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Dylan Bundy's Renaissance Provides 2016 Orioles' Biggest Success Story

November 15, 2016
Tommy John surgery. Shoulder calcification. Elbow stiffness.

For years, a laundry list of injuries and setbacks littered the star-crossed career of right-hander Dylan Bundy, the Orioles' first-round pick (No. 4 overall) in the 2011 amateur draft. Considered a future ace out of Owasso (Okla.) High School, and once ranked as the top pitching prospect in the sport by Baseball America, Bundy rocketed to the majors at age 19 in 2012 -- only for his career to nearly self-destruct.

From 2013-15, Bundy threw a grand total of 63.1 minor league innings. Elbow reconstruction surgery June 28, 2013 cost him that entire season and most of the next; a rare calcium buildup in his right shoulder sidelined him for much of 2015. Bundy, at last, got back on a mound in the 2015 Arizona Fall League -- only to be shut down after two innings pitched because of a sore elbow.

Major league careers have ended for less than the perfect storm of calamities that befell the 23-year-old Bundy. With each passing year he spent on the shelf, Bundy ran the ever-increasing risk of becoming the latest busted pitching prospect in a recent Orioles history full of them.

During his interminable layoff, Bundy admitted he'd begun to wonder whether he'd ever get another shot at pitching in the major leagues.

"After all the injuries, absolutely, yeah," Bundy said. "I mean, some people don't like to admit it, but there is some doubt. But it seemed like once there was some doubt, the next week I would feel better or I'd be on a different throwing progression and be on a mound or something, and it just seemed like something always kept me going, and I was thankful for that."

One thing that kept Bundy going was his older brother Bobby, 26, a right-hander who has been in the Orioles' organization since they made him their eighth-round pick in 2008. Bobby Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery three months after Dylan, and the two motivated each other as they rehabbed together. Both had a full recovery; Bobby spent most of the 2016 season at Double-A Bowie, pitching 36 games.

"Luckily, I had my brother going through Tommy John as well down there with me," Dylan Bundy said. "So I was fortunate for that. He was able to go through it with me, and me and him were both able to keep each other in line and focus on the main goal."

Bundy reported to 2016 spring training healthy but carried a cavalcade of question marks. Would his arm hold up? How productive would he be? With Bundy out of options, the Orioles didn't have the benefit of getting his feet wet in the minors. The Birds stashed him in the Opening Day bullpen with the No. 1 priority of keeping him healthy, even if his actual role was undefined.

"Coming into the year, I was just wanting to get 70 innings this full year," Bundy said. "I didn't care [whether I was] starting or relieving. I just wanted to get through the year healthy and learn a whole lot. So that was kind of my main plan coming into this season."

Bundy made his regular-season debut April 7, working a scoreless inning against the Twins in Baltimore. It marked his first appearance on a big league mound in 43 months.

Early on, manager Buck Showalter carefully picked his spots to use Bundy, easing him back into game action. As was to be expected for a pitcher who had barely thrown the last three seasons -- and who had only two games of major league experience prior to 2016 -- Bundy suffered growing pains at first. He struggled with velocity and command, and hitters weren't fooled. Bundy had just two strikeouts in nine innings pitched in April, followed by a rough May in which he was scored upon during six of his eight appearances, posting a 6.75 ERA.

Having spent his entire pro baseball career as a starter, Bundy had trouble adapting to a reliever's workload of pitching every two or three days. So the Orioles tried a different approach. In June, they began giving him longer breaks between outings. Beginning June 9, five of Bundy's next six relief appearances came on at least four days' rest, akin to a starting pitcher's schedule. The O's also began extending his appearances; during five of those six outings, Bundy worked 2.1 or more innings.

The adjusted game plan paid immediate dividends. Bundy rattled off six consecutive games without allowing an earned run, spanning 14.1 innings, and struck out 19 batters during that stretch. His velocity was back up to the mid-90s, topping out at 98 on his fastball. His command improved significantly, as did his pitch selection. Along the way, Bundy continued to pick the brains of veteran Orioles and learn how to adjust to the major leagues.

"[I learned], basically, how to act on and off the field and act like a big leaguer up here," Bundy said. "And just talking to the starters about reading hitters' swings and maybe what they're looking for, either inside or outside, what pitches they're sitting on, whether they like the curveball or the changeup better, little stuff like that."

Bundy's starter-like appearances out of the bullpen raised speculation the O's might try to shift him into the rotation by the end of the season, but few expected it to happen before September. The Orioles' brass insisted repeatedly Bundy would be on an innings limit in 2016, and although they didn't announce an exact number, most observers (including Bundy himself) estimated around 70. By the end of the first half, Bundy had thrown 38 innings, which didn't figure to give him much leeway for more than five or six starts in 2016.

But his growing dominance convinced the Orioles to move up their timetable. When the second half began, the Birds announced Bundy would join the starting staff, perhaps hoping to spark an O's rotation that had the second-worst ERA in the American League (5.15) before the All-Star break.

It didn't take long for Bundy to make the baseball world sit up and take notice. He picked up his first big league win as a starter by holding the Indians to one unearned run in five innings July 22. The next time out, Bundy looked unhittable against the Rockies -- retiring the first 16 batters of the game -- before tiring in the sixth and allowing two homers.

Against Texas Aug. 2, Bundy enjoyed the best start of his young career. He carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and ultimately retired 20 of the 22 batters he faced in seven shutout frames. Bundy finally looked every bit the top-flight pitcher he was projected to be when the O's drafted him.

As Bundy flummoxed opposing lineups with his fastball, sinker, change-up and curve, he managed to achieve success without the use of arguably his best pitch, the cutter. That was Bundy's go-to weapon in high school, but he and the Orioles agreed to scrap it from his repertoire in 2016, fearing it could aggravate his elbow injury. Whether Bundy will reintroduce the cutter into his arsenal in the future is a question he can't yet answer.

"It just kind of depends," Bundy said. "I played with it around in the offseason this year, and if I feel comfortable bringing it in the spring, I'll throw it in the spring. And then if it went well in spring, then obviously I'd use it during the season. But it's going to take time, and it's going to be a slow process."

Ultimately, Bundy's brilliance didn't last. He surrendered five or more runs during four of his last eight outings, working six innings just once. It appeared his larger-than-expected workload may have caught up with him. He finished the season with 109.2 innings pitched, his highest total as a pro.

Bundy, though, insisted his struggles weren't related to a tired arm.

"There's probably a bunch of variables that go into all that," Bundy said. "I'm definitely not going to say fatigue. But maybe [I was] just leaving too many balls over the zone, or leaving too good of pitches 0-2, or getting behind guys and grooving a heater for them. I'm still working on stuff and still learning every day, so I'll get better."

Bundy's late-season slump, catcher Matt Wieters said, is all part of the maturation process.

"I think the biggest thing for him is going to be just [learning] how to maintain his body throughout the course of the year, and how to maintain the arm and continue to get stronger but at the same time be able to get his rest when he needs it," Wieters said. "And that's one thing with all young pitchers, being able to kind of increase your workload each year is something that you have to learn how the body's going to respond to it."

Still, Bundy made great strides this season simply by being able to get on the mound regularly.

"[I'm] grateful that he was able to be healthy this year," Wieters said. "I know it was a tough struggle, and ... he had some injuries set in and took a little bit longer road to recovery than he would've wanted. But he's stayed true to the course through that, and I think this year is just him starting to reap some of the rewards of all his hard work of getting back here."

Though he's far from a finished product, Bundy's future with the Orioles looks brighter than it ever has, thanks to a resurgent 2016 season that was several years in the making.

Issue 227: November 2016