Dane Dunning has begun to cast aside the doubts of some observers who wondered when he was drafted last June if he’s a starting pitcher or a reliever.
The White Sox felt pretty certain Dunning -- the team’s No. 10 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com -- would start even though he pitched out of the bullpen more often in three seasons at the University of Florida. They were absolutely thrilled when they were able to include the Washington Nationals’ 2016 first-round draft pick along with pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in the return for Adam Eaton.
Through four starts at Single-A Kannapolis, Dunning has only strengthened the club’s assertion with a scorching hot start that could likely soon lead to a promotion. After six more scoreless innings and seven strikeouts on Wednesday, Dunning is 2-0 with a 0.35 ERA.
“I talked to scouts who really think Giolito and Lopez are relievers and at the time of the trade thought ‘Don’t be surprised if Dunning is the best starting pitcher of those three guys in the long run,’” said MLB.com’s Jim Callis. “He’s got stuff. He’s not going to light up the gun like those guys can. But he’s got a fastball with life and he’s got three pitches. He’s legit. He very well could go from being the third guy in the trade for Eaton to the best guy.”
The only thing that has slowed down Dunning this month is the weather. Originally scheduled to start Sunday, Dunning’s fourth turn was wiped out by rain for three consecutive days. The layoff could explain Dunning’s -- ahem -- rust on Wednesday morning when he threw only 58 of 88 pitches (66 percent) for strikes and limited Hagerstown to two hits and a walk while striking out seven.
All Dunning has done is fill up the strike zone this season. He has thrown strikes on 246 of 354 pitches (69.5 percent). Through 26 innings, Dunning has allowed two runs (one earned), 13 hits and two walks with 33 strikeouts.
“He really commands the fastball well to both sides,” Kannapolis catcher Seby Zavala said. “He doesn’t get behind too many hitters. He attacks with the fastball. And if you can locate that fastball, you’re going to do pretty well, especially at this level.”
Dunning is hopeful his attacking style would work at every level. As he noted, Hall of Fame hitters are successful only three out of 10 times.
“The odds are in my favor 70 percent of the time,” Dunning said. “I’m OK with those odds.
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“Big leaguers, they miss down the middle at times and they get away with it. They miss up at times and they get away with it. Baseball is a game of failure. A hitter’s going to fail seven out of 10 times. Once you realize those odds, you just pound strikes and if you’re able to locate it, that helps in your favor.”
Despite his approach, many observers weren’t sure if Dunning would start as a pro. A reliever his freshman season at Florida, Dunning made 14 starts in his second year before mostly pitching in relief as a junior. He had the burden of pitching in a Gators rotation that included fellow first-round pick A.J. Puk and second-rounder Logan Shore.
“If I went to really any other SEC school I would have been a Friday night starter,” Dunning said. “But on the other hand, it humbled me a bunch and I learned a lot by starting and going out of the ‘pen.”
Still, Dunning faced a bunch of interview questions during the draft process about whether he wanted to start or relieve. An American League scout who took in Dunning’s April 18 outing at Asheville doesn’t think Florida knew what it had in Dunning, who posted a 3.32 ERA and struck out 170 in 160 collegiate innings.
But amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler said the White Sox suspected Dunning would start all along. Hostetler attended one of Dunning’s five starts in 2016 and liked the combination of the right-hander’s 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame and his stuff. The White Sox nearly selected Dunning with the 26th pick in the draft but instead grabbed reliever Zack Burdi as they believed they might need a big arm out of the bullpen in the majors later that season. Washington took Dunning 29th overall.
“He showed three pitches, the ability to command all three pitches, physical build, strength,” Hostetler said. “And when he did start last year he showed the ability to go deeper into games. He maintained his stuff through it. And I felt with not only the physical size, but the stuff, that was going to translate and he was going to start.
“He’s pretty aggressive, he’s always been that way. He’s a pretty dialed in kid. He’s in the game, the whole game. There’s no distracting him. He kind of looks like what we expected him to be.”
Though he is more comfortable in the five-day routine for starters, Dunning jokes that he gets jealous of position players being on the field every day. Still, he doesn’t find the uncertainty that comes with relieving as appealing but appreciates the experience. Dunning knows that experience could supply him with a fallback plan. But if he’s given the choice, Dunning prefers to be a starting pitcher.
“I can get in more of a groove,” Dunning said. “Mainly, it’s just to help the team get wins and that’s my ultimate goal out there if I’m starting or coming out of the bullpen. If I’m starting, just put on a good performance for my team, get the game going. If I’m coming out of the ‘pen, it’s hold the lead and get my team W’s.”