“There is no such thing as a pitching prospect” is an old saying used by scouts and other baseball-y men. The origin of the phrase is unclear, but one imagines it came about as cynical response to how unpredictable young, promising arms can be. Remember how good Andrew Miller was supposed to be as a starter? Well, now he’s... okay, bad example. Or what about Jacob Turner? He’s only... dominating out of the bullpen for the Washington Nationals. Former Arizona Diamondbacks ace-in-the-making Archie Bradley has also flamed out of the rotation, but has become another dominant relief arm.
Turns out those prospect evaluators might be onto something. Sure, the occasional Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber pops out of nowhere, but top prospects are considered as such for a reason. They have natural talent others don’t possess. More often than not, that talent eventually shines through in one way or another.
This is a long way of saying that Baltimore’s Dylan Bundy took much longer to get here than we anticipated. The former consensus top-five prospect made his major league debut as a 19-year-old in 2012, making a pair of mid-summer appearances for an Orioles team fighting for playoff contention. He disappeared after that, missing all of 2013 and most of 2014 after having Tommy John surgery. Even after his return in late 2014, it took a while for him to find his footing. He only struck out 15 hitters in 26 1⁄3 innings for High-A Frederick that year, and more injuries limited him to just 22 innings for Double-A Bowie in 2015.
Then, 2016 happened. Bundy had shown flashes of his old potential the season prior, striking out 25 batters in 22 frames, but his sudden breakout at the major league level was still a surprise. He limited opponents to a 4.02 ERA and 4.70 FIP, numbers that ballooned a bit as he seemed to tire down the stretch. He has come back even better in 2017 thus far, holding the opposition to a 2.25 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in eight starts. He gets his first crack at the Tigers as a starter on Thursday.
Baltimore Orioles (23-15) at Detroit Tigers (19-19)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Camden Chat
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Dylan Bundy (5-1, 2.26 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (3-2, 6.28 ERA)
Game 39 Pitching Matchup
Prior to the season, I posited that Bundy should try to elevate his fastball — which has one of the higher spin rates in the game — in order to induce more whiffs and weak pop-ups. Bundy was exceptional at doing the latter in 2016, and was on his way to accomplishing the former. Coupled with a wipeout slider, it seemed like Bundy could have become one of the top strikeout artists in baseball.
That hasn’t happened. Bundy has generally used his heater in the same fashion he did last year, throwing it all around the strike zone in all counts. In fact, he has decreased his fastball usage this season, eschewing it for more off-speed pitches like the aforementioned slider.
The slider has not resulted in more swings and misses, though. Bundy’s whiff rate is nearly identical to what he managed in 2016, but he is fanning just 18.1 percent of hitters. He has two eight-strikeout outings, but five more with three K’s or fewer.
That might be intentional, though, as Beyond the Box Score’s Anthony Rescan explains.
As Bundy enters two-strike counts, he moves more of his repertoire to his breaking pitches. His slider, which on early counts produces the highest whiff rate by far, interacts with hitters completely differently with two strikes. The near 40 percent drop in whiff rate and the three fold increase in ground ball rate are signs, coupled with the near across the board trends on other pitches, that Bundy may be valuing the strikeout less than generating weak contact.
The numbers don’t quite bear that out — Bundy’s hard contact percentage has increased slightly this year — but he has continued to generate a very high pop-up rate while limiting home runs.
Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. major league hitters
We didn’t hear many complaints about Zimmermann in April despite back-to-back outings with five runs allowed on 10+ hits. The games were weird, for one — Detroit scored 19 runs in one game and nearly came back to win the second — and the Tigers had bigger fish to fry at the time.
Now that the bullpen is (mostly) situated, Zimmermann is starting to get more scrutiny. The 30-year-old has allowed nine runs (eight earned) on 15 hits in his last two outings, both losses to subpar offenses. Opponents are batting .327/.382/.558 against him this season, and he has allowed 51 hits (including nine home runs) in 38 2⁄3 innings. His swinging strike rate has returned to career norms, but he isn’t striking batters out. His 42.3 percent hard contact rate is the fourth-highest in baseball (minimum 30 inning pitched).
Given how dangerous this Orioles lineup has looked so far in this series, that’s not good.
I could write about how Justin Wilson’s strenuous ninth inning likely leaves him unavailable for Thursday’s game. Frankly, it probably won’t matter. Zimmermann has not given Tigers fans much reason for optimism this year, and he is facing one of the most prolific home run hitting offenses in baseball over the past several years. The Tigers certainly have the horses to keep up in the right matchup, but Bundy should provide enough of a road block to give the O’s a comfortable win.
The Tigers offense puts up a fight, but Zimmermann gets rocked in another loss.