Mariners know what they want from Marco Gonzales, Justin Dunn after rocky starts to the season

Apr 14, 2021, 6:32 PM | Updated: 6:33 pm
Mariners Marco Gonzales...
Marco Gonzales didn't get through the fifth inning in his second start of the season. (Getty)

When the Mariners wrap up their four-game series in Baltimore with a doubleheader Thursday, they will send out two starting pitchers from opposite ends of their rotation. And while Marco Gonzales and Justin Dunn are very different pitchers at very different points in their careers, they’re also in very similar situations going into their outings.

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Gonzales, who made his third straight opening day start for the Mariners to begin the season, has lacked command in his two appearances thus far – quite uncharacteristic for a pitcher who led the American League in 2020 with 0.904 walks allowed per nine innings and the entire MLB with 9.143 strikeouts to every walk.

Dunn, meanwhile, will be making just his 16th MLB start on Thursday, and command has also been his issue – not just in his one start so far in 2021 but ever since being called up to the Mariners in September 2019. He walked eight batters in 4 2/3 innings on April 7 against the White Sox and issued 40 free passes in 52 1/3 innings combined between 2019 and 2020. As a result, his 7.6 walks per nine innings rate in the majors is more than double what he averaged in four seasons in the minors (3.4).

Shannon Drayer, Mariners insider for 710 ESPN Seattle, caught up with Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth to get an inside look at what the coaching staff has seen so far from Gonzales and Dunn and what they’re hoping to see from them going forward. Let’s take a look at what Woodworth has to say.

Marco Gonzales

Had there been All-Star teams for the shortened 60-game season in 2020, Gonzales almost assuredly would have been on the AL squad. A big reason why was his ability to avoid free passes, as he issued just seven walks total over 11 starts (69 2/3 innings). It’s been a much different story in his two starts so far in 2021, though, as he’s already walked five in just 10 1/3 innings.

Woodworth seems confident the 29-year-old left-hander will get back on track soon.

“Marco’s just kind of getting his foundation under him. Guys go through this all the time, especially in spring training, early in the season,” Woodworth told Drayer. “Just getting back to what makes him Marco Gonzales, which is strike one, which is fastball command. That’s kind of where his game unfolds and that’s where his arsenal plays and that’s why he was so successful last year and, shoot, even the last three or four years.

“Everybody calls him a command artist and he hasn’t been commanding the ball as well as he has in the past. … Everybody goes through that.”

Starting plate appearances with a strike will solve a lot, according to Woodworth.

“We saw it last year. He went toe to toe with– it didn’t matter who was in the box, he was coming at you and making guys swing the bats. Whether you’re Marco throwing 88 (mph) or Yusei (Kikuchi) throwing 98, that is the key. If you look around the league, it doesn’t matter the stuff, it doesn’t matter the matchup – strike one wins. … We’ve gotten into trouble when we give away free bases, and Marco was the best in the league last year at limiting free bases. That’s what makes him special. He makes all nine guys earn their at-bat.”

Justin Dunn

Just like Gonzales, Woodworth said the Mariners are looking for Dunn to live in the strike zone more often. The big differences are that Dunn has yet to really do that in the big leagues, and he’s also working with higher velocity and “better stuff” after putting in a lot of work over the offseason.

“He’s got a lot better stuff than he ever has in the past. The main thing for him is challenging hitters,” Woodworth said. “Where in the past he may have had to move the ball around and change speeds, he needs to become more in tune with the power pitcher he’s become this offseason and just go after guys. That’s really it.”

After getting 10 starts under his belt in 2020, the Mariners are looking for Dunn to answer some challenges this year.

“It’s not his rookie season so you can’t chalk it up to being afraid of big league hitters,” Woodworth said. “He went through that last year and saw that even with subpar stuff… when he threw it over the plate, he had success. Now that he has some bigger tools to play with, the main thing is just keeping him in challenge mode.”

Gonzales will start Game 1 of the Mariners’ doubleheader against the Orioles set for a 9:35 a.m. first pitch Thursday morning, with Baltimore countering with Matt Harvey. Dunn will get the ball in Game 2 against Orioles lefty Bruce Zimmerman. Coverage begins on 710 ESPN Seattle with Drayer hosting the pregame show at 8:30 a.m., which will immediately follow The Jerry Dipoto Show with the Mariners general manager at the special start time of 8:15 on Danny and Gallant (The Jerry Dipoto Show usually airs at 8:30 a.m. each Thursday on 710 ESPN Seattle).

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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