Justin Dunn aims at being Mariners’ next impact arm after strong offseason

Mar 6, 2021, 2:03 AM
Mariners RHP Justin Dunn...
Mariners RHP Justin Dunn is throwing harder with better breaking balls in camp. (Getty)

Mariners manager Scott Servais made it no secret when he joined 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny and Gallant this week that he feels strongly about his team’s pitching. One pitcher who has a lot to prove in 2021, though, is Justin Dunn.

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Dunn, 25, is a former first-round pick who was a key part of the trade that also brought top prospect Jarred Kelenic to Seattle from the Mets.

Dunn made his MLB debut in 2019 and was a full-time starter for the Mariners in 2020, making 10 starts to record a 4-1 record with a 4.34 ERA, but those numbers are a bit deceiving as to how Dunn actually performed. Dunn registered just 38 strikeouts and walked 31 batters in 45.2 innings last year. The advanced metrics also weren’t kind to Dunn, as he had an average opponent exit velocity of 92 mph, which puts him in the second percentile in MLB, and he also struggled to miss bats with a whiff rate in the 19th percentile, per Statcast.

Despite Dunn’s status as a former top prospect and someone who didn’t miss a start in 2020, there’s been no guarantee he will make the Mariners’ six-man rotation out of spring training.

When speaking to Danny and Gallant on Tuesday, Servais said the Mariners made it clear to Dunn that he had a lot of work to do this offseason. While it’s still early in camp, Servais likes what he’s seen from the young right-hander.

“We had some very candid conversations with Dunny at the end of the year,” Servais said. “He made all his turns in the rotation, it was a learning year for him and we understood that. But we also understood that if he didn’t make some significant changes with his training, his diet and different things like that, he probably wasn’t going to be part of our rotation going forward. To his credit, he took that very seriously, he’s in much better physical shape than we’ve ever seen and it’s playing out on the field.”

Servais wasn’t the only member of the organization to relay those thoughts to Danny and Gallant this week, as general manager Jerry Dipoto and Dunn himself joined the show at different points of the week.

“I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life,” Dunn said Wednesday. “Like I’ve been saying all camp, I did a lot this offseason. I put in a lot work and part of that was due to a conversation that I had with our front office and (Servais) and (pitching coach Pete Woodworth) and the team about kind of where I was at and where they felt I was at – and where I felt I was at – and made some lifestyle changes and really dove into nutrition. … Just started getting my body locked in, got back in the weight room and made some changes in there, and I’m starting to see some really good results play out on the field.”

On Thursday, Dipoto called the conversation between Dunn and the Mariners “frank.”

Dunn, to his credit, listened to the feedback, went back home this offseason and really worked on reshaping his body. Dipoto said the former first-round pick “looks fantastic” as camp has kicked off and may have had the best offseason of any player in the organization.

“If there is a case of a player going home and improving his process, from what he did with his body to what he did with his pitches to how he’s refined, you’d like to see it translate to performance for his benefit,” Dipoto said. “We couldn’t be more pleased with how much the process has improved with Justin Dunn. And we’ve talked about it with our pitching coaches, if you are giving rewards to players who have taken the notion of process and embraced it, Justin Dunn wins the award. He’s this year’s Cy Young winner in going home and doing everything we asked him to this offseason, and my guess is it’s going to show up for him on the field and it’s really been a treat to watch him in these early days.”

Overall, Dunn struggled on the mound in 2020 as his stuff wasn’t that sharp, his velocity was down (91.2 mph average on his fastball) and he wasn’t throwing nearly enough strikes. Servais said that Dunn was sitting 92-96 mph with the fastball in his last live bullpen session. Additionally, his breaking balls showed clear improvement as well.

“I’m really curious and anxious to see him pitch in games and hopefully it plays out there when somebody in another jersey is in the batter’s box,” Servais said. “But he looks great so far this spring.”

Dunn credited the better fastball to improving his diet and working closely with a trainer this offseason.

“(The ball) hasn’t come out (of my hand) this way since my junior year in college,” Dunn said, referencing his final college season before the Mets selected him with the 19th overall pick of the 2016 MLB Draft.

With a clear uptick in velocity and better secondary offerings, Dipoto thinks Dunn has the ability to take a big step forward this season.

“The stuff has improved, his physical endurance and athleticism have improved, and Justin has always had the intellect to go out and navigate through a lineup,” Dipoto said. “When Justin’s over the plate with good stuff, he’s very good. And we’ve seen that at times the opposite is true. But we’re very confident that what we’re seeing now is a pitcher who is maturing and ready to take that next step, and that’s an exciting thing for all of us.”

Listen to the full conversation with Servais at this link or in the player below.

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