Can Baltimore nurture baseball's best pitching prospect into a star?
By the time Dylan Bundy stood atop the bullpen mound at Harry Grove Stadium, home of the Class A Frederick (Md.) Keys, one recent afternoon, he had already long-tossed from the left centerfield wall to the rightfield corner -- a distance of some 300 feet -- and thrown a dozen pitches uphill by stepping on the back of the mound. At 19, he is the best pitching prospect in baseball and the most diligently calibrated. He has been built to pitch ever since he was eight, when he was playing shortstop on his father's nine-year-old Owasso, Okla., travel team. One day Denver Bundy, in a jam and short on pitching, asked him, "Can you throw strikes?"
The kid looked him dead in the eye and said, "Yes, sir."
So began the making of a pitcher who by high school was remarkably professional in almost every way except the paycheck -- and that would come soon enough. As a young teenager Bundy flipped truck tires, threw 75-pound sandbags over his shoulder, pushed wheel-barrows full of dirt around the family's 15-acre plot in northeast Oklahoma, dug four-foot holes and refilled them purely for the exercise. He played 300-foot-long toss three times a week, gulped barley and broccoli shakes and munched on homemade granola bars, swore off hamburgers and allowed himself to eat a fatty food once every other Sunday. He cranked out 500-pound squats in his well-stocked home gym, studied nutrition and anatomy on his own, and as a high school junior in 2010 threw 181 pitches over two games on the same day. After the last of those pitches was clocked at 92 mph, Bundy made certain that people knew it was he, not the coach, who insisted on pitching both games. "Long games and proper rest make you stronger," he said then.
His peak velocity climbed like the August thermometer readings in the northeast Oklahoma plains: 91 as a freshman, 94 as a sophomore, 97 as a junior and 100 as a senior on April 16, 2011 -- he remembers the exact date. In his final season at Owasso High, he was 11--0 with a 0.20 ERA and 158 strikeouts and just five walks in 71 innings. Read those numbers again.
"The greatest, most-complete high school pitching performance I've seen since Kerry Wood," read the report on Bundy filed by one veteran National League scout, referring to the former Cubs phenom who came out of Texas in 1995.
Rivulets of sweat cascaded down his square face as Bundy prepared to throw a bullpen session on that June afternoon in Frederick. With his close-cropped blond hair, wide shoulders and chest, and his signature ham-hock thighs, Bundy is a pitcher the way Marvel Comics would imagine one. Though Bundy is listed at 6-foot-1 -- that last inch comes with a professional wink -- and 195 pounds, nothing about him suggests a teenager, especially when he launches a baseball. The missile seems propelled from those massive thighs as much as his right arm. His curveball has the kind of big break that weakens hitters' knees. His changeup, an unnecessary accessory in high school -- he threw it about once per game -- is becoming a weapon.
"That's the .220 line," said Rick Peterson, standing behind Bundy.
Peterson is the Orioles' director of pitching development. He was talking about a piece of string attached to two sticks and stretched across home plate at the height of a hitter's knees. "Against pitches thrown at that line or below," Peterson said, "the data show that hitters hit .220."
Peterson, 57, is a new age pitching guru, one of the pioneers, backed by the research of famed orthopedist James Andrews, of marrying biomechanical and quantitative analysis with the art of pitching. First-year Orioles general manager Dan Duquette hired him to be the team's pitching czar, a job that comes with no greater responsibility than taking care of Bundy, the fourth pick in the 2011 draft, the way the Smithsonian does the Hope Diamond.
Bundy's first bullpen pitch sailed high, but he quickly began plucking the string with fastballs as if playing a Stratocaster from 60 feet, six inches. Under Peterson's orders, he threw nothing but fastballs, this being one of his "fastball command" work days. It was an impressive display, but Bundy was not happy with it.
"I was ticked off the entire time," he said.
"That first pitch was high."
Bundy is at the elite end of the state of the art of pitching, the embodiment of what can be wrought from advances in training, nutrition, instruction and travel baseball. (For three summers starting at age 15 he would leave home alone to pitch for a team in Texas.) As a power pitcher who profiles as an ace, he represents the greatest asset a team can hold. Simultaneously, he represents enormous risk. Using a 20-year sample between 1981 and 2000, pitchers drafted and signed out of high school in the first round were more likely to never pitch a day in the big leagues (43%) than they were to reach 20 career wins (34%).
Raising Bundy is both thrilling and perilous for the Orioles. With $6.25 million -- his signing bonus -- already invested in him, how do they develop a great high school pitcher into one of the rare, durable aces?
There is no sports genus with a greater risk-reward ratio than high school pitchers. Like supermodels, they look great, but the chances of entering into a long-term relationship with one are slim. Teams keep drafting them for their visceral gifts, but the toll of throwing so hard so young, their incomplete physical development and the few opportunities to measure them against top competition leave teams spending millions on veritable lottery tickets.
Major league teams signed 102 high school pitchers taken in the first round from 1981 through 2000 (not including supplemental first-round picks). Yet only 15 of those 102 pitchers won 20 games for the team that drafted them, a group that included Dwight Gooden, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett. For every one of those brass rings, there were three total busts. Of those 102 high school first-rounders, 44 never reached the majors.
"Generally they are high risk/high reward," says Padres G.M. Josh Byrnes, who used three first-round picks this year, including supplemental choices, on high school pitchers. "We realize there is some power in numbers. Hopefully one or two deliver."
When Duquette was the general manager of the Red Sox, he used his first-round pick on a high school pitcher three times in a five-year period (1995--99). None of them reached the big leagues. "The volume of failure is great," Duquette says about the industry's track record with high school pitchers. "That's really sobering, especially when people say they're experts."
Duquette hired Peterson on the recommendation of his cousin, former Mets G.M. Jim Duquette, who had worked with Peterson in New York, where Peterson was the pitching coach from 2004 to '08. Dan Duquette had also been impressed when Peterson, on behalf of his pitching development company, 3P Sports, made a presentation to the Massachusetts baseball academy Duquette ran in between his major league jobs.
Bundy was selected by the Orioles three years after they drafted his brother Bobby, now 22, in the eighth round. (Bobby has a 6.25 ERA for Double A Bowie this season.) Three teams, the Pirates, Mariners and Diamondbacks, passed on Dylan in 2011, choosing to take college pitchers instead. Since the day the Orioles signed him, Bundy has represented hope for an organization that has suffered 15 consecutive losing seasons and lost more than half of its paying customers. The cruel reality is that the odds are against Bundy's becoming a franchise savior. In the 47-year history of the June draft, the Orioles have drafted 458 high school pitchers. None of them became a 15-game winner for Baltimore.
Shortly after he was hired, Peterson met with Duquette, manager Buck Showalter and major league pitching coach Rick Adair to get to work on improving the hit rate. "We went to the video room, and all they talked about was Dylan Bundy being this amazing talent with a great attitude," Peterson says. "I bit my tongue. You could see how dynamic he was, but then someone asked, 'What do you think about his delivery?' I said, 'His timing's off. He's late at foot contact.' We stopped the film."
Through biomechanical research with Dr. Andrews's lab in Birmingham, Peterson knew that a major red flag for a pitcher is the position of his throwing arm when his front foot lands. At the moment of landing, the arm should form a 90-degree angle between the biceps and the forearm and a 90-degree angle between the triceps and the rib cage� an L position. The hand should be slightly forward in a 40- to 70-degree range. "If your palm is facing straight down," Peterson says, "you're late and putting major stress on the shoulder and elbow."
Such "late loads" plagued pitchers such as Mark Prior and Stephen Strasburg early in their careers. Bundy's load was slightly late. "A simple fix," Peterson says, "like dancing to the wrong beat."
To better understand the deliveries of all of Baltimore's pitchers, Peterson ran them through a biomechanical analysis when they reported to spring training. He set up the equipment in the covered batting cages at the club's complex in Sarasota, Fla. Markers attached to the pitcher allow for more than 40 measurements of the delivery, such as length of stride, the angle of the knee at the moment the pitch is released and the rotational speeds of the hips and torso. Based on 20 years of data, Peterson can spot when a piece of the delivery is out of the normative range. It's the equivalent of a high-tech diagnostic check of your car engine.
"Almost every one of them was like, 'Geez, thank goodness we found this,'� " Peterson says of the pitchers' reaction. "There's no way you can find out watching a video if the separation of the rotation of the upper and lower torso is off. It's like sitting by the side of the highway and watching a car go by and trying to tell what kind of tires are on it."
Bundy has the general earmarks of an at-risk pitcher because he throws so hard, is young and is not tall. But his biomechanical analysis came back relatively clean. His movement patterns were in the normative range. He needed only to tweak the timing of those movements. Peterson encouraged Bundy to throw uphill on the back of the mound ("It really helps with the timing of the lower half and upper half," Peterson says) and lengthened the stride of his crow hop in his long tossing so that it more closely matched the stride of his delivery.
"He's more mature physically and stronger than a lot of high school pitchers I've seen come into pro ball," Dan Duquette says. "He has a good delivery and advanced pitches, and he throws them all over the plate. He's got the pitches and maturity."
Still, the Orioles took more precautions with Bundy. They took away his cutter out of fear that overuse of the pitch causes pitchers to lose fastball velocity. Bundy, who relied heavily on the cutter, wasn't overjoyed. "You don't want to get me started on that," Bundy says. "It was my best pitch."
There was one more major decision to make, one that is probably the most debated player-development question in today's game: How much should he pitch? And if, like Bundy, pitchers today have the advantages of greater training and medical benefits than any previous generation, why are they pitching less?
Twenty-eight years ago, the Cubs drafted a 6-foot righthander out of Valley High in Las Vegas. In his first full professional season, as a 19-year-old, Greg Maddux made 27 starts at Class A, threw six complete games and logged 186 innings. "I don't remember a pitch count," says Maddux, who won 355 games and works now as a special adviser for the Rangers. "If you looked like you were getting tired, if there was a change in arm slot, they took you out. I've watched 50 or 60 minor league games over the last three years. I haven't seen a complete game yet."
The first five high school pitchers drafted and signed in 1984 were Tony Menendez, Pete Smith, Maddux, Tom Glavine and Al Leiter. They threw an average of 156 innings in their first full year out of high school. All of them reached the majors, albeit with varying degrees of success. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, teams routinely let pitchers exceed 150 innings in their first year out of high school. Then, about 10 years ago, such workloads began to disappear. Since 2002, only three of 44 first-round high school pitchers have thrown 150 innings in their first full pro seasons -- none since Chris Volstad threw 152 for the Marlins in 2006.
What happened? The high-profile physical breakdowns of Prior and Wood, which were often blamed on overuse, sent a shudder through the industry. Signing bonuses and salaries surged, representing greater financial stakes for clubs. More important, medical advancements and research were able to determine in clinical terms the risk factors of pitching. The data were more reliable than the eyes of pitching coaches watching for changes in arm slot. Overuse, especially at a young age, was defined as one of the greatest risk factors.
"Most doctors say younger throwing athletes need more time to develop," Byrnes says. "Does pushing a guy outweigh the risks? Most teams will tell you no. We also look at a lot more data now: pitch counts in three-start increments, the percentage of breaking balls and high stress innings ... there are a few more layers now to avoid the hot spots."
By some measures, the accepted practice of having high school first-rounders throw less has not worked. Among the 102 pitchers in the 1981--2000 sample of high school first-rounders, those who threw 150 innings in their first full year were much more likely to reach the majors (78%) than those who didn't (51%), and more than twice as likely to reach 20 career wins (57%) than those who didn't (27%).
"I can see both sides," Maddux says. "But I think it takes them longer to develop [now]. The easiest way to improve as a pitcher is to throw. Cutting the throwing is cutting the improvement. You do it to reduce injuries. But is a pitcher going to develop at a reasonable rate?
"I also think there is a lot of development that comes from pitching a little tired. Anybody can do well when they feel great. But what happens when you're tired and you have to rely on pitch selection and location? Where is the ability to get a hitter out more than one way? I don't see a lot of that."
Peterson and Duquette decided to put a cap on the innings Bundy would throw this year. Peterson prefers not to increase a young pitcher's workload by more than 30 innings per year. Duquette prefers a 15% to 20% increase as a cap. Bundy threw 90 innings in 2011, including his work in the instructional league after he was drafted. But Peterson and Duquette also considered that he threw 148 innings in 2010: 79 in high school and 69 in summer ball, about the same workload from his sophomore year.
Using a midway range between his 2010 and '11 workloads, Peterson and Duquette decided Bundy would throw about 125 innings this year. They also decided he would pitch every sixth day� to stretch out his innings and to gain the benefit of two bullpen sessions between starts. Then they presented him with two paths to reach his limit: He could pitch without modification, which would mean shutting him down in August when he reached his cap, or he could pitch the first half of the season with limits on his outings to conserve his innings. The second plan called for him to make three starts of three innings, three starts of four innings, four or five more of five innings, and so on.
Bundy liked the latter option. Why?
"When I was drafted, my goal was to be in the major leagues before I was 20 years old," he says. "My birthday is in November, so I've got to get to work. I knew there was no way it could happen if they shut me down in August."
Bundy began the year with Class A Delmarva and didn't allow an earned run in 30 innings over eight starts. Hitters went 5 for 94 (.053) against him, including 0 for 39 at the start. Since being promoted to Frederick, a High A team, on May 23, Bundy is 4--3 with a 2.98 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 421/3 innings. In 17 combined starts he has thrown 721D 3 innings, leaving him about 53 more before his season reaches its preordained end.
Similarly, the Nationals have placed a cap of about 160 innings on Strasburg, who turns 24 in July. Strasburg threw only 441D 3 innings last year after returning from Tommy John surgery. Strasburg has been Washington's best starter this season and leads the National League with 140 strikeouts, but he has already logged 1101D 3 innings. The Nationals will shut down a healthy, dominant pitcher during a pennant race in the name of preventive medicine.
"There is no experience like game experience," says Maddux. "I don't know why you would ever cap that, as long as your pitching is effective and your mechanics stay the same.
"But then, I'm not a doctor. Medicine's gotten better the last 30 years. It's more a part of the game, and teams have more money invested in players."
Owasso is the Osage Indian word for "end of the trail." It was given to the Oklahoma town in 1900 because it sat near the turnaround for the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe Railway. Owasso is the beginning of the trail for Dylan and Bobby Bundy, who learned about baseball and hard work from their dad� sometimes in the most unconventional ways.
When Bobby was eight, for instance, he was having trouble catching the ball because he'd jump to the side when older boys threw his way.
"Bobby," Denver told him, "don't be afraid. I'm going to tie you to a tree."
They walked to a pecan tree in the backyard, Denver holding several lengths of rope. He tied Bobby's legs, torso and right arm to the tree. On the boy's free hand, his left, Denver slipped his baseball glove. First Denver would place the ball in the glove. Then he would move back a step and flip it in. One step at a time, he progressed to throwing overhand from 30 feet away. Bobby had no trouble catching.
A year later, when Dylan was six, the younger brother came to his dad with a question: "When are you going to tie me to a tree?"
"He had already learned to catch really well," Denver says. "But to satisfy him I went through the same process."
At about the same time, Dylan began working out -- 20 minutes of jumping rope, running in place, push-ups and pull-ups. The workouts soon intensified. Dylan and Bobby would dig a hole four feet deep and four feet wide and then shovel the dirt back in. They chopped down trees and split the wood with an ax, careful to emphasize the abdominal work, not just the swinging of the arms. At age eight, Dylan helped his father and brother build a mound and a batting cage in the backyard.
Denver always emphasized the importance of keeping the ball down. "A ground ball," he would say, "will never leave the ballpark." Denver would keep an eye on the boys when they played catch. If one of them made a throw above the other's head, Denver would order him to fill a wheelbarrow with dirt and push it around the 15 acres.
"Either push [the wheel-barrow] or run two laps," Dylan says. "Depended on what mood he was in. Then we would start to play catch again -- and we would definitely keep it down."
Says Denver, "I've been criticized for working the boys that hard. I wasn't hard because I was doing every bit of it too. I never broke 'em or anything. Most of the time they were laughing."
Denver wanted to teach the boys the value and health benefits of hard work, but there was something else: He wanted pitching to be easy compared with the workouts. "The downside to the last 20 years is it's more about therapy than working out," Denver says. "I'm going against the grain on that. You work harder than in the games, then you can use your mind to focus."
Dylan's workouts now include heavy weights, especially to strengthen his legs to compensate for not having the leverage advantage that comes with height. The Orioles were so concerned about the intensity of those workouts that in spring training they assigned former Oriole Brady Anderson, now a special assistant to Duquette, to work out with Bundy for two weeks. He signed off.
"People ask me all the time," Denver says, "Is he country strong from digging holes?' I tell them Dylan is a gym rat. He loves to work out."
After a small lifetime of hard work, Dylan Bundy must acquiesce to the conventional wisdom of the modern game. He is told this is what's best for him. Says Bundy, "I'm O.K. with it because they actually had a plan."
At 19, Nolan Ryan, in his first full season after being drafted out of high school in 1965, threw 205 innings and wound up with more strikeouts than any pitcher in history. Maddux threw his 186 innings at 19 and owns more wins than any man alive. Bundy will throw about 125 innings at 19 and, despite all that low-tech and high-tech training, be shut down. Will it work? That's the perilous part of having the Next Big Thing in pitching at 19. Nobody can know for sure. Bundy, though, knows where he wants all the care and work to lead.
"I want to be on the mound for the championship game of the World Series, getting the last out," he says. "That's my ultimate goal."
He stopped there, but after a beat or two, realized there was something else he wants.
"And," he said, "to be successful for a long time."