Whether it registered with Dylan Bundy that his fastball velocity was uncharacteristically low in his previous start or not, the Orioles' onetime flamethrower answer a week's worth of questions by making an age-old adjustment: he just didn't throw it as much.
With a dominant pitch mix that downplayed his hittable fastball, Bundy allowed just an unearned run and commanded both his pitches and the game in lasting into the sixth inning. That made home runs from Jonathan Villar and Stevie Wilkerson stand up for a 5-1 Orioles win over the Cleveland Indians on Friday at Progressive Field.
“For me, that was just pitching,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think that's something we've been preaching all along with him. His fastball is going to play up when his off-speed is working, and his off-speed stuff is really good. He's got a really good changeup, curveball, and he's got command of it. I just thought he did a great job of setting up hitters. It's a tough left-handed lineup, but I just thought he mixed really, really well. It was just a really great performance.”
“I'm not sure if the velo was up any higher or not,” Bundy said. “I don't really care. I just wanted to make pitches and throw quality strikes.”
For years, pitchers have learned mix is better than muscle when fastball velocity dips. Bundy has been dealing with that drop steadily over time, but couldn't have combated it better than he did Friday.
In five innings last Saturday against the Los Angeles Angels, Bundy's fastball velocity dropped precipitously in his last inning. Manager Brandon Hyde said it was alarming the team from the dugout, and Bundy didn't get a sixth inning. His average fastball velocity of 89.8 mph was the lowest of his career, according to Statcast.
Bundy said he was fine, but it was the clearest indication of the developing problems with his fastball of late. Arm strength or no arm strength, it became a hittable pitch — eight of his 11 home runs allowed this year were on fastballs, as were 22 of the major league-high 41 he allowed in 2018.
As his velocity started to creep down over the past few years, he worked a wipeout slider into the mix. But his curveball and changeup were priorities to get back into the mix this season since the start of spring training. The realization of that goal came when Bundy (2-5) most needed it, and it was clear from the start.
While he threw a customary first-pitch fastball to Francisco Lindor, Bundy went right to his curveball and eventually his changeup for a strikeout to open Cleveland's first. He threw just five fastballs in a 16-pitch first inning, and that pitch mix only changed slightly as things progressed.
“That was the first night I've really seen him this year use his off-speed stuff earlier than normal, and from the first hitter of the game,” Hyde said.
“After the first inning, I really felt good with the off-speed stuff,” Bundy said. “The curveball was getting over for strikes — that really helps. If you're not getting it over, that makes it hard and you're pitching behind in the count, but I was able to get it over tonight and the changeup played well to a lefty-heavy lineup.”
His second-inning strikeouts of Jordan Luplow and Leonys Martín came on a slider and a changeup, respectively, and came after José Ramírez reached on an error by Villar, stole second and scored on a single by Jake Bauers.
That was the only damage. Bundy pitched around two more base runners in the third, cruised in the fourth, and got an in-game validation of how he was pitching in the fifth and sixth.
Whereas the previous time out he tired in the fifth, on Friday he pushed on. Instead of Hyde with a hook after Lindor singled and Jason Kipnis walked two two outs in the fifth — representing Bundy reaching the third time through the Indians' order — he got a visit from pitching coach Doug Brocail and retired Carlos Santana.
He returned for the sixth on 100 pitches and got two quick outs before a walk and another Villar error ended his day. Branden Kline cleaned it up for him, meaning Bundy left with just the unearned run on three hits with three walks and seven strikeouts, lowering his ERA to 4.66.
He did so throwing his fastball just 40.7 percent of the time, according to Statcast data, although the average velocity was up to 90.6 mph. He featured his changeup more than he has in any start in his major league career, throwing it 30.3 percent of the time. His 13 curveballs were a nice complement to both, and the slider was there for swinging strikes when he needed it.
While Bundy said the changeup-heavy day was influenced by the seven left-handed or switch hitters he faced, Hyde said generally pitching backward has been the Orioles’ hope for Bundy all along.
“I think it's always been talked about,” Hyde said. “We talk about it a little bit. It's something that [Brocail] and [bullpen coach John Wasdin] talk about — being unpredictable, using his off-speed stuff a little bit more, especially early in the game.”
Hyde alluded to how Bundy's fastball, no matter the velocity, played up when he was locating and mixing his secondary pitches well. It's undoubtedly a model going forward for him, and helped the Orioles to one of their best pitching days of the season.
And after Bundy did that, he was followed by 3 1/3 innings of combined scoreless relief from Kline, Shawn Armstrong and Mychal Givens in a win for the Orioles (15-29). They allowed just three hits all game, and none after the fifth inning. Givens hasn't allowed a run in six May appearances.