Taken out of Boston College by the Mets in the first round of the 2016 draft, Justin Dunn is a New York native who may not be entirely thrilled to have been traded across the country. (Sorry, Justin, but you know what they say: west coast, best coast.) Dunn first attracted notice as a preteen playing in a showcase at the Boys and Girls Club of his native Long Island, and was recruited to The Gunnery in Connecticut, which is not, as it sounds, a dystopian futuristic child-soldier training facility, but instead an impossibly expensive (62K a year!!!) boarding school founded in 1850 by Frederick W. Gunn, an outspoken abolitionist, outdoorsman who invented camping, and educational progressive who welcomed both girls and students of color to his academy. Dunn showed off that book-learnin’ when he turned down the Angels, who drafted him in the 37th round out of high school, and proceeded instead to similar academic stalwart Boston College, where he was roommates with the Mariners’ own prospect Johnny Adams, drafted the year after Dunn and winner of about every leadership award the college gives out to baseball players. Dunn had an undistinguished start to his collegiate career as a middle reliever, but at the beginning of the 2016 season was moved into the starting rotation, where he flourished with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and a tightly-spun slider, shooting up draft boards until he eventually landed with the Mets at #19 overall.
Back in the boroughs again, Dunn blazed through the New York-Penn League with the Brooklyn Cyclones, and the Mets aggressively promoted him to High-A in 2017, where he scuffled with both his ability to throw strikes and to limit damage on pitches in the zone. Dunn returned to the level in 2018 and brought his strikeouts up and his walks down, earning him a promotion to Double-A Binghamton, where he posted a K/9 of over 10 but also saw his walks and home runs allowed creep back up. Overall, though, it was a solid effort for a first trip through the high minors, although the Mariners have already said they’ll be assigning him back to Double-A to start 2019 in order to continue to grow his confidence. As the Mariners don’t plan to compete in the near future, Dunn will have ample time to refine his repertoire and develop the third pitch he didn’t get to use as a reliever in college.
Dunn isn’t an especially tall fellow for a pitcher, with some scouts casting aspersions aplenty on his listed height of 6’2”, which is probably influenced by his slight frame, listed at 185 pounds on most sites. That has led to the old cry of durability questions, although Dunn has never missed significant time with a major injury (he was shut down at the very end of the minor league season in 2017 with the ominous-sounding “shoulder tightness,” but the problem didn’t recur in 2018 and also, sometimes a guy just needs a break). He also looks like he’s bulked up some since draft day, specifically his lower half, and on Double-A broadcasts this past season his weight was given as 210, which looks more accurate. That strong lower half helps him rush his fastball up at the mid 90s or above, and keep it there; in 11 of his 15 starts at Double-A this year, Dunn went six innings or more, and several times when he was tapped out of games, it was for pitch count reasons.
The reason Dunn didn’t get deeper in those games, and the biggest knock against him, is a lack of command. All of Dunn’s pitches show a good degree of movement, both vertically and horizontally; in watching film of him with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies [general sighing in the direction of Brandiose], Dunn seems to miss most arm-side, especially when he’s trying to hit the outside corner against a left-handed batter. His fastball has plenty of sink, and it’s a good swing-and-miss pitch when he works the bottom of the zone, especially when he pushes his velocity up to 94-95.
Dunn’s arm action is clean, loose and easy; this pitch is at 94 but doesn’t look particularly high-effort from the righty, whose 6’2” appears to be 85% legs. He could use some polish on his follow-through; currently the right leg swings through like a screen door banging in the wind, and he could stand to be more directional to the plate with his back leg before it comes flying up, which might help his control issues. But it’s important to remember that Dunn only had a year of starting in college before going pro, and was promoted aggressively in the Mets’ system. Unlike someone like Erik Swanson, a relatively polished pitcher with a palpable ceiling, Dunn offers tantalizing upside if properly developed.
Dunn has a starter’s arsenal of four pitches, three of which will hopefully grade out as major league quality. The fastball is Dunn’s bread and butter, and he’s able to work it all over the zone on both sides of the plate. He also offers a cutter, a slightly slower (upper 80s) version of his fastball that both sinks and takes a nasty bite out of righty batters’ knees.
As John pointed out, the 2018 Mariners were extremely cutter-happy, so Dunn should find himself right at home on the Seattle pitching staff, and will maybe be able to develop the cutter as a convincing 1A pitch. There’s a lot of deception in how Dunn pitches, and due to that and his ability to spot pitches all over the zone, he gets some really, really ugly check swings, some of which are called strikes and some of which are not, because minors:
Dunn’s second-best pitcher is his slider, which has lots of sink and a ton of armside movement and can make left-handed batters, especially, look very silly as they try to find it.
So with two, possibly three pitches, the question is: what will be the other arrow in Dunn’s quiver? He throws both a curveball and a changeup, both of which need work. Often the curve will stay high and stubbornly refuse to break, and the changeup is probably the least-developed pitch in Dunn’s repertoire, although it’s the one scouts seem to prefer. When the changeup is located well, it breaks right at the hitter’s knees.
Other times, the changeup can remain flat, or run away from Dunn, who might be well-served to take some lessons from Felix Hernandez and Wade LeBlanc, both of whom possess excellent changeups, in spring training.
The curve is inconsistent, but again, when Dunn can get good break on it and locate it in the zone, has a potential to be a real weapon.
Following his disappointing 2017 season, there were some unflattering scouting reports on Dunn, which might explain why the Mets were willing to include him alongside the much more buzzed-about Kelenic. But the Mariners actively sought Dunn, not only because they see a pitcher with a skillset that complements their organizational knowledge, but also because of who Justin Dunn is. When a 13-year-old Justin agreed to leave his family—father Ed, a grant services administrator, and mother Donna, who works in health care—and move north to Washington, Connecticut, a town with an African-American population of 0.64%, he gained more than just the opportunity to get noticed in baseball; he received a top-flight education, which has afforded him an especially analytic approach to his craft. Dunn notes that his struggles in 2017 were caused by an overload of disparate information, something that wouldn’t be unfamiliar, to say, Mike Zunino in 2015, and he’s excited to work with a pitching coach whose philosophy interlocks with his own. The Mariners were set to take the cerebral Dunn in the 2016 draft before Kyle Lewis unexpectedly fell to them; now they are getting a chance to why-not-both? the 2016 draft over again. Justin Dunn has raw tools aplenty; the challenge for Seattle will be to choose the right ones to help fine-tune—in addition to helping him realize the innate superiority of the west coast, of course.