PEORIA, Ariz. – If you were to create an annual bingo card filled with predictable or oft-used spring training story lines, which someone on Twitter has probably done already, Mariners right-hander Justin Dunn would allow you to check off at least four squares, if not more.
But if you are keeping score at home, they would be:
- Best shape of his career/life
- Increased velocity
- New grip for a pitch
- Competing for a job
And if you were getting highly detailed, you could add subset squares of “visit a nutritionist/dietitian,” “improved mechanics,” “pitch shaping,” and “using last season as a learning experience.”
While each of these narratives have been used so often they’ve reached cliché status, it is logical to point out this: What if Dunn had done none of these things, opting for an offseason of leisure? Accomplishing any one of these objectives is notable regardless if it’s demanded or expected, which they were in a 2020 exit meeting, and he addressed all of them.
“In the meeting we had with Justin Dunn at the end of the season, we were very truthful,” manager Scott Servais said.
With likely free-agent signings, he was told his spot in the Mariners’ six-man rotation wasn’t guaranteed.
But Dunn didn’t need to hear truthful criticism from Servais or pitching coach Pete Woodworth or general manager Jerry Dipoto, he’d already administered his own honest self-examination of a rookie season that left plenty to be desired.
“We were on the same page,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be a harder critic of me than me. To say I was happy with last year would be doing me a disservice. When I had that exit interview, I had all the stuff written down on my phone of what I was already planning on doing and going to work on in the offseason. That conversation also kind of lit a fire under me. It put things into perspective and made me work a little bit harder.”
The meeting also provided verification that Dunn’s self-identification of his weaknesses was what others were seeing.
“It was good to know I was on the same wavelength as a team and also to hear that they believed in me,” he said. “They liked some of the things that they saw last year, but both of us agreed that that was not Justin Dunn last year. I’m capable of way more and I’m able to bring more to the team.”
So let’s unpack those bingo squares to see how Dunn allowed them to be marked off.
The “best shape of his life/career” story is oft-derided as a spring training crutch. But Servais mentioned immediately that Dunn looked noticeably different, which was one of the biggest goals of the offseason.
“It’s a directive that we’d given him as far as getting his body in better shape,” Servais said. “It would allow him to move down the mound better and hopefully improve his stuff.”
It was also the first thing Dunn mentioned in assessing his offseason work.
“Arguably, the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of life changes, nutritionally, putting more of an emphasis on that and getting my body right. I learned some really interesting things about my body over the offseason.”
Dunn technically dropped about 10 pounds, but he also reapportioned the weight on his body. He reduced his fat level around the legs and core area and replaced it with lean muscle.
“I got back in the gym, started moving weights and just dropped 10 pounds,” he said. “I got faster, got stronger, got some athleticism back.”
Dunn also addressed the nutritional aspect, undergoing testing under the direction of Chris Talley, the founder of Precision Food Works and Macrohuman.
“He’s amazing,” Dunn said. “I learned a couple of small things. There was amino acid I was lacking in my body for burst-energy production. I wasn’t able to be as fast-twitch or explode down the mound as fast as I wanted to.“
Dunn also found out he’s allergic to cheese and eggs.
“I had to give up pizza,” he said. “Being from New York, when my brother would come home with pizza, it sucked. But the benefits are showing.”
Being in the best shape of his life allowed Dunn to scratch off another square – velocity increase.
He averaged 91.2 mph with his fastball in the shortened 2020 season, which was down from 92.5 mph in a handful of late starts in 2019. As a junior at Boston College, he averaged 95 mph and touched 98 mph. Opposing scouts felt his conditioning and lack of core and leg strength would lead to further diminished velocity.
“I hadn’t pitched at that velocity in a long time,” he said. “It was something that was foreign to me.”
Still, Dunn was throwing around 93-94 mph in his Cactus League outings before the COVID-19 shutdown. When he returned for summer camp after 3½ months, the velocity and life on his pitches didn’t accompany him.
“I don’t think my arm was really conditioned as well as it needed to be for last season,” he said.
Dunn remained in Arizona during the shutdown and wasn’t able to throw and work out at requisite levels with the Mariners’ facility being closed.
A normal offseason long-toss program coupled with the workouts and body change resuscitated his velocity.
On Friday, he snapped off a pair of fastballs to Evan White in live batting practice, one at 96 mph and the other at 97 mph for strikes. He didn’t throw a fastball under 94 mph in the session.
“I haven’t really felt this way since my junior year of college,” Dunn said.
For the “new pitch grip” for Dunn’s changeup, well, only he can explain it.
“It’s a blessing from God, man,” he said. “Honestly, I was holding a baseball in my car while I was driving one day and talking to Him. He told me, ‘I blessed you with three people in your life — Pedro Martinez, Frank Viola and Trevor Hoffman — now take all three of those grips and blend them into one.’”
So Dunn started with Hoffman’s palm ball grip that helped him reach the Hall of Fame as a closer. When Dunn was with the Mets, Viola taught him a hybrid circle-change grip using the two close seams of the ball, which he incorporated. And then Martinez, who possessed perhaps the most devastating changeup in baseball history, offset his fingers to get the middle and ring fingers on top of the ball.
Add them together and you get Dunn’s Franken-pitch grip.
“It felt super comfortable in my hand,” he said. “I can just throw it, have a loose wrist and be aggressive with it. It still gets that sinking action that I want. It killed a little velocity, too. I’m super excited about it, but it’s still a work in progress.”
Dunn needs the changeup to be a weapon against the number of left-handed hitters he’ll face this season. Teams loaded up with lefties against him in 2020 knowing he didn’t have that pitch with sinking away motion to his breaking pitches that were moving in at them.
And the “compete for a job” square?
Well, he’s battling with Nick Margevicius for the final spot in the six-man rotation. The competition grew more intense when Seattle signed James Paxton just before spring training to go with Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield and Chris Flexen.
“I’ve been competing since I was 10 years old,” he said. “My dad raised me to compete. I’ve had to compete for everything I’ve wanted in my life. So competition is fun to me. It brings out the best in me. It makes me work harder and gives me a little chip on my shoulder. Bring it on.”