The Houston Astros’ rotation is brimming with pitchers who once would have inspired Orioles starter Dylan Bundy or represented what he could become. Justin Verlander is the hard-throwing innings-eater who gets better as the game goes on. Gerrit Cole and Bundy were equals as draft prospects in 2011, and Cole has the big fastball and arsenal to top any rotation in the league — except his own.
But so much has changed for Bundy since that 2011 draft that he doesn’t look to model himself after either of those flame-throwers. Instead, it’s Zack Greinke, another pitcher who has responded to carrying less speed on his fastball by throwing every pitch in his bag.
“I’ve been told to watch certain guys who pitch with their off-speed and don’t have the 97 [mph] as a starter, and one of those guys I’ve looked at that changes every single pitch is Greinke,” Bundy said. “He’ll throw a 60 mph curveball, a 75 mph curveball, a 90 mph changeup, 91 mph heater, 87 mph heater. He really knows how to pitch, and it’s pretty impressive watching it. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to see him in person. I’ve watched him on TV. The way he’s able to read swings and adjust on the fly, it’s pretty incredible.”
While Greinke started Game 3 for the Houston Astros on Monday afternoon, allowing three home runs in a 10-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, Bundy is decompressing after a year in which plenty changed for both him and the Orioles.
After a difficult start to the season, in which Bundy was on pace to reprise his role as the league-leader in home runs allowed after giving up 41 in 2018 and 11 in his first eight starts, his career might have reached a turning point.
On May 11 against the Los Angeles Angels, Bundy’s fastball velocity was down so much that pitching coach Doug Brocail came out to ask Bundy if he was hurt. While Bundy still jokes that his only takeaway from that moment was to “make sure I keep it above that 90 [mph] mark,” it sparked a change in how he pitched. Before that, Bundy threw his four-seam and two-seam fastballs 52.9% of the time, according to pitch data from BrooksBaseball.net.
His following starts after had a dramatic decrease in fastballs (he settled in at 49% fastball rate the rest of the season), but Bundy’s mix made him a different pitcher. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in 16 of his last 22 starts, dramatically cut his home run rate and grew confident throwing his off-speed pitches for strikes and using them in any count.
“I guess it isn’t much different. Just throwing more off-speed, but I’d say that’s probably what I’m most proud of, how much I was able to learn about myself and how I can pitch this way that Dylan pitches,” Bundy said. “I was throwing fastballs less, but throwing them where I wanted to more, and throwing more off-speed. It comes with being able to locate it and throwing it for strikes, and throwing it strike to ball. If you can’t throw strikes at all, you’re going to be behind in the count. You can’t do that in the American League East or any division. These guys hit 2-0 curveballs that are right down the middle. You’ve got to be able to throw quality strikes, and I feel like I was able to do that better in the second half.”
Statistically, there was only a modest improvement after that change in pitch usage in May. His ERA was 5.31 before, and 4.61 after, leaving it at 4.79 for the season. His WHIP was 1.303 before, and 1.379 after. The changes didn’t result in more strikeouts or fewer walks.
But overall, it presents a path forward for a pitcher who is the longest-tenured Orioles starter and was once considered the top prospect in baseball. Bundy is entering his second year of salary arbitration eligibility and is due a raise above the $2.8 million he made this year. His fourth full season as an Orioles starter in 2020 will look drastically different than the first few, but Bundy realized that this year.
“I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement on some of the numbers that I have," he said. "Now it’s staying healthy and keep learning what I learned this year about the way I pitched now, just continuing to improve. You can always improve with location and command, and I’d like to see the walks go down. …
“Everybody knows that there’s still 94 [mph pitches] a couple times, I don’t think I hit a  this year, maybe once. I think if I pitch at 92-93, 91 even, and locate it, use my other pitches, then I’ve been told that the heater plays up because of that other stuff.”