Dane Dunning Has All the Tools He Needs

© Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

For Dane Dunning, consistency will be key in 2022. A first round pick back in 2016, his professional career has been pretty turbulent for someone of his draft pedigree. He’s been the headlining return in two major trades — the Adam Eaton deal in 2016 and the Lance Lynn swap in ’20 — and also lost a season and a half to a torn UCL. To further complicate matters, the beginning of the pandemic disrupted his rehab just when he was preparing to compete for a spot on a big league roster. The delayed start to the 2020 season probably benefited him, however, as he finally made his major league debut for the White Sox in August of that year.

Dunning had just gotten his feet wet at the game’s highest level when he was shipped off to Texas during the offseason. The Rangers were extremely careful with him in his first season with the organization. You can understand why. He had missed more than two seasons worth of games between his Tommy John surgery and the lack of a minor league season in 2020. His first start in the big leagues was the first time he had pitched in an official game since June 2018. In 2021, he averaged just under five innings per start and threw more than 80 pitches in a game just four times. Still, with just over 150 total major league innings under his belt, Dunning has shown some real promise, even if there are a few kinks to work out.

Last year, Dunning managed to post a 3.94 FIP that was supported by a 3.87 xFIP. Unfortunately, his 4.51 ERA far outpaced his peripherals. He didn’t give up very many home runs — just 13 all season — but he did allow a lot of contact. Opposing batters produced a 78.1% contact rate against him, well above league average, though more than half of those balls in play were put on the ground. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was almost exactly league average, which meant he wasn’t really mitigating that contact with a gaudy strikeout rate and or a minuscule walk rate. Despite those mixed results, there are some positive signs under the hood that could bode well for Dunning’s development this year.

Dunning has six pitches in his repertoire, though the majority of his pitch mix revolves around his sinker and his slider. Those two pitches made up nearly three-quarters of the pitches he threw in 2021. Here’s what the physical characteristics of his pitches look like, with the percentile ranks for each offering relative to their individual pitch types:

Dane Dunning, Pitch Characteristics
Pitch Usage Velocity V Mov H Mov
Sinker 52.2% 90.4 (16) 6.5 (85) -14.5 (37)
Slider 21.5% 79.7 (7) -5.1 (99) 4.6 (48)
Changeup 13.0% 84.5 (41) 6.3 (50) -17.4 (98)
Cutter 8.0% 85.8 (21) 6.4 (79) 2.0 (38)
Curveball 4.7% 78.2 (36) -14.9 (75) 7.8 (39)
Percentile Ranks in parenthesis

Despite underwhelming velocity, four of Dunning’s five pitches possess elite vertical movement, which explains how he’s able to run such a high groundball rate. His best pitch is his two-plane slider, which isn’t unlike the sweepers the Dodgers popularized last year. When he can locate it down in the zone, it becomes an extremely difficult pitch to make contact with: he ran a 38% whiff rate with his slider while using it as his primary out pitch.

Dunning’s changeup doesn’t drop as much as his other pitches but it more than makes up for it in arm-side run, and the extreme downward break of the rest of his arsenal certainly helps his changeup’s horizontal break standout all the more. That pitch gives him a tremendous weapon to use against left-handed batters, though it was just as effective at neutralizing same-handed batters, too. Overall, he ran a 32.4% whiff rate with his change piece, giving him two excellent weapons to use against batters.

The biggest issue for Dunning is his ability to locate his entire repertoire consistently. In his final prospect evaluation in 2021, he was given a 60 present and Future Value for his command tool. Eric Longenhagen wrote, “His command needs to be plus for Dunning to be effective since his raw stuff is shy of big league average.” Despite a league-average walk rate, Dunning has undeniably struggled with his command at the major league level. Just look at this selection of plate discipline metrics from last year:

Dane Dunning, Zone Metrics
Pitch Zone% O-Swing% Waste% CSW% Whiff%
Sinker 60.6% 18.9% 4.6% 32.4% 12.6%
Slider 32.4% 40.6% 20.2% 27.7% 38.0%
Changeup 41.4% 40.8% 8.4% 26.1% 32.4%
Cutter 46.4% 19.7% 11.1% 20.3% 18.2%
Curveball 23.3% 23.8% 27.8% 26.7% 36.0%

Dunning’s approach becomes pretty clear after looking at the metrics above. He pounds the zone with his sinker and tries to get batters to chase breaking balls out of the zone once he’s ahead. That’s not a bad strategy on the surface, but he could hone it a bit more to really maximize his strengths. One out of every five of his sliders thrown last season ended up in the waste zone — pitches so far out of the zone they become easy takes for opposing batters. Whether it’s a matter of execution or confidence, Dunning simply can’t keep locating his slider so far off the plate that often. Imagine the benefits he could reap if he was able to regularly and confidently locate his slider a bit closer to the zone; all those wasted pitches suddenly become a lot more difficult for an opposing batter to simply watch go by.

It’s possible Dunning attempted to find a fix for his command issues last year. His release point chart shows two distinct clusters:

During the first half of the season, Dunning was setting up on the first-base side of the pitching rubber. In his first start after the All-Star break, he had a completely new position on the third-base side:

Shifting his position like this was likely an adjustment to help Dunning locate his pitches in the zone with regularity. The change only worked for one of his pitches: The zone rate for his cutter shot up from 35.8% in the first half to 63.8% in the second half. (His sinker and changeup found the zone at similar rates in both halves of the season, and his slider and curveball actually saw their zone rates fall in the second half.) The called and swinging strike rate for each of his pitches except for his cutter fell after making this adjustment on the mound. Command is usually the last tool to return after a major surgery and Dunning was pitching in his first full season since 2017. There were probably plenty of explanations for the lack of sharpness last season.

Another interesting change Dunning made in Texas was the addition of his cutter at the expense of a four-seam fastball. In 2020, he threw a four-seamer around 18% of the time and it seemed like a pretty decent pitch for him. He ran a 37.8% whiff rate on the pitch that season, though he did allow some pretty loud contact off it when it got too much of the plate. His new cutter wasn’t all that effective, earning just a 18.2% whiff rate with an ugly .420 wOBA off it. Despite allowing a ton of hits off his cutter, that pitch actually had the lowest expected wOBA on contact among his five pitches.

The path to some significant improvements seems pretty clear. If Dunning can command his pitches with greater consistency, he’ll likely see better results immediately. But his pitch mix is a bit out of whack, too. He throws his best two pitches around a third of the time; that needs to jump up to 50% or better. In addition, his curveball and slider are far too similar. Both of his breaking balls sit in the same velocity band and have similar movement profiles but the break on his slider is far sharper and it’s clear he prefers it over his curveball.

Reducing the usage of his sinker in favor of a better mix of cutters and four-seamers might also benefit him. His sinker doesn’t stand out in any meaningful way, and with all of his other pitches running above average groundball rates, he doesn’t need to rely on it as his only way to generate contact on the ground. Optimizing his usage to give his best pitches the chance to shine while continuing to force batters to pound the ball into the ground should lead to a far higher ceiling.

Dunning has shown glimpses of his potential and just needs to be put things together in the right manner to really take off. Getting a full season of pitching under his belt should help him find some of the consistency and confidence that might have been lacking after such a long layoff. Now comes the difficult task of finding the right adjustments to really hone his craft.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

not that this is gospel or anything, but Eno’s stuff rating hates Dunning. it’s rarely as simple as “throw your best stuff more.” I’d like to see more substance in those last three paragraphs telling me what Dunning could do or what would work, so I can check his data after a couple starts in 2022 and say “maybe this is worth an add.” As it stands, I think’s it’s a bit light. Thanks though.

gawd_damn catapultmember
1 year ago
Reply to  jbgocubs

The Prophet Eno