Phenom making 'em miss in minors

Dylan Bundy, a 19-year-old Orioles prospect, quickly making a name for himself

Originally Published: May 2, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SALISBURY, Md. -- No matter how many All-Star teams Baltimore Orioles prospect Dylan Bundy makes in his career, his feet will be firmly rooted in the soil of his native Oklahoma. After signing for a guaranteed $6.25 million as the fourth pick in the 2011 draft, Bundy splurged on a 2011 Ford F-150 Platinum pickup truck. The rest went into savings, which will come in handy in the unlikely event that he flops in baseball and will have to pursue a career in, say, insurance sales.

Bundy brought the truck with him to his first professional stop with the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds, but prefers to ride his bike from his apartment to Arthur W. Perdue Stadium with his roommate and good buddy, pitcher Parker Bridwell. At least, that was the routine before the accident. After Colorado Rockies pitcher Jeremy Guthrie landed on the disabled list because of a freak bicycle mishap Friday, Bundy, Bridwell and pitcher Miguel Chalas arrived at the clubhouse and found copies of the Guthrie news story in their lockers, courtesy of Delmarva manager Ryan Minor.

The message: A little harmless trail riding in the mornings is fine. But they will no longer be allowed to summon their inner Lance Armstrong on the main roads of Salisbury.

[+] EnlargeDylan Bundy
AP Photos/Tony Farlow/Four Seam ImagesDylan Bundy, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft, has 25 strikeouts in 17 innings while pitching in the Class A South Atlantic League this season.

"I know where their apartments are,'' says Delmarva pitching coach Troy Mattes. "From where they live, you're either in the middle of chicken country or you've got 18-wheelers carrying huge [containers] of chickens down windy, two-lane roads. I really don't want to hear about one of these guys getting run off the road and hitting a tree or falling in a ditch, or god forbid, getting hit by a car. There's no need for that.''

Based on Bundy's early results, it's tempting for the Shorebirds to encase him in bubble wrap, place him in a padded container with lots of air holes, stamp "Fragile'' on the side and send a team of couriers to his apartment in an armored vehicle to transport him to the park every fifth day.

Bundy, 19, is building a résumé that ensures his time in Wicomico County will be fleeting. Through his first four appearances, South Atlantic League hitters were 0-for-39 against him. Asheville Tourists outfielder Delta Cleary Jr. broke the string with a single Monday night, but the overall numbers are still mind-boggling: Opposing lineups are batting .020 (1-for-50) against Bundy this season, with 25 strikeouts and two walks in 17 innings.

True, it's a small sample size. But Orioles fans can take heart in knowing they might soon have an "appointment baseball'' pitcher in their midst to rival Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals.

Tributes keep pouring in as Bundy mows down Sally League lineups. Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer, who began his Hall of Fame career at age 19, recently told the Baltimore Sun that Bundy might be ready to pitch in the majors by late summer. And former Montreal Expos reliever and current Asheville pitching coach Joey Eischen, who has seen Bundy twice this year, is wracking his brain to think of another pitcher who generated so much velocity from such an effortless delivery. He hasn't had much luck.

"The mechanics are a lot different, but it's like a [Dwight] Gooden,'' Eischen says. "It's like he's playing frickin' catch, and the ball is coming out of his hand at 100. He's a special kid. That's what you expect a No. 1 pick to look like.''

It's tempting to play the "comparison'' game, and at 6-foot, 195 pounds (an inch shorter than his official bio), Bundy has heard a few. Roy Oswalt comes to mind, but his frame is more wiry than Bundy's, and his delivery more herky-jerky. Minor sees a little Tim Hudson in Bundy when he stands on the mound and stares in for the sign, all business. And Asheville hitting coach Mike Devereaux mentions Tom "Flash'' Gordon, another short righty with a great curveball.

With his big thighs and quads and solid core, Bundy is actually more comparable in stature to lefty closer Billy Wagner, he of the triple-digit fastball and 422 career saves.

"As a hitter, you get in the box and there's kind of an aura and a vibe about him,'' says Asheville outfielder David Kandilas "You can sense it. He's coming right at you, and he doesn't care what you do. He's an incredible talent. I'm sure he'll go a long way.''

Salt of the earth

Bundy's repertoire consists of a fastball, curveball, cut fastball/slider and a changeup. Although he generally throws his heater in the 94-96 mph range, he ratcheted it up to 99 on the gun five times in an early start against the Kannapolis Intimidators. Bundy creates a solid downhill plane with his fastball that belies his height. But he can also elevate the fastball and blow it past hitters when so inclined.

Bundy's curveball starts high and drops precipitously, in 12-to-6 mode, but once or twice a game he'll hang one and remind you that he's a work in progress. The Orioles have told him to junk the cutter this season because they want him to spend more time refining his changeup. Bundy never threw the change in high school, because he never needed it, but the early results are encouraging; Bundy threw 10 changeups in 44 pitches in a recent outing against Greenville, and broke two bats and recorded several swings and misses with the pitch.

All the other weapons in Bundy's arsenal -- athleticism, focus, coolness under pressure, body awareness and the ability to adapt on the fly -- are a product of nature and nurture. He learned to assert himself at an early age as the youngest of five brothers. Bobby Bundy, 22, was selected by Baltimore in the eighth round of the 2008 draft and is pitching for the Orioles' Double-A Bowie farm club this season. The parents, Denver and Lori, raised Andrew, Joshua, Justin, Bobby and Dylan to work hard and disdain shortcuts, and by all accounts, they did a wonderful job.

"Dylan is a very uncomplicated, down-home kid,'' Minor says. "I grew up in western Oklahoma in a town of 600 people, and he reminds me a lot of the people I grew up with. They're very down-to-earth, laid-back and easygoing, compared to the east coast, where everybody has to do things fast.''

For a budding ace, Bundy is utterly free of pretention. As a former first-round pick on the star track, he has as much free equipment and "swag'' at his disposal as he desires. But he's still wearing the first pair of spikes he received from Under Armour last year, even though they have a scuffed, lived-in look to them and the pitching toe is on life support.

Dylan is a very uncomplicated, down-home kid. I grew up in western Oklahoma in a town of 600 people, and he reminds me a lot of the people I grew up with. They're very down-to-earth, laid-back and easygoing, compared to the east coast, where everybody has to do things fast.

-- Class A Delmarva manager Ryan Minor, a former big league infielder

"When I first met him, I was expecting him to be pretty cocky,'' Bridwell says. "He's got a big name. But if I didn't know what round he went in and what signing bonus he got and all that nonsense, I would have thought, 'This guy might be a free agent.' He's just like one of us.''

Bundy learned how to work up a healthy sweat at age 8. The family had 15 acres of land, so Denver had plenty of space to pick up some pipe and netting and build a batting cage for the boys. He also got a tractor and built a mound from scratch, enlisting Bobby and Dylan to help cut down trees with an ax. Once or twice, Denver made the boys dig a big hole in the ground, load the dirt in a wheelbarrow and roll it around the house, then fill up the hole just for the experience. Those early years made an indelible impression.

"My dad and my brother taught me all the right things to do and the wrong things not to do,'' Bundy says. "Respect other people. Be a good teammate, on the field and in the locker room. Don't be cocky or arrogant. Just be a humble guy and go about your business the right way.''

When Bundy joined A.J. Hinch as the second Oklahoman to win the Gatorade National Player of the Year award in 2011, the press release mentioned his 11-0 record, 0.20 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 71 innings for Owasso High School in suburban Tulsa. It also noted that Bundy had a 3.72 grade point average, did volunteer work for his church, helped distribute holiday turkeys at Thanksgiving and worked to provide humanitarian relief to victims of the Joplin, Mo., tornadoes.

The Bundy boys are an inquisitive group. In high school, Dylan took classes in sports medicine, anatomy and nutrition. As the draft was approaching, representatives from the Kansas City Royals organization came to the house, and the discussion turned to pitching injuries.

"By the end of the conversation, Dylan was naming the specific groups of muscles,'' Denver Bundy says. "He wound up teaching them before they left. It was pretty funny. I'm not easily impressed, and he impressed me that day. I didn't realize he took the course that seriously.''

Bundy's earnestness and commitment are manifested in the killer workout routine that he embraced several years ago with guidance from his father and family friend Jay Franklin, who eventually became his agent. The Bundy brothers posted a YouTube video that features 14-year-old Dylan hammering away on a heavy bag. The video has generated more than 50,000 views, but Dylan is more concerned with the benefits to the back of his shoulder than the publicity fallout.

"That's a deceleration muscle, and you have to have it strong and stabilized,'' he says. "Most pitchers are hanging by a limb the day after they start. They can barely hold their arm up. From my experience, and my brother's, we don't get very sore.''

During the offseason, the Bundy brothers stay fit flipping tires, pushing sleds, climbing ropes, flinging medicine balls and squat-lifting heavy weights. In Delmarva, Dylan and Bridwell toss a two-pound weighted ball to each other underhanded to get loose before games. Like Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Trevor Bauer, Bundy is also a huge advocate of long-tossing.

"I can throw it as far as him,'' Bridwell says. "I just have to put more arc on it. He puts it right on a line.''

So what's next?

It didn't take the Orioles long to see the kid was serious. On the first day of spring training, veteran reliever Kevin Gregg sat Bundy down and told him, "I get to the park at 6:45 a.m. every day -- and you will beat me here every day.'' Gregg never had to convey the message again.

Manager Buck Showalter didn't wait long to test the kid's mettle. On March 6, the Orioles told Bundy he would make his Grapefruit League debut against Boston. Bundy expected to pitch the eighth or ninth inning when the regulars had showered and departed, but entered the game in the fifth when Boston's headliners were still playing. He walked Dustin Pedroia on four pitches, then stepped off the mound, took a deep breath and retired Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and pinch-hitter Luis Exposito in order to end the inning.

"I said, you walked Pedroia?'' Denver Bundy recalls. "And Dylan told me, 'Dad, it's hard to stare at those guys when you've been watching them on TV just a few months earlier.' I said, 'Yeah, I gotcha.'''

Two months later, Dylan Bundy is on his way. The biggest question is, what route will he take to the finish line?

The Orioles plan to cap Bundy's workload at 125 innings this season, and they suggested two possible approaches: He could take the "five and dive'' route, throwing five innings and 85 pitches per start, and reach his innings limit so quickly that he would have to shut it down in August. Or he could start out slower, pitch in bite-sized chunks and make those 125 innings last until September.

Bundy chose Plan B. He began the season with multiple three-inning appearances, stretched it to four and will soon ascend to five. In an email to ESPN.com, Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said the team will evaluate Bundy's progress later this month and decide on the next course of action. Don't be surprised if Bundy receives a promotion to high-A Frederick soon and makes it to Double-A Bowie sometime this summer. Palmer's proclamation notwithstanding, it's a stretch to see him at Camden Yards in 2012.

For now, Bundy is receiving an education in life and the challenges of professional ball in Delmarva. A month into the season, he knows how it feels to spend eight hours on a bus, pull into the team hotel at 8 a.m., then catch a nap before reporting to the ballpark ready to start a 1 p.m. game. That routine will knock the diva out of any pitcher in a heartbeat.

Bundy stays fresh and maximizes his performance with a focus on health and nutrition. He eats lots of oatmeal, fruit and egg whites that he keeps stored in a milk carton in the refrigerator, and prefers to cook his own meals rather than frequent the restaurant scene. Hamburgers and pizza aren't part of the equation. During a recent trip to Outback Steakhouse, Bridwell ordered a plate of cheese fries. Bundy nibbled on a few, then summoned the willpower to push away the plate.

[+] EnlargeDylan Bundy
AP Photo/Mike JanesBundy pitched one scoreless inning in a big league game for the Orioles during spring training.

Video games occupy a substantial chunk of his free time. Bundy has played more "Call of Duty'' and "Modern Warfare'' this spring than he ever could have imagined. And once he gets into a routine, he's anxious to indulge his newfound passion for golf. Bundy can't hit a driver to save his life, but he is handy with irons and "can hit it a mile,'' according to Bridwell.

Given his intensity and high standards, Bundy can probably use an emotional release. He's still chapped over walking Billy Burns, Hagerstown's ninth-place hitter, after getting ahead 1-2 in the count in an April 17 game.

"He's never happy with his outing, even if doesn't give up any hits,'' Bridwell says. "He'll come into the clubhouse and say, 'I threw that 0-2 pitch way too far outside.' He wants to get better every time he goes out there. And he does. It's crazy.''

In Bundy's perpetual quest for improvement, no detail is too trivial to overlook. While Minor is accustomed to most players sitting at the other end of the dugout, Bundy routinely drops by during games and peppers the Delmarva manager and pitching coach with questions about pitch selection and game strategy. In the old "Seinfeld" parlance, he's a "sidler.''

"I like to take in what other people say, and maybe not show them I took it from them or that I was listening,'' Bundy says. "But I actually do.''

An internal tug-of-war distinguishes the extraordinarily skilled and truly ambitious from everybody else. Bundy, the genuine article, wants to make it to Baltimore as quickly as possible. But he's content to put in the work and establish a strong foundation to make sure he sticks around for 15 years. He's a refreshingly old-school kid in an instant-gratification age.

Media outlets will compare him to Diamondbacks prospect Archie Bradley, his close friend and a fellow first-round pick out of Oklahoma. Talk show callers will clamor for his arrival. And Bundy will just tune out the static and follow his own internal compass.

"Last year, it seems like I was asking my parents for money to go to a movie,'' Bundy says. "Now it's different. I'm in low 'A' ball. I want to be in the big leagues, and I'm working every day trying to accomplish that. I'm still not even close to where I want to be.''

It won't be long before Bundy leaves the chicken farms, Sherman the Shorebird mascot and the cozy ballpark in Delmarva behind for the next step in a promising career track. Whether he travels by bike or by pickup truck, it's going to be a fun ride.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer