As fireworks exploded above Harry Grove Stadium, Dylan Bundy left the Frederick Keys clubhouse and jaunted toward a lifted pickup truck with Oklahoma plates. He looked like any other twenty-something Carolina League athlete: a five-o’clock shadow, loose jeans, and a black athletic hat fitting snugly against his sideburns. Also, a giant crossbow.
Bundy, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect, is in his first season back after undergoing Tommy John surgery last summer. His talent is still captivating — last month, ESPN’s Keith Law ranked him baseball’s 12th-best prospect — but his performance has been uneven.
In three starts with short-season Class A Aberdeen, Bundy often dominated, holding New York-Penn League batters to a .189 average and allowing one run in 15 innings. In his first three starts after being promoted to Frederick, he struggled, giving up 15 hits, 6 walks, and 12 runs in 11 2/3 innings. Last week, he threw six scoreless innings for the Keys. In his next start, he allowed five hits and five walks in 4 1/2 innings. (Bundy is on a 75-pitch limit this year.)
The one-time phenom has had to be patient during his first summer back, just as he had to be patient during months of rehab. His hobby helped.
The Bundy family is full of passionate outdoorsmen. Dylan hunted deer and coyote back home in Oklahoma. Older brother Bobby, who was also drafted by the Orioles in 2008, has a photo of he and his friends, dressed in camouflage holding shotguns, as his Twitter cover photo. Dylan’s father Denver has hunted big game in Africa. As with rehab, hunting requires a substantial investment for an uncertain result.
“In a tree stand, you could sit for four hours and never see a deer sometimes,” Bundy said. “That’s not always fun. You had to be patient for a full year of rehab. Rehab’s not always fun either.”
Since his return, his velocity hasn’t always been what it was before the surgery, Bundy said. He said he’s throwing anywhere from 90-94 mph, occasionally touching 95, and mostly sitting at 91 or 92. But instead of trying to overpower hitters, Bundy’s been working on locating his pitches better and using his secondary pitches more, such as his change-up and curve.
“You talk to guys who have gone through this surgery before, they all say the same thing: It makes you learn how to pitch,” Keys pitching coach Kennie Steenstra said. “He was blessed with an amazing arm in high school, and he had the ability to reach back and blow it by guys. He has to learn how to use his change-up in a hitter’s count and pitch a little backwards sometimes. Those are the kinds of things where when he becomes full strength and his fastball comes back, that’s going to make him that much better.”
Such steps once seemed unnecessary to the pitching prodigy. Drafted fourth overall in 2011 by the Orioles, the 18-year-old pitcher from Oklahoma’s Owasso High School had characteristics more befitting a tall tale than a high school yearbook. Bundy could throw his fastball 100 mph, and had legs as powerful as an NFL linebacker.
“My freshman year in high school, I quit the basketball team to do power lifting with the football team,” he said. “I ended up gaining 26 pounds in four months. I was lifting the weights pretty hard.”
By his senior year, Bundy– who stopped eating hamburgers and drank barley and broccoli shakes, according to Sports Illustrated — could squat 500 pounds and leg-press 1,200. At his parent’s 15-acre home in northeast Oklahoma, Bundy would dig four-foot holes and refill them, just for the exercise.
Bundy’s senior year stats were gaudy. He went 11-0, and led Owasso to the state title. He posted a 0.20 ERA, struck out 158 batters in 71 innings, and surrendered just 5 walks. Just for kicks, he also hit .467 with 11 homers en route to being named the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
The Orioles signed Bundy to a five-year, $6.225 million major-league contract (including a $4-million signing bonus) that August. Then they crafted a plan to protect his arm as much as possible.
General Manager Dan Duquette and Director of Pitching Development Rick Peterson removed one of Bundy’s favorite pitches, the cutter, from his repertoire for fear it might decrease the velocity of his fastball later in his career. The Orioles altered his delivery to put less stress on his arm. They put him on a six-day rotation instead of the traditional five, and limited him to 125 innings on the season.
Despite the inning limitations and new mechanics — which Bundy admitted were frustrating at times — he dominated the low Class A South Atlantic League. In his debut for Delmarva, he allowed no hits and struck out six in three innings. Before he was promoted to Frederick, Bundy had a 0.00 ERA in 30 innings, with 40 strikeouts and 2 walks. Hitters went 5 for 94 against him.
After two-and-a-half months and six wins in Frederick, Bundy got a taste of Class AA baseball. He won two of three starts with the Bowie Baysox, and was called up to the Orioles in September, becoming the 16th-youngest player in the team’s history to appear in a game.
Bundy pitched in parts of just two games for the Orioles, but he accomplished another of his goals: to make it to the Major Leagues before he turned 20.
The 2013 season was supposed to be Bundy’s break-out year, but the day after a regularly scheduled start in minor-league camp, Bundy was playing catch, “and it felt like my arm was on fire,” he said. “At 50 feet, it felt like someone was stabbing me in the elbow. I had to say something.”
Three months later, Dr. James Andrews was operating on his right elbow. For an impatient 20-year-old kid who expected to be in the majors, this was the worst-case scenario.
“The first month was the hardest,” Bundy said. “You come in and the trainer just stretches your arm a little bit. Probably 20 minutes worth. I came in at 6:30 in the morning, and I was done at the field by 8 AM. There were a lot of naps involved then.”
The stubborn Bundy had to take it slow, and re-learn how to pitch.
“When I saw him two years ago in Bowie, his curveball was way above his change-up,” Steenstra said. “Now I would flip-flop it. His change-up has really come along. His curveball’s going to be an average pitch too, but he’s having trouble finding a consistent release point with it right now. It’s part of the same troubles he’s having with his fastball command– just finding that same rhythm.”
Even during his free time, Bundy still is focused on hitting the bull’s-eye. He’s started bringing his crossbow to the stadium. He shoots at a makeshift target from 30 yards away. Sometimes when he’s feeling silly, he moves the target out to the 400-foot sign in center field.
“You’re never going to shoot a deer that far,” he said.
But Bundy finds that the new routine relaxes him. He’s even recruited fellow Keys pitcher and Texas native Parker Bridwell to shoot with him. The two pitchers try to shoot mice from behind the clubhouse; Bridwell’s already connected twice. On Saturday morning, Bundy went to the Bass Pro and helped Keys strength coach Chris Cecere get a crossbow of his own.
The Orioles are hoping that Bundy’s dedication and determination in the minors will lead to a quick recovery. There are no limitations on where Bundy might end up at the end of the year. He could stay in Frederick, move up to Bowie, or be thrown into the AL East pennant race with the Orioles. His coaches are just happy he’s healthy again.
“We’re just tickled to death he’s good physically,” Steenstra said. “He’s getting stronger every time.”
He paused before adding, “We want him ready to go full-steam next year.”