Tonight Justin Dunn will toe the rubber for the Mariners, facing off against the Angels for the second time in less than a week. Dunn’s maiden voyage of the season occurred this past Wednesday and, well, it could have gone better. While he often started out in favorable counts, Dunn found himself in full counts twice in the first, twice in the second, again in the third, and once more in the fourth. Dunn was trying to mix his pitches, adding in the changeup he’s been working on since last season plus the new cutter he’s been playing around with along with pal Justus Sheffield, to complement his fastball-slider pairing, but he struggled to land the off-speed pitches, throwing his slider for a ball almost as often as for a strike (of note: Gameday classifies several of Dunn’s pitches as curves instead of sliders; Brooks Baseball and Savant call them all sliders, so that’s what we’re going with). When he did get it onto the plate, the pitches were hit hard, even as several went for outs, most notably Trout and Ohtani’s first inning flyouts that registered 101 and 107.4 mph off the bat, respectively.
Encouragingly, Dunn had a little more success with his changeup, landing it for strikes more efficiently than the slider and getting a groundout on it from Tommy La Stella. Dunn also got a pair out outs with his slider, including Trout’s flyout and a swinging strikeout of Jason Castro, one of two Ks he notched through his three-plus innings.
Dunn’s night went sideways on him in the fourth, when he should have had an easy groundout of Mike Trout, but then J.P. Crawford got a little too excited to throw out a future Hall of Famer and chucked the ball two feet over Evan White’s head (he reined it in anyway, because Evan White, but wasn’t able to record the out). After throwing an opening pitch to Rendon, whom he had walked earlier in the game, that was a slider for a ball, Dunn retreated to his safe space of fastballs, but couldn’t control even those and walked Rendon on five not-particularly-close pitches.
That brought up Ohtani, but first it brought out pitching coach Pete Woodworth, who knows Dunn well from time spent together last year at Arkansas. Whatever Woody said to Dunn, it gave him the fortitude to return to his secondaries, as Dunn opened against Ohtani with a slider that Ohtani tried to lose like an ugly sweater:
Dunn missed his spot badly—according to catcher Joe Odom’s glove, this ball is supposed to be low in the zone—but Ohtani is fooled by the late movement on the pitch and swings over it for strike one.
Perhaps emboldened by his success, Dunn returns to his slider for the next pitch of the at-bat, catching too much plate but stymying Ohtani, who looked like he was sitting fastball, for a called strike two.
With two strikes, Dunn has a plethora of options here, one being to get Ohtani to roll over one for a double play, maybe try to get him reaching out over the plate to tap a weak grounder. But while Rendon at first does not have much speed, Ohtani does, making a double play not entirely a certainty—and that’s if the infield defense that let Dunn down earlier in the inning plays it perfectly. Otherwise, it’s either runners at the corners or a ball squeaked through the hole, one run in with the speedy Trout at second, and runners on the corners. However, behind Ohtani is Justin Upton, who currently ranks in the 35% percentile in MLB in sprint speed. Getting the strikeout on Ohtani, currently 0-2, and attacking Upton makes sense. Let’s see if Ohtani will chase a pitch out of the zone.
The good news: he did chase! The bad news: Japan has the world’s second-largest golf market, and perhaps Ohtani picked up some tips during his time there:
On the broadcast, Blowers laments that Dunn didn’t get the pitch further down, like in the dirt, but the pitch was already several inches below the strike zone, literally almost at Ohtani’s ankles, and he still golfed it out of the stadium.
Ohtani might have been expecting the pitch there because that’s often where pitchers will go after him, given that there is a pretty significant hole there in his swing. In 2018, an 83% whiff rate meant Ohtani got attacked in that low-inner corner pretty frequently:
The numbers improve in 2019, but Ohtani had such a limited number of PAs then it’s hard to call it a representative sample, especially because the heat maps are lit up in red. Austin Adams did have some success with a similar pitch in 2019, though:
So the decision to throw a slider there wasn’t the worst, and neither was the pitch location, even for a player who’d been fighting his command all game. That didn’t stop Keith Law at The Athletic from declaring Dunn “ruin[ed] a promising outing with an awful 0-2 pitch selection to Shohei Ohtani, failing to bury a slider down when a fastball in would have been a much better choice.” But really, sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the opposing batter. Just make sure he’s looking up at you rather than replacing his divots.
Dunn will get his next start tonight, and while it’s unclear if he’ll get another shot at Ohtani, who was recently diagnosed with a flexor mass bundle strain, it will nonetheless be interesting to see how he approaches a similar situation with this experience under his belt.