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Dylan Bundy's Reincarnation Gives Angels Much-Needed Rotation Ace

ANAHEIM—When the Orioles drafted Dylan Bundy fourth overall in the 2011 draft, the celebrated Oklahoma prep was expected to contend for Cy Young Awards in the years to come.

Nine years later, after a winding and circuitous route, it appears that might finally be happening.

Bundy pitched seven shutout innings with 10 strikeouts to lift the Angels to a 6-0 win over the Athletics on Tuesday night. The outing followed a complete game with 10 strikeouts in Bundy’s previous start, which was preceded by back-to-back quality starts to open the season.

The 27-year-old righthander has a 1.57 ERA, tied for fourth in the American League. He leads the AL in innings pitched (28.2) and WHIP (0.63) and ranks second in strikeouts (35) and opponent’s batting average (.150). He has 35 strikeouts against just three walks, the AL’s second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“Even from the side, when you’re standing at the field level, it’s the real deal,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “The pitches are real sharp, the swings are not good and the takes are bad. You see that kind of performance and his total package, the competitive nature, the way he’s processing everything he’s doing right now, I don’t know the last time he pitched this well.”

Bundy no longer resembles the pitcher who touched 100 mph in high school and was hailed as the Orioles best homegrown pitching prospect since Mike Mussina. He won Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year award in 2011 and reached the majors the following year as a 19-year old, but an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery cost him the entire 2013 season and most of 2014. A shoulder injury followed in 2015 and pushed his return to the majors back another year.

Bundy made it back to the majors in 2016, but he wasn’t the same. His famed 94-100 mph fastball progressively ticked down every year until it became 90-93. He led the American League in losses in 2018 and allowed 41 home runs, the most in the majors.

When the Orioles traded him to the Angels last offseason for four marginal prospects, he left Baltimore with a 4.67 ERA and more hits allowed (611) than strikeouts (602) in just over four full seasons.

The Angels, however, saw underlying reasons for hope. While Bundy’s fastball velocity declined, he sharpened his slider into an elite pitch, limiting opponents to a sub-.180 batting average against it every season since 2017. He struck out at least a batter per inning the last two seasons while keeping his walk rate around the league average or below it. He pitched deep into games and quietly appeared to have a breakthrough at the end of last year.

Slowly, and with plenty of bumps and bruises, Bundy was learning how to pitch with his reduced stuff.

“It just kind of happened over time,” Bundy said. “Over the years the velo kept kind of creeping down a little bit and I kind of started throwing a little bit more offspeed pitches. Learning how to locate them and then also bury them or throw them off the plate or inside or whatever for a strikeout or weaker contact. It just kind of happened over four or five years.”

Now, he’s figured out the mix that works for him. Bundy has decreased his fastball usage from 42 percent last year to 32 percent his year and replaced it by throwing his slider, changeup and curveball all more often, according to Baseball Savant.

Once a power pitcher, he reinvented himself as a change-of-speeds artist.

“The big thing about that is the command,” Maddon said. “If you do that without command or you hang pitches, you’re going to get banged pretty well. It’s just they’re that sharp and he has a variety that are sharp. Curve above-average, slider above-average, changeup above-average. Then the fastball you’re going to grade out 91-92 mph, in today’s game that’s about average, but it plays up because of the command of his other pitches.

“That’s what you’re seeing and you’re seeing a very confident young man, too. All those things in place, I really believe he can sustain it.”

Maddon has reason to believe Bundy can sustain it because he’s seen it before. Maddon was the Cubs manager when Jake Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award in 2015, two years after the Orioles traded him to Chicago with a career 5.46 ERA.

“Little bit different pitchers in a sense stuff-wise, but both had great makeup,” Maddon said. “That’s a tough ballpark there to pitch at Camden (Yards) and the AL East can be more hitter friendly than pitcher friendly. But I also like pitchers who have grown up in the AL East because when you learn your craft in the AL East, you have to learn how to get hitters out within the strike zone. Normally there’s not a lot of chase, so it’s a great proving ground, and I think that maybe benefitted both of these guys.”

The Angels are now reaping the rewards. Bundy, by any measure, has been one of the American League’s elite pitchers and a panacea for an Angels rotation that has otherwise struggled to pitch deep in games.

It didn’t happen when, where or how it was expected, but Bundy’s prospect predictions of Cy Young Award contention appear to be materializing.

“There’s going be bumps and bruises wherever you play,” Bundy said. “I think you try to keep an even-keeled line. Not get too high, not get too low. Just enjoy the highs and don’t get too down on the lows. I’m doing what I’m doing and just trying to give the team a chance to win.”

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