Mariners’ No. 3 prospect Justin Dunn turning heads and learning from veterans in spring training

Mar 9, 2019, 1:29 PM | Updated: 2:09 pm

Walking into a big league spring training clubhouse for the first time can be an intimidating experience for any young ballplayer. Even more so for one new to an organization, according to new Mariners pitching prospect Justin Dunn, who arrived in Peoria, Ariz., two months after he was acquired from the Mets as part of the trade that sent Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz to New York.

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“It was a fun experience but nerve-wracking at first,” said the 23-year-old right-hander. “I am a quiet person as is and definitely more quiet being in a locker room with Félix (Hernández), Wade (LeBlanc), (Mike) Leake, even Marco (Gonzales) – he was pretty nasty last year. Just being in the presence of those guys was a humbling honor and experience so I was pretty quiet (at first), but I’m a little better.”

If things go according to general manager Jerry Dipoto’s plans, years from now young players coming into the Mariners’ clubhouse will say the same thing about Dunn, who is ticketed for Double-A Arkansas to start the 2019 season. Currently ranked the No. 3 prospect in the Mariners’ organization by MLB Pipeline, Dunn has opened eyes and answered questions in camp.

Dunn’s repertoire, built around a 94-96 mph fastball, paired with the mindset demonstrated both on the hill and off the field in meetings and bullpens, have been enough to change the mind of manager Scott Servais, who initially was intrigued with the possibility of targeting Dunn as a back-end reliever.

Regardless of role, what eventually gets Dunn to the mound on a big league field will be experience gained on an interesting path.

Throwing since Day 1

Dunn grew up in Long Island in New York, where at a very early age he took to throwing a baseball.

“I think I was just born to do it,” he answered when asked why baseball was the sport he chose. “I’ve been able to throw since I was little. When I was 3 or 4 years old, my dad says I was able to throw a ball the length of a pool.”

Mom has a different favorite story.

“When I was 7 I was at a Dave and Busters and there was a dunk tank. This lady was in the dunk tank and everybody was trying to hit her,” Dunn recalls. “They were paying all of this money, and I asked for a dollar and I did it, and I hit her 3 times in a row. Everybody was in disbelief that I was able to do it. There have been little stories like that along the way, but I give that to the man above. I’ve been blessed to be able to do this.”

Dunk tank antics led to organized baseball. Dunn played at the Boys and Girls Club, where at age 12 he was noticed in a showcase and recruited to play at The Gunnery, a private boarding school in Washington, Conn. The decision to leave home at such a young age was not an easy one.

“I didn’t honestly believe it was real for a while,” Dunn said. “My parents dropped me off and it was something like you see in the movies where I stood in the window and watched them drive off and looked around my room like, is this real? Is this actually happening? After a few weeks of being homesick, not really having too many friends, getting over that hump making some friends, playing sports – I kind of started to see it as more of a long sleepover with a lot of friends.

“After a while the moving days turned into, ‘Just drop my bag off and make my bed, Mom. I’m good.’”

Originally an infielder, Dunn began to develop as a ballplayer at The Gunnery.

“I didn’t throw that hard,” he said. “I would have thought I was a shortstop. I think that’s where a lot of my athleticism comes from. My arm action comes from playing shortstop.”

Prep school led to Boston College, where Dunn admits he initially struggled to balance baseball and academics. Summer school after his freshman year turned things around.

“Playing in the ACC, that’s a job,” he said in a matter-of-fact fashion. “Going to Boston College, that’s a second job. Learning how to make those two jobs work was very difficult for me at first. In summer school I learned how to not only balance the work in baseball but balance the school work as well. I also started getting in the gym and taking my career more seriously and started to go to study hall more. I credit coach (Mike) Gambino for sticking with me and teaching what it meant to be committed to both jobs in school.”

The increased focus on his baseball career paid off. A dominant showing in the Cape Cod League followed by a stellar junior season against tough competition in the ACC rocketed Dunn up draft boards, and the Mets took him in the first round with the 19th pick in 2016.

Dunn finished the 2018 season for the Mets at Double-A Binghamton, where he posted a 6-5 record with a 4.22 ERA in 15 starts. He is a work in progress, but according to many, he is progressing quickly.

A student of the art of pitching

As with many players in today’s game, outside help has been a factor in Dunn’s development. He has worked with private pitching coach Glenn Mitchell since he was a young teen and credits him with teaching him the biomechanics of pitching.

“Now getting older and seeing where things are going, (Mitchell) takes a little different aspect of it. It is more movement and getting my body into power positions and repeatable positions,” Dunn said. “I have checkpoints within my delivery to where I know if I hit those, for the most part I will be able to execute a pretty good pitch. If I can feel where I am at in my delivery, I can make corrections. Let’s say I don’t get to balance, I know, OK, I have got to speed my arm up to catch up. Or if I am at balance too long, I have got to slow my back side down. So it just helps me be able to be repeatable and make adjustments pitch to pitch.”

In camp with the Mariners, Dunn has enjoyed the routine of watching other starters throw their bullpens, jumping up when LeBlanc yells “Let’s go!” The routine is not completely foreign to Dunn, as it is something he tried to do while around the big leaguers last spring with the Mets.

“Jake (2018 NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom) is so athletic, so watching the tempo of his delivery, I try to have a very similar tempo where it is controlled to start but there’s some controlled aggression at the same time. And understanding some key parts of the body and watching him move and trying to be repeatable, that’s one thing I picked up from him. I try to watch whoever it is, even if it is relievers. I learn a lot from bullpens, just little things guys do, so if I have time and they are throwing even their pregame bullpens or even during the game, I try to watch them and pick up little things.”

Adding to his repertoire

Dunn’s focus this spring has been on improving his changeup, a pitch he will need as a starter in the big leagues. One Mariners starter in particular has held his interest with this pitch.

“It’s still been a little too hard,” he said of the velocity of his change. “It is more of a power sinker, like a Félix one. I try to mimic that as much as possible. Everyone who tells me my changeup is too hard, I always say, ‘Well, if he got away with it and it worked for him, I don’t know why I need to slow it down.’”

Dunn was only semi-serious about being stubborn with the changeup. An analytical thinker and student of the game, he believes he has benefited from having the eyes of a new pitching coach, Paul Davis, on him in camp.

“He is a little bit of a hybrid from the analytics side of it and also the body side and not so much tinkering with mechanics,” Dunn said of Davis. “Understanding where I am at mechanically but also helping me understand, your stuff does this so why don’t we try sequencing this, this and this off of it. It has been a great help in helping me understand big league hitters a little bit.”

While Davis has helped in bullpens, the biggest assist for Dunn in Mariners camp has come from Servais, who after his first outing told him to let it go a little bit. Don’t try to be too fine, trust your stuff and attack.

“Being the new kid you come into camp, especially coming into big league camp you know these hitters are so good, and they are so locked in. You basically need to be picture-perfect, but it kind of took the weight off when he said, ‘No, trust yourself, go pitch.’ Just go be yourself and that’s who I am. I love to attack guys. I love to get ahead and go to work, so for him to say that, it kind of gave me a little smile and a pep in my step to go get to work and challenge guys no matter what level I am at.”

For now that will be Double-A, but Dunn may not remain at the lower levels long. Challenging guys in 2018 paid off as he almost tripled his strikeouts-to-walk rate and raised his missed bat percentage. A dramatic change that could perhaps signal a quick rise through the Mariners system and the eventual landing spot on a big league mound.

More Mariners spring training features from Shannon Drayer

Jake Fraley’s strong impression goes deeper than a spring hot streak
Mariners’ prospects are exciting, but patience and perspective is necessary
Led by players like Haniger, Mariners speaking new hitting language
After start-and-stop 2018, Ryon Healy builds new foundation at plate
How Mariners 3B Kyle Seager’s transformation is built to help him
What’s new in Mariners camp, from a slim Kyle Seager to live BP

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