Can Baltimore nurture baseball's best pitching prospect into a star?
Baltimore Orioles hurler Dylan Bundy, 19, is the top pitching prospect in baseball
As a high school senior, Bundy went 11-0 with a 0.20 ERA and 158 strikeouts
Baltimore has a history of failed first-round pitchers and Bundy's success is vital
This article appears in the July 30, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated
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."