunday."
Catcher Caleb Joseph, who cryptically said after the game that "there may or may not be other things kind of going on or whatever" with Bundy, noted the 25-year-old's pitches haven't had the crispness they did during his first five starts, when he had a 1.42 ERA and was one of the game's top performers.
"They pounced on him pretty hard and it seemed like every pitch he threw up they were on time for," Joseph said. "Something for Dylan to get some rest, four days and try to come back and do it for us. He's been really good the first part of the season. Hopefully he can get back into that form."
It's clear that something is wrong with Bundy, and the Orioles must figure out what it is quickly.
When a pitcher was so good, then suddenly pitches so poorly, and command is a main problem, it's natural to think he's pitching hurt. Showalter said after Tuesday's start that Bundy had been dealing with a mild groin injury that wasn't a concern going into the start, and that every pitcher is dealing with something physically throughout the season. While that's true, few pitchers make as startling a regression as Bundy has over his past three starts.
"He went out and ran 2 miles today," Showalter said Wednesday. "Said he feels great. Sometimes, there's not a black-and-white answer."
Bundy's career splits have been erratic from month to month. He has a career 2.31 ERA in March and April, but that number balloons to 6.18 in 16 career May appearances (eight starts).
"Anytime you have a guy as good a pitcher as Dylan have the outings he's had, it makes you look at it," Showalter said. "It's just not as simple as, '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. ... I know he's looking forward to getting back out there.
Neither Bundy nor Showalter would use the injury as an excuse, and pitchers do fight through ailments over the course of a long season, but if Bundy's sudden struggles are coming from a lack of finish, a groin injury — no matter how minor — could be the root. It difficult to speculate whether that's the reason behind Bundy's struggles, but until some other reason emerges, that's all there is to go by.
"I feel the exact same," Bundy said. "My mechanics feel the same. It just seems like I'm missing off the plate, down or up, and then missing right down the middle and they hit it over the fence. Just gotta get better and work on it in between starts. … The ball hitting the glove exactly where I want it to is the main thing [I'll work on between starts], and I should be able to do that and I haven't been able to lately."
Bundy missed Joseph's mitt on three of the four home runs he allowed. Joseph set up low and away on Jorge Soler, but Bundy's changeup was over the plate. The same for home run balls to Mike Moustakas and Salvador Pérez, fastballs that were called for down and away that were thrown over the plate with little zip.
"He feels fine," Showalter said. "Obviously you don't want to have to pitch close to nine innings, I guess it was nine innings, out of the bullpen. So, you're trying to see if he can get going a little bit and at least give us some length there, but it just didn't happen. Right from the get-go it was a challenge for him."
Bundy's velocity doesn't seem to be a concern. His four-seam velocity was his lowest of the season Tuesday, averaging 91.4 mph — his average for the season is 91.96 mph — and his delivery doesn't appear out of sync. Showalter said he likened it to a dead-arm period that pitchers go through during spring training, and the lack of polish on his fastball also suggests that.
Bundy's command is his greatest asset, but he fell behind all seven hitters he faced, and five of those first-pitch misses were on fastballs against the Royals. For a pitcher who mixes his pitches well and has four at his disposal, Bundy threw more than two-thirds four-seam fastballs. For the season he's only thrown 45 percent four-seamers. In previous starts, he's typically tried to establish his fastball early before going to his slider, curveball and changeup, but he never had a chance to benefit from those other pitches.
Opponents are hitting an eye-popping .346 off Bundy's four-seam fastball this season, the highest average he's allowed on that pitch in any season, so there's something missing with that pitch. His curveball and changeup, pitches he uses 10.8 percent and 9.7 percent of the time, respectively, have also been unreliable. He's allowed batting averages of .500 on the curve and .412 on the changeup. He's used the changeup less frequently this season and the pitch has the shortest velocity gap between his fastball than it's ever had (7.68 mph). The only pitch Bundy has a better opponents' batting average than last season is his slider (.137 compared to .174 last season).
Tuesday's start offered only a short sample size because the outing snowballed on Bundy so much that he lasted only 28 pitches. But his primary swing-and-miss weapon — his slider — wasn't effective. He threw it just four times, twice missing for a ball and twice having it fouled off. For the season, he has a 33.7 percent whiff rate on his slider, but didn't get a single swing and miss on the pitch Tuesday. In fact, Bundy didn't record a single swing and miss during the entire outing. The Royals didn't miss anything Bundy threw their way.
"He had a nice bullpen [session]. … We were trying to go to the changeup, slider and curve early on," Joseph said. "They jumped us pretty quick, so we were trying to get outs," Joseph said. "Really couldn't find something that we could hold on to to get him through that first and hopefully settle down and kind of get into a groove."