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Dylan Bundy’s ascent from castoff to Angels ace continues with opening day nod

 Angels starting pitcher Dylan Bundy throws the ball from the mound.
Angels starting pitcher Dylan Bundy throws against the Texas Rangers in a spring training game March 3.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

There wasn’t much to the conversation.

As he was preparing for his second start of spring training on Sunday morning, Dylan Bundy was approached by Angels manager Joe Maddon. Maddon told Bundy he would be the team’s opening day starter. Bundy thanked him and the two shook hands.

It was major career news, delivered almost in the blink of an eye.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Bundy said Monday, hours after Maddon announced the decision publicly. “It humbles you. Not many people get that opportunity. You just gotta cherish it, and basically go out there and treat it like an everyday start.”

That’s been Bundy’s approach throughout his Angels tenure. After a roller-coaster start to his career with the Baltimore Orioles, the 28-year-old right-hander’s focus over the last year has been simple.

“Staying not too high, not too low,” he said. “Even though you had one good year, you have to keep posting those starts and keep trying to improve and see how many years you can do that.”

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Last year, Bundy accomplished that mission. After being traded to the Angels in the offseason, he posted a career-best 3.29 ERA and 6-3 record over 11 starts, striking out 72 batters and finishing ninth in the American League Cy Young Award voting.

This spring, Bundy has looked sharp in Cactus League play. In two starts, he’s given up two hits and no runs. After learning about the opening days news Sunday morning, he mowed through the Chicago Cubs over 4⅔ innings, facing just one batter above the minimum.

Shohei Ohtani is looking confident, the Angels still don’t know where to hit Mike Trout, and more from the first half of spring training.

“He went out there yesterday and showed all the different reasons why we thought [he should start opening day],” Maddon said, adding: “I could praise him all day. There’s a lot of reasons why you like Dylan Bundy as your opening day starter.”

A once highly touted prospect drafted by the Orioles fourth overall in 2011, the early years of Bundy’s career were derailed by injuries. After making his MLB debut late in the 2012 season, he didn’t pitch in the big leagues again until 2016 because of Tommy John surgery and a subsequent shoulder injury.

Once he got healthy, he struggled to adapt to his diminished fastball velocity. From 2016 through 2019, he posted a 4.69 ERA over 125 games (103 starts). He put up his worst numbers in 2018.

Despite throwing seven scoreless innings in an opening day start that year — the only other time he’s been the No. 1 starter to begin a season — and giving up only five earned runs over his first five outings, he quickly lost form, finishing the year with a career-high 5.45 ERA and a major league-high 16 losses.

But upon joining the Angels last season, Bundy altered his pitching arsenal. His fastball — which he once threw more than half the time, but that now sits in the low 90-mph range — accounted for barely a third of his pitches. He incorporated more sliders, changeups and curveballs instead.

As a result, he was able to pound the strike zone (he had a career-best strikeout-to-walk ratio) while also avoiding hard contact (he was among the top-third of pitchers in baseball in lowest average exit velocity and hard hit percentage, according to MLB’s Statcast system).

To Maddon, it was a sign Bundy had grown from the adversity earlier in his career.

“There’s a mental toughness about this guy,” Maddon said. “He got through [his struggles in Baltimore]. Then he comes out here and takes what he had learned. And then what he did last year, [using] a different method, a higher incorporation of off-speed, that I think is going to permit him to pitch more deeply into games consistently.”

There were other considerations in the Angels making Bundy their opening day starter. He is a righty, which Maddon said matches up better against the White Sox’s loaded lineup (the rest of the rotation has yet to be revealed, but left-hander Andrew Heaney, who has good reverse splits in his career, is also slated to pitch in the opening four-game series in Anaheim).

Maddon also consulted with the front office to see which pitching order made the most sense analytically.

In his second strong start of the spring, Dylan Bundy tossed 4-2/3 scoreless innings against the Chicago Cubs, but the Angels’ offense struggled in a 1-1 tie.

But in explaining the decision, Maddon also repeatedly praised Bundy’s leadership, noting the “trust factor” the six-year veteran has built in the clubhouse.

“He’s not the kind of guy that just says things to talk,” Maddon said. “When he says something, it’s got some pertinence to it. And I think the players have already figured that out. He commands the respect that he gets, just by the way he goes about his business.”

Bundy, who will be a free agent after the season, was humble while talking with reporters Monday. Asked at one point if he feels like he’s finally “figuring things out” on the mound, Bundy chuckled. It’ll take more than one good year, and one opening day start, for him to feel completely satisfied.

“I don’t like to say those words, ‘figuring things out,’” he said. “As a starting pitcher, you’re always learning. You can take some things good and some things bad out of each and every start. You’re always trying for perfection in this game. It’s hard to come by.”


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