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40 in 40: Justin Dunn

Dunn hasn’t had the start to his professional career he envisioned, but there’s still time to get on the right track

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

There are some 40 in 40s the staff line up to write—Dylan Moore and Luís Torrens were both hot commodities this year—and others that languish on the schedule, unclaimed. Sometimes it’s because the subject in question is a new addition to the 40-man with no big-league track record to analyze, or a trade piece picked up over the off-season no one is particularly attached to—yet. Other times it’s because the player is someone who has been the subject of a 40 in 40 or two, plus someone who has featured heavily in several in-season analytical pieces—and if the reason for those write-ups is that things have been going poorly, it can be an even tougher sell to get people to climb aboard the Hype Bus for a trip around the block. Justin Dunn exists in a tough crossroads between these two places, as he’s still relatively new to the big-league club, but as a starting pitcher, he’s high-profile enough—and has struggled enough—to warrant a couple deep dives from our staff pitching experts.

How much has Dunn struggled? Enough that his 2020 Savant page looks like Yves Klein got a hold of it:

There is no positive way to spin it: those numbers are tough. Way back in September, John analyzed the diverging seasons of Dunn and fellow rookie Justus Sheffield, and noted that Dunn’s changeup, veering closer to a slow sinker than a true changeup, isn’t doing him any services as a pitcher. John also sees a problem in Dunn’s curveball, seeing it as too similar to his slider, and moreover is getting thrown in some tough counts where it’s getting hit hard due to Dunn’s command issues. Building on John’s work, in December Mikey laid out some changes he thinks could be made in Dunn’s repertoire, mainly separating the curve and slider more as two distinct pitches, and potentially dumping his changeup and going after a splitter, but was ultimately very bearish on whether or not that could happen.

But even while recognizing Dunn’s performance so far has been subpar, at the end of the day, this is still a pitcher who has barely over 50 big-league innings pitched. To treat Dunn as a finished product both neglects to acknowledge the absolute weirdness of the 2020 season combined with a funky late-season call-up accounting for the entirety of his career innings so far. Also, it’s not like young pitchers haven’t struggled out of the gates before. I pulled together a list of a few starters who debuted in 2015/16 and compared their first 50 innings against their subsequent careers. (For this list, I skipped over players like Michael Fulmer/Lance McCullers Jr./Mike Montgomery/etc. who pitched over a hundred innings in their debut, and went for players who had partial debuts, like Dunn.)

Starters: First ~50 innings pitched vs. career numbers

Pitcher First 50 IP ERA First 50 IP FIP First 50 IP K/BB% Career ERA Career FIP Career K/BB Age at debut
Pitcher First 50 IP ERA First 50 IP FIP First 50 IP K/BB% Career ERA Career FIP Career K/BB Age at debut
Matt Boyd 7.53 6.59 9.10% 5.08 4.75 14.30% 24
Lucas Giolito 4.25 6.47 6.10% 4.44 4.5 14.50% 21
Mike Clevinger 5.26 4.86 9% 3.19 3.53 18% 25
Tyler Glasnow 6.32 5.01 8.20% 4.43 4.08 17.60% 22
Scott Oberg 5.09 5.76 5.00% 3.85 3.98 12.20% 25
Steven Brault 5.17 4.58 6.40% 4.68 4.68 7.70% 24
José Berríos 8.02 6.2 5.00% 4.19 4.09 15.40% 21
Justin Dunn 4.13 6.44 3.50% 24

Obviously, there’s a pretty wide range of outcomes here, and it must be said that there are a couple things working against Dunn. First there’s his age, as he’s in that upper echelon for when players debuted, and thus doesn’t have the same time to make up the ground like Giolito or Berríos. Secondly, and more worryingly, is his command, which rates as abysmal even in this group of newbies. However, one thing that stands out here is how much these young pitchers did struggle with command across the board, and how things (mostly) remediated themselves down the line. Glasnow’s K-BB% from his first 50 innings doesn’t look terrible, but in 2017 with the Pirates he had a K-BB% of 3.9%—just a hair over Dunn’s—before his eventual trade to the Rays.

And it’s worth noting that sometimes things can go the other way, too; Dunn’s former teammate Steven Matz came out of the gates hair aflame but ultimately wasn’t able to sustain that level of production or consistency, and now will be a project for Toronto’s pitching development staff. It’s much better to be climbing up the mountain than tumbling down the other side.

But make no mistake; this is a mountain Dunn has to climb, especially where he’s starting from. But there is reason for hope, even if it’s probably foolish to expect Dunn to turn into the next Tyler Glasnow. John has long been beating the drum that Dunn has looked tight on the pro mound, not able to create the same fluidity and looseness in the hips he had on the mound in Arkansas.

And here you have a recent (2019) pitch with a little bit more tightness in that back leg:

This might be something Dunn is doing to stay on plane to the plate a little more in an attempt to tame his command, but it might be costing him part of what made him so effective at Arkansas. Happily, recent Instagram posts seem to be showing improvement in this area, although we’ll have to wait for Spring Training to really get an extended look.

And speaking of it, Dunn was effective, incredibly so, at Arkansas—a 21.5% K-BB%!—which is not to be forgotten in light of his struggles at the major league level. We recently had a chance to speak with Taylor Trammell, who reported firsthand on the experience of striking out against Justin Dunn (apparently, it is not fun!). There were days when Dunn walked off the mound in the Texas League like he owned the stadium, the gate receipts, the merchandise, and the truck belonging to every fan in the stands. And honestly, that’s why I didn’t mind taking this assignment to write Dunn’s 40 in 40. I watched all of Dunn’s starts in 2019 in Arkansas like appointment (MiLB) TV, so that’s still the image I have of him—the swagger on the mound, joking with his teammates free and easy in the dugout, and dominating batters in the box. It’s a vision of himself I hope Dunn is able to get back to this year—chains glinting in the sunlight as he pops his gum and squares his shoulders, strutting off the mound and stepping over the souls he reaped in previous at-bats. There’s still time for that Justin Dunn to emerge in the bigs. I hope fervently 2021 is the season where it does.