Progress isn’t always linear. It doesn’t always move in a straight line from point A to point B. And 2022 was a wrong turn type season for Dane Dunning.
He made it through 29 starts and pitched more innings in 2022 than in 2021. He took a wrong turn along the way and ended his season in a worse position than when it started.
Dunning came into 2022 having made it through his first MLB season fully healthy. The Rangers limited his inning in his first season coming off of Tommy John. The plan in 2022 was to take off the restrictions and see how he fares. He was given the number three spot in the rotation. There were high expectations for Dunning to take that next step in 2022 and show that he is ready to be that young pitcher that they count on and build around.
2022 didn’t go according to plan for Dane Dunning in the Texas Rangers starting rotation
2022 was not so much of a step forward as it was a step sideways and at times a step back. He had moments of brilliance in the first half. In April he went 7.2 innings against the Braves, allowed one run, with seven strikeouts, and 0 walks in a win . He had a start in June against the Mariners and went seven innings, allowed two runs, seven strikeouts, and 0 walks in a 4-3 loss. In 18 first half starts, he went into the sixth or longer eight times. Seven of these starts would qualify as quality starts as well, pitching six innings or longer and three earned runs or fewer allowed.
The narrative around his season though is about how disappointing it was and in some aspects it was. The expectations were also probably set too high as well. He started as the number 3 pitcher and depending on what the Rangers do this off-season he may not open the 2023 season in the rotation. One of the reasons for that is health-related as he ended the season being put on the IL and having arthroscopic hip surgery. If he is healthy in Spring Training, Dunning will be in competition with Glenn Otto and Cole Ragans for the number five spot.
The thought by many fans at the end of the season was that both Otto and Ragans had shown good enough improvement that they deserved to be in that number 5 spot over Dunning. I am not sure that is true.
I am not going to disparage the seasons Otto and Ragans had. They both had fine seasons in their own right. They were rookies and Otto pitched most of the season and made adjustments along the way and was successful. Ragans came up in August, was their minor league pitcher of the year, and pitched well in his opportunities. I think if we really look into the numbers we will see that Dunning should be given the first opportunity in the 5 spot in 2023.
Dane Dunning, at 27 years old, does not rely on overwhelming velocity or unhittable breaking balls. He relies on a sinking fastball that that has good velocity. He also has a slider that he is able to keep low in the zone, and offsets it with a changeup and a cutter. He is not a future ace, but he is an ideal back of the rotation pitcher. He doesn’t walk many batters and when he is on he can pitch deep into games by being efficient and inducing a lot of ground ball outs.
He does need to improve on a few things heading into 2023. His velocity on his sinking fastball continued to decline from 2021. That link will take you to his Statcast page, which has all of this information. In 2020 when he came back post Tommy John his velocity on that pitch was 90.4 mph and by 2022 it was 89.5. Not a huge decline, but it matters in that he throws his sinker more than any pitch. His highest batting average allowed, lowest whiff percentage, and lowest strikeout percentage was all on the sinker. If he is going to choose to throw that pitch more then it needs to be thrown harder and not as much over the plate as it tends to be. It needs to get back to around 91 mph, which is where it was post-Tommy John in 2020.
Dane Dunning has a chance to improve in 2023
I think that goes to his pitch selection as well. His slider and cutter generated more swings and misses and lower batting averages against. He threw more sinkers than he did cutters and sliders combined. He has a good feel for his pitches, I think he just needs to figure out how to deploy them better and mix it up more to keep hitters guessing. The issue is not with pitch quality mostly, but with pitch selection. If he can figure that out he will take a big leap forward in 2023.
The expectations for 2023 are to win now. They hired Bruce Bochy to manage the team, will have new pitching coaches, and more rotation depth after this off-season. Dunning with his age and experience would give the team the stability that they need from their number five starter. He only went fewer than 5 innings twice in all of 2022. He averaged 5.1 innings pitched the entire season. He is not going to stress the bullpen in his starts and with an improved offense will give the team a chance to win nearly every start he makes.
2022 was a wrong turn season for Dane Dunning, but it doesn’t have to lead to a dead end. It will be up to Dunning to put the work in and be better in 2023.