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The radar gun at ONEOK Field lit up in triple digits, and the kids from Owasso High loved it.
The ballpark is home to the Tulsa Drillers of the Double-A Texas League, but on that night in 2011 one of their own was on the mound. Dylan Bundy was still just 18 years old, but he was throwing 100 mph.
“A lot of people tell you he was the best high school pitcher they’ve ever seen,” Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
A lot of people would have told you then that Bundy would be on the fast track to the major leagues, and in fact it was only about 16 months later that he would make his big league debut with Showalter’s Orioles. He was going to be a star, the kind of pitcher who could lead a rotation for a team that could win a championship.
And now he is. He has a 3.29 ERA that ranks ninth in the American League, he’s finished six innings in all but two of his 14 starts and on an Orioles team that forever has been searching for an ace, he’s a 24-year-old kid who looks fit for the role.
“He’s not a phenom,” Orioles general manager Dan Duquette said. “He’s a top pitcher in the American League. He’s earned it.”
He earned it, because it turned out the fast track wasn’t so fast. The kid who could throw 100 had too many months where he couldn’t throw at all, too many days and nights when instead of pitching at Camden Yards or Fenway Park he was rehabbing on his own in Sarasota, Florida.
There was an elbow injury so common it seems every pitcher has had it, and a shoulder injury so unusual that even Dr. James Andrews wasn’t sure what to do about it. There were the frustrating days recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the even more frustrating times when the bone growth in his teres minor muscle caused a pain that wouldn’t go away.
He would show up at 6:30 in the morning to do his work, so he could get in and out and not get in the way of the younger prospects who could still throw. He would run and bike and even go to the beach and get in the water, hoping the ocean might bring a cure.
He would get the call telling him his mother had died, meaning his only trip back home to Oklahoma would be filled with sadness.
The people around him saw the frustration, but they also saw something else that was even more a part of Dylan Bundy than that 100 mph fastball. He was determined to be a major league pitcher, a top major league pitcher, and injuries weren’t going to keep him from that goal.
“The more depressed he got, the more motivated he was,” said Dave Walker, the Orioles’ minor league medical coordinator. “He seemed to work even harder. And trust me, he had always worked hard.”
Bundy doesn’t throw 100 mph anymore. His top fastball this season was clocked at 96 mph, last Wednesday in Chicago against the White Sox. He could almost certainly throw harder if velocity alone counted for anything, but the goal is getting outs and wins, not “oohs” and “aahs.”
“You give me five-six days off and tell me to throw as hard as I can, I could probably throw 97,” Bundy said. “I’d rather throw 92 where I want to. Ninety-five plays hard when you throw a 75 mph curve right before it.”
Bundy can throw that curve. He can throw a changeup so good that opponents have hit just .158 against it, according to Brooks Baseball. After dropping his cutter—first because the Orioles don’t believe in the pitch and later because he found his forearm hurt when he threw it—Bundy has developed a slider so good that opponents hit .174 against it.
He can throw all those pitches, and he can mix them well enough that he always seems to keep hitters off balance.
“It’s not 100, but it’s great to watch,” Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “Even his misses are good, because he’s setting something up.”
That’s exactly what he’s doing. Coaches from high school all the way to the major leagues have praised Bundy’s work ethic, but also his understanding of the game.
“Dylan looks at pitching at the major league level like playing chess,” said Jay Franklin, who has known Bundy since he was 13 and serves as his agent. “It’s about making a couple moves ahead. He looks at big league hitters like a chessboard.”
That fits. The day I went to talk to Bundy at Yankee Stadium, he sent word through an Orioles official that he’d be ready in a few minutes.
“He’s playing chess,” the official said.
“I think it’s the closest thing he’s found [to pitching],” Franklin said. “On the field or off, he’s always thinking of a way to beat people. When I’m out with him and his brother shooting bows at a target, it’s not just recreational for him. It’s a challenge to compete.”
He could always throw. When Bundy was in eighth grade at Sperry High School, his coach had him throw batting practice to the seniors.
“I called it ‘strikeout practice,'” Bundy told the Owasso Reporter in 2011, when he was a high school senior.
He moved to nearby Owasso High, and as a senior he allowed just two earned runs and 20 hits in 71 innings, with five walks and 158 strikeouts. He threw a no-hitter and six one-hitters and hit .467 with 11 home runs.
He didn’t get the $30 million signing bonus his father said the family wanted, but when the Orioles made him the fourth overall pick that June, Bundy signed a five-year major league contract for $6.225 million.
In his first pro game, at Class A Delmarva, he faced nine batters and struck out six of them.
“Bundy has true ace potential, and last night was just the first taste,” Ben Badler wrote in Baseball America.
He went from low Class A to high Class A to Double-A to the big leagues, in the span of six months. He made two appearances for the Orioles that September.
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He wouldn’t pitch in another competitive game for 21 months.
Bundy’s arm began hurting in spring training 2013. They tried rest and treatment, but by June it became obvious it wasn’t working. Bundy went to see Dr. Andrews, and he came back with a rebuilt right elbow after Tommy John surgery.
Ask anyone who has been through it, and they’ll tell you Tommy John rehab is a long, tedious, monotonous trudge. Bundy got through it with the help of his older brother Bobby, who was also an Orioles pitching prospect and coincidentally needed Tommy John three months later.
Less than 12 months after surgery, Bundy was back on a minor league mound, pitching five innings for Class A Aberdeen and celebrating with a Twitter post:
The great feeling wouldn’t last. Early in the 2015 season, Bundy was pitching at Double-A Bowie and his shoulder didn’t feel right. What’s worse, nobody could figure out what was wrong with him or what to do about it.
“Even Dr. Andrews didn’t know what to do,” Bundy said.
He was eventually diagnosed with the bone growth in a muscle that is part of the rotator cuff. Surgery wasn’t needed, but for weeks the pain wouldn’t go away.
“I was down in Florida for a month,” he said. “Nothing was working.”
He tried everything the medical staff suggested, and anything else he could think of. He even went down to the beach, hoping the ocean water might provide some kind of cure.
Then Bundy started doing yoga.
“I came in the next week and suddenly I could move my arm like 30 degrees,” he said. “It moved. It didn’t hurt.”
He still doesn’t know if the yoga was the answer, or whether with enough time, the body had healed itself. He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t really care.
That was late in the 2015 season, too late for Bundy to get in a regular minor league game. He pitched twice in the Arizona Fall League, before shutting it down because he felt some cramping in his forearm and didn’t want to risk a second Tommy John surgery.
But that winter and into the spring of 2016, Bundy finally felt like a healthy pitcher. He was finally ready to get back on that fast track.
Just in time.
Because of that major league contract he signed out of the draft, and because of all the injuries, Bundy was already out of options in 2016.
“Not if he pitched well, he wasn’t out of options,” Duquette quipped, making the point that options don’t matter if a pitcher is ready for the big leagues.
With the health obstacles gone, Bundy was ready.
“You could see the confidence in his face,” said Brian Graham, the Orioles’ director of player development. “You could see the look in his eyes.”
The Orioles had him begin the season in the bullpen, in large part because they wanted to control his innings. They built him up and put him in the rotation after the All-Star break. His numbers weren’t spectacular—a 3.08 ERA in 22 relief appearances, a 4.52 ERA in 14 starts—but there was never a question Bundy would be in the Orioles rotation from the start this season.
They weren’t always so sure he would make it.
Duquette admits there were times over the years that teams asked for Bundy in trades, and times when the Orioles considered moving him.
“We were tempted,” he said. “But given the talent and the work ethic, we wanted to see it through.”
Now that Bundy is healthy, the talent shows through. Even the time he missed is seen as somewhat of a benefit, because he used it to learn more about pitching.
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
“It’s made him a better all-around pitcher,” Showalter said. “He used his time wisely, and he became a better overall pitcher.”
He went 5-1 with a 2.17 ERA through his first seven starts. The ERA has inched up since then, but Bundy remains the biggest constant in the Orioles rotation.
“He’s ready to compete every time out,” Duquette said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the league.”
And that work ethic? That has never changed.
Two weeks ago, Walker and the rest of the Orioles medical staff were in Baltimore for meetings leading up to the draft. They watched Bundy pitch against the Boston Red Sox in a game that lasted until nearly 11 p.m. on a Saturday night.
The next morning, they gathered at 8 a.m. to start their meetings.
“I looked out the window and Dylan was running across the field,” Walker said. “I turned to one of our doctors and said, ‘Some things never change.’ He’s just a machine. I wish everyone I worked with had his makeup.”
It turned out the makeup was his most important asset, more important even than the 100 mph fastball. It turned out that even when the injuries would rob him of some of that velocity, he would still have more than enough going for him to allow for success in the big leagues.
“I’ve been around this for a long time,” said Franklin, who pitched in the minor leagues and is the older brother of ex-big league pitcher Ryan Franklin. “What Dylan has is unique.”
The path he traveled to the top of a major league rotation was unique, as well.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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