In case you haven’t noticed, Dane Dunning is having kind of a ridiculous season. If you peruse the ERA leaderboard, you’re going to see names you’d expect—names like Clayton Kershaw, Shane McClanahan, and Gerrit Cole—and if you scroll down to eighth, you’ll see Dane Dunning.
So far this year, Dunning has pitched 80.1 innings through 18 games and 10 starts to the tune of a 2.69 ERA, and this is coming from a guy who posted a 4.46 ERA a year ago and a 4.51 ERA the year before.
It’s a season that, to this point, has kind of come out of nowhere. Maybe not totally out of nowhere, I’ve personally been a Dunning fan ever since I did a GIF Breakdown of his MLB debut three years ago. I even included him in two of my annual dart throws articles (though of course, not in this year’s, the year he actually does well).
But after two years of pretty unimpressive numbers, Dunning has suddenly turned things on in a big way, culminating in a career-best start on Wednesday against the Tigers where he went 8.2 innings giving up four hits, two runs, and had 10 strikeouts.
So this whole Dane Dunning thing—is it for real? What’s going on here?
What Dunning is doing differently
When you dive into Dunning’s repertoire, you’ll notice that he’s actually significantly changed his approach. He hasn’t added a new pitch or anything, but he has turned around how he’s using all the different pitches he throws.
Here’s a look at his repertoire in 2022 compared to so far this year:
So far this year, Dunning is taking a bit more of a kitchen sink approach and throwing a whole bunch of different pitches all the time. The sinker is still his primary pitch, but its usage has dropped significantly and he’s increased his cutter usage and started throwing his curveball and four-seamer a bit more.
Dunning has also changed his approach a bit. For example, last year Dunning threw his sinker arm-side almost 50% of the time, but that’s dropped to 32.6% this year and instead, he’s throwing it glove-side 41.4%, up from 27.1% last year.
In fact, where Dunning is throwing his pitches and how accurately he’s doing has been, in my opinion, a big key to his success so far.
Two years ago, Dunning introduced his cutter, and as I mentioned earlier, he’s started throwing it a lot more than he ever had before. But where is he throwing it?
Up and arm-side, making it a great pitch that he can backdoor to left-handed hitters or front-door to right-handed hitters, which is a notable difference from last year when he tended to throw the pitch glove-side.
First pitch of Dunning’s matchup against Kerry Carpenter and he throws a backdoor cutter up and away for a called strike one. In fact, the cutter has become Dunning’s preferred pitch early in the count, throwing it 70.6% of the time early. And as a result, it’s turning into a good number of called strikes, with a 23.5% called strike rate.
That’s not to say hitters aren’t swinging at it, they are. The pitch sports a 32.7% CSW and a 70.2% strike rate, the latter of which is way up from 59.5% last year.
So we’ve got the cutter up and arm-side, so where do we throw the slider?
Low and glove-side, the exact opposite, naturally. Again, this is pretty different from what he did last year, as he threw the pitch arm-side 20.3% of the time last year compared to just 8.6% of the time this year. Meanwhile, he’s throwing the pitch glove-side 71.6% of the time this year compared to 62.4% last year.
The slider (alongside his changeup, which we’ll get to in a second) has garnered a good number of chases, sporting a 33.3% chase rate, and we end up seeing plenty of at-bats that end like this:
In fact, in that start against the Tigers where Dunning had 10 strikeouts, six came on his slider. And every single one of them was thrown in basically the exact location you see above.
Now, let’s talk about the changeup. Dunning has a very specific place he’s throwing his changeup consistently as well:
Low and arm-side. Though it’s worth noting that’s generally where Dunning has been locating his changeup over the past couple of years. That’s not particularly different.
So what’s different about the changeup? Not much actually. Dunning’s added about half an inch more of vertical drop to the pitch, but other than that, he’s been using it the same way he always has, and it’s always been a pretty solid out pitch for him, generating a chase rate above 40% every season since 2021.
So to review, here’s what Dunning is doing differently: He’s utilizing more of his pitches, using the sinker less, amping up the usage of his cutter, and locating both the cutter and slider differently than he has in the past.
Personally, I’m a fan of this approach. A high and arm-side cutter with a low, glove-side slider and a low arm-side changeup is a nice mix of locations, and he’s got enough movement on the pitches to fool hitters to at least some extent and induce plenty of weak contact.
But, there’s also reason to be concerned.
What’s concerning about Dunning
To this point, it sure does sound like Dane Dunning has come into 2023 with a new approach and it’s working really well, meaning this is sort of a legit breakout that we should be buying into, right?
Maybe, I won’t dismiss the possibility, but there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about Dunning too. Mainly, his peripherals, expected stats, and quality of contact numbers do not like his future prospects.
If you’ve stumbled onto Dunning’s Statcast page, you’ve probably seen this:
That’s uhhhh…not great. That’s a lot of blue, and that’s rarely an encouraging sign.
Let’s dive into that a bit (though it’s kind of funny to me to think of ending this article by being like “nah, lots of blue on the Statcast page, dude sucks, the end”).
Remember that 2.69 ERA? That comes with a 4.46 xERA, 3.78 FIP, and a 4.55 xFIP. He’s also sporting a .258 BABIP, and PLV is not a particular fan of his repertoire (aside from his cutter):
And let’s add a little more! Here’s a pitch-by-pitch breakdown of actual vs. expected stats for Dunning’s repertoire so far this year:
In essence what I’m reading from all of this is when it comes to how his pitches have performed so far this year, he’s been getting a bit lucky across the board (though it looks like the cutter and slider are legit pitches).
So should you be worried about Dane Dunning? Or excited? Or entirely neutral?
This has been sort of an onslaught of numbers and tables and graphs and stuff, and what you’re here to figure out is, should you be selling high on Dane Dunning or is he having some sort of breakout?
There are definitely things Dunning is doing that are very interesting. I love seeing a pitcher who makes a specific change to their approach, guys who are tweaking their repertoire when something hasn’t been working in the past. We’ve seen plenty of pitchers do that and have success, and it’s definitely possible Dunning could be one of them.
I like where he’s locating his pitches, I think the cutter and slider make a nice combo and are working well together. And while Dunning isn’t exactly a strikeout artist (he has just a 15.8% strikeout rate on the year so far), he’s not walking guys either, and that’s important. He’s sporting a 6.5% walk rate so far this year, well below the league average of 8.2%.
The contact stuff does worry me though. Baked into some of those stats I mentioned above like the expected stats is the batted ball data, and that’s definitely concerning. He’s giving up a 30.5% hard contact rate (number of balls hit at least 95 MPH/total PAs) which is worse than league average. And alongside that, he’s not exactly a groundball pitcher, as he’s got a 49.6% groundball rate, which is above league average but also the lowest groundball rate Dunning has had in his career to this point.
The big thing for Dunning has been limiting damage on fly balls. He’s got just a 7% HR/FB rate so far this year, well below the league average of 15.1% and below his career rate of 14.5%. Given that he’s giving up the hard contact he is and the relatively average groundball rate, I don’t know how he can maintain such a low HR/FB rate. That’s going to catch up to him unless he starts inducing significantly more weak contact.
So in fantasy, what in the world do you do with Dane Dunning? If it’s me, I’m riding this out as long as it goes and once Dunning starts regressing (which I think he will), that’s when you bail. Essentially, we’re looking at a Vargas Rule here, in my view.
If you want to try and sell high on Dunning to someone who believes he’s totally legit, this is his breakout, and he’s a top 20 or top 30 starting pitcher, I’d do it and I’d do it without thinking too hard about it.