The Orioles are a playoff contender. They also have a rotation than can best be described as “aspirational.” Their starters rank 19th by fWAR as I write this, and too many of them put more fear into Buck Showalter than they do the opposition. You may be asking yourself “Self, has a team with a rotation this bad ever won the World Series?”
Well, ever is a really long time, but I did check in on the World Series winners over the last 10 years, and the answer is: why yes. It’s happened twice in fact: The last two Worlds Series winners (Royals and Giants) also had mediocre starting-pitching production, ranked 22nd and 23rd by fWAR (respectively). The Giants, at least, had Madison Bumgarner, who amassed nearly 4 WAR, won all seven games of the Series, and hit two homers in each game. Ok, not all of that sentence is true, but the Giants clearly had an ace, a horse they could ride to victory.
This resembles the Royals 2015 rotation more than that of the 2014 Giants. The Fighting Yosts had two 2+ WAR starters: Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez. Like those Royals, the O’s have a relentless offense (though relentless in a much different way), and a quality bullpen (both 5th in reliever WAR).
Both rotations also received a key midseason reinforcement. In the 2015 Royals’ case it was Johnny Cueto, who put up an unimpressive 4.76 ERA in his time in KC, but did contribute 1 WAR. With the Royals, Cueto went over 6 innings per start with a 4.06 FIP, giving the bullpen some rest and pushing the radioactive Jeremy Guthrie to the margins of the rotation. The Royals had three 1+ WAR hurlers in the second half: Ventura, Volquez, and Cueto.
The Orioles similarly received a rotation boost after the All-Star break, but via roster re-deployment rather than trade. On July 17 Bundy made his first major-league start. Against the punchless Tampa Bay Rays, Bundy surrendered four runs in just 3 1/3 innings. He struck out four, walked three, and coughed up three dingers. In the space of about an hour, Bundy’s ERA jumped more than half a run.
And it’s been heading down ever since. In his last five starts, Bundy has posted a 1.84 ERA, a .472 OPS against, 32 Ks in 29 innings, and just four walks. Those three homers the Rays hit are still the only ones he’s yielded. These aren’t joke teams Bundy’s been beating: of his last five opponents, only the White Sox’ offense serves comfort food.
In the second half, Bundy trails only Tillman in starter WAR for the O’s. He and Tillman will both reach 1. It seems unlikely any other O’s starter will. Using the 2015 Royals as a model, the Orioles can have success down the stretch and into the postseason with three decent starters. The only candidates are Tillman, Gausman, and Bundy. This puts a lot of heat on a guy with just six major-league starts.
Are there alarm bells? In moving to the starting rotation, Bundy’s velocity has actually increased. His home run rate (1.65/9) is worrisome, but in sample sizes this small it’s dangerous to draw any conclusions from that. He’s doing something new with his curve, probably a key part of his recent success. He’s a achieved a whiff rate in August with the curve that’s almost twice that of any other month in his career. He’s also using his sinker more. These are good things, but any time an injury-prone pitcher makes this many changes at once, it’s possible that he’s rolling the dice with his soft tissue.
The biggest warning sign is probably the innings. His 70+ IP this year amount to just under a third of all his innings in organized ball. In one sense this was expected: Bundy was supposed to get to the majors with relatively minimal minor-league time. However, it’s taken him nearly five years since being drafted to get to 241 career innings (across all levels). No one expected that.
There isn’t a lot of history to go on here; Bundy doesn’t have many comps. There are good reasons for that. Forty years ago the medical advances that have made Bundy’s continued baseball existence possible did not yet exist. Moreover, prior to free agency, it would not have made economic sense for a team to incur those costs even if it could have. Back then, baseball was like Verdun: throw people at the enemy’s trenches and maybe enough of them will survive to take the objective. If not, order up another division and try again. In the baseball context, that meant if a young pitcher’s arm failed, you sent the kid home with a positive reference for his future employer, and gave the next kid the roster slot.
No team can afford to be so cavalier with its pitchers today, at least the ones with significant ceilings. Bundy is, in theory, the unobtanium of baseball: a young, cost-controlled, electric arm. The Orioles’ patience with him to this point is thus admirable, but hardly visionary. It’s more a reflection of how baseball has changed than of the merits the organization.
But the interests of the young pitcher and his employer do not always coincide. Bundy finds himself in a situation similar to that of Steven Matz, a situation in which Bundy’s long-term future and the Orioles’ immediate future may be incompatible. He is critical to whatever hopes the O’s may have of reaching, much less going deep into, the playoffs. Bundy’s heart wants him to continue starting well into October; whether his elbow agrees remains to be seen.
But no matter what fate awaits the O’s and Bundy, 29 other franchises are watching the Bundy story unfold. He will be the comp for the brilliant yet jeopardized young arms of the future. For the front office there is the remote but tantalizing prospect of competitive advantage: The franchise that finds a reliable way to fix those wings will undoubtedly take flight.