17 May 2017

How is Dylan Bundy Doing This?

If I told you that a team's best pitcher was striking out just over 6 batters per 9, had a ground ball rate that was the second worst among qualified pitchers in baseball, and has seen a significant velocity decline from a year ago, chances are you'd assume this team was not very good.

In fact, this team is (shocker!) the Orioles and the pitcher is (you guessed it!) Dylan Bundy.  Bundy's fast start has many O's fans dreaming of him becoming the ace everyone predicted he would be, and his surface numbers certainly support that theory. He has gone at least 6 innings in every start in 2017 and has yet to give up more than 3 runs in any outing. In short, he's been a rock at the front of a rotation that has so far been hit with injury, inconsistency, and outright badness through the first six weeks of the season.

Look deeper, though, and there seem to be more questions than answers. Bundy has certainly not risen to the top of the rotation through conventional means, as pitchers with declining velocity and strikeout rates generally do not see more success than failure. So, how is he doing it? Well, he has stopped giving up walks and home runs, is limiting hits on balls in play, and is (stop me if you've heard this one before) stranding runners at remarkable rates. Indeed, Bundy's season exhibits some of the classic warning signs for regression, and his FIP and xFIP numbers indicate that Bundy is not likely to run a 2.26 ERA for long.

So, classic Oriole starting pitcher, right? Well, maybe not. Bundy is limiting hard contact and inducing the third most pop-ups in baseball, which is a skill he also exhibited last season. While he is running a probably unsustainably low BABIP of .255, there is also nothing in his batted ball profile to suggest that a major regression is necessarily coming. A low ground ball rate does correlate with a low BABIP, but Bundy somewhat established a profile a fly ball prone pitcher last year as well. He has also maintained a solid K/BB ratio, and with increased command it is possible that he's establishing a low-walk baseline.

What is of legitimate concern, and probably can't be ignored, is the drop in both velocity and strikeouts. Bundy's fastball averaged 93.8 mph last year, while this year it is a much more modest 91.7. That velocity drop likely corresponds with his precipitous fall of nearly two strikeouts per 9 innings, which is the really troubling part. While it is not a topic of polite dinner conversation around Baltimore these days, the fact is that Bundy has an extensive injury history, including shoulder calcification that may be unique among MLB pitchers. He has been durable in terms of throwing a lot of innings, but it is difficult to ignore that decreased velocity often portends injury.

Regardless of injury concerns, though, in general it's very difficult to succeed in this era with a K rate that is well below league average, and this also makes his insanely high strand rate particularly problematic. If he was striking out a batter per inning it would be easier to buy that he has a skill at stranding runners, but a low K rate combined with a low BABIP makes that regression monster look pretty hungry. Of course, maybe the Orioles put something in the clubhouse water that makes the pitchers amazing at stranding runners.

If we can separate ourselves from the injury conversation, I actually think that Bundy has been more real than lucky so far. While a lot of the numbers scream regression there are some equally valid reasons to think that this may not be far off from who he is. I doubt he maintains an ERA below 2.50 this year without a big uptick in strikeouts, but his current FIP of 3.38 seems like a perfectly reasonable number for him to hit the rest of the way, given his batted ball profile and his ability to limit baserunners due to walks. From watching his starts, he does seem to have much more confidence and poise on the mound, even when his command or stuff have been off. That's hard to quantify, but what if I told you that the guy with the low K rate and decreased velocity looks like an ace? Well, then I'd be talking about Dylan Bundy.


Roger said...

Does your velocity measurement include when he was a reliever last year? I thought relievers typically pump up their velo a tick expecting a short outing. With that said, he always looks like he's laboring to me, which scares me. With every other O's pitcher giving up about a walk an inning, I've assumed he's taking something off to stay in the zone. I sure do think he's being overworked, though. But he's also the only one that seems to be able to be overworked and survive at this point. I've never seen the O's bullpen look this draggy and beat down - almost no one is pitching as well as they're capable of.

Jon Shepherd said...

Some relievers see an increase in velocity and others do not. Last year, the immediate transition saw Bundy maintain his velocity and then that tapered off. He seems to have started out at a lower velocity this year, but there have been considerable changes in speed even inning to inning.

Anonymous said...

Roger that, better than Ubaldo Gausman!