What Do Bundy & Gausman Need To Do To Improve In ’18?
Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Like it or not, that’s the heart and soul of the Baltimore Orioles’ starting rotation at this moment, and that will likely still be the case when the 2018 season begins.
If this team is to have any shot at contending, Gausman and Bundy will have to set the standard for whoever else ends up being plugged into the remaining three spots. They’ll have to be the leaders. They’ll have to set the standard of work ethic, preparation and mental toughness. They’ll have to be the guys who go deeper into games to rest the talented-but-Britton-less bullpen for games when they’ll undoubtedly be needed even more.
Based on recent history, that’s a sobering thought. But it’s the reality that the Orioles face unless Dan Duquette shocks the world and goes out and signs Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish.
Knowing that is not going to happen, we may as well look at what Gausman and Bundy can do to, if not become true aces, at least improve on what they brought to the table in 2017 and give the O’s a fighting chance.
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The Jekyll-or-Hyde performances of Gausman have been well-documented, including in these pages. It’s never been a matter of stuff – Gausman has plenty. It’s been about having a quality third pitch behind his upper-90s four-seamer and his dominant splitter, and it’s been about the ability to locate all of it.
Gausman has tinkered with curveballs and sliders as his third pitch, with mixed results. He ditched the curve for the slider late in the 2016 season and pitched well, leaving everyone with high hopes for 2017. Unfortunately things didn’t work out. The slider was rocked early and often (.619 slugging against in April, .727 in May) and the whole sand castle, to quote Jimi Hendrix, melted into the sea.
Gausman’s first half was dreadful – 5.85 ERA, 1.763 WHIP, 1.93 SO/BB ratio, and that fit all too neatly into his career history, in which he is a 4.94 ERA pitcher in the first half, a 3.58 ERA pitcher in the second.
If you look hard enough, however, you can find a silver lining with Gausman, and it’s not a small one that we’re making up just to make ourselves feel good. Gausman’s 2017 season didn’t improve just because he got more comfortable as the season wore on, he actually made a mechanical change that seemed to be the catalyst for his improvement in general, and it appeared to specifically benefit his slider – that all-important third pitch.
The change came after a particularly putrid start on June 11, when Gausman allowed seven runs on six walks and eight hits against the Yankees. It would be a simple adjustment, as the right-hander decided to keep his shoulders more squared to home plate throughout his delivery, as opposed to angled more toward third base.
“I think that allows me to stay more through the plate, and I think that’s why my fastball is doing what it did last year, which is really staying true through the zone,” Gausman said, “where early on in the year, my ball was kind of moving all over the place. It wasn’t consistent.”
The results were obvious, as you can see from the stats below:
ERA before/after adjustment: 6.49/3.61
Opponent batting average before/after: .332/.249
Swinging K rate before/after: 8%/13%
Perhaps most important, Gausman’s slider improved dramatically post-adjustment while his fastball and splitter remained as steady as ever when things are going well. The slugging percentage against his slider in the last three months of the season were impressive at .267/.000/.250.
After spending the 2017 offseason moving from a curve to a slider, Gausman made a mechanical adjustment mid-season that appeared to have made that slider a legitimate third pitch. Now, the next step is for him to put it all together in spring training so that he can avoid further sullying his reputation with another slow start.
One more area that Gausman can improve on is keeping the ball in the yard. This is important in a division filled with hitters’ parks, and one which that just added Giancarlo Stanton. Gausman will probably always be a fly ball pitcher, so he’ll probably always give up his fair share of home runs. But he can work on improving this with better command and by continuing to vary speeds on his fastball, another thing he improved on as the season progressed.
It took six years after the Orioles made Bundy the No. 4 overall pick in the draft for the sturdy right-hander to get his first full season as a starter, and it would have to be considered a good, solid start.
Unlike Gausman, Bundy started great, compiling a 1.65 ERA and 0.980 WHIP in April. And while he had some ups and downs throughout the season, he was largely consistent – 4.24 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 1.196 WHIP, 8.1 Ks/9 innings and 2.7 WAR. Most of Bundy’s stats were in the same neighborhood as his career numbers, which isn’t shocking given his limited action, but does speak to an overall dependability that now stretches over 281 career innings.
Speaking of innings, Bundy tossed a career-high 169.2 of them in 2017, so a mere 18 percent increase would put him over the 200-mark this summer. And is that all the Orioles need, simply more of the same?
There would certainly be nothing wrong with that, and another season like Bundy had in 2017 would be not only welcome, but could make him the O’s top starter – again, assuming Duquette doesn’t surprise with a big signing.
But while more of the same would be nice, there are some things Bundy can improve moving forward.
One thing that stands out from 2017 is Bundy’s splits vs. left-handed batters. While Bundy was lights out vs. righties, allowing just a .222 batting average and .674 OPS, the results were a little different vs. lefties. Granted, southpaws didn’t exactly torch him, hitting just .261, but the OPS was nearly 100 points higher at .773.
Pitch selection could be part of the reason. Bundy has four solid offerings and he uses all of them. Against all batters, he threw his fastball just under 54 percent of the time while also mixing in a slider (22 percent), change (14 percent) and curve (10 percent). Among his off-speed pitches, his slider was particularly dominant vs. right-handed hitters, who hit just .180 against the pitch and had a whiff/swing rate of 53 percent. Bundy noticed the dominance and used the slider increasingly as the season wore on. In September, he threw it 50 percent of the time against righties, more than any other pitch.
So given the fact that his overall numbers vs. lefties weren’t as good, it stands to reason that they must have raked his slider. But that’s not the case.
Overall, batters had a whiffs/swing of 48.73 percent against Bundy’s slider, the seventh-best mark in baseball. Left-handers had a little more success against the pitch, but not as much as you might think, producing a whiffs/swing of 33.78 percent and hitting just .158.
In fact, of all of Bundy’s pitches, lefties really only had success against the fastball, hitting .325. Compare that to his slider, curve (.160) and change (.213) and it seems that Bundy should look to mix up his pitches a little more in 2018.
Against right-handers, Bundy should remain primarily a fastball/slider guy like he was last season. But against left-handers, Bundy should throw fewer fastballs (56 percent in 2017) and not only more off-speed pitches in general, but specifically more sliders (just 10 percent in 2017).
If Bundy can maintain his consistency while increasing his innings, and also adjust his pitch usage vs. left-handed batters, you could be looking at a 200-inning guy who lowers his ERA into the high 3s.