Watching Justin Dunn pitch on any given ACC weekend transcends just watching a baseball game. There's a certain electricity when he steps on the mound, the strains of Jay Z blaring through Shea Field's speaker system. As the lyrics come across - Allow me to reintroduce myself - scouts ready themselves with radar guns and notebooks at the ready.
Dunn's pitching performances have become the type of must-see college baseball event that is often seen where he spent last summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Every pitch has a seven to ten radar guns trained on him, and when he gets into trouble, people train their eyes to see how he reacts. It's not just a game; it's a case study in pitching mechanics, mentality, and reaction.
There's a stark realization that comes with this type of show. Every time Justin Dunn starts a game, it's compelling, but at the same time, it's one closer to the end. Rated among the 60 best NCAA players prior to the season, he was at one time considered the 11th best prospect in the ACC, the 30th best right-handed pitcher. A top-200 prospect, a top six round selection all but assured teams would make a run at signing him in the summer.
But the likelihood of Dunn leaving at the end of the year is now something of a sure thing. When the MLB Draft rolls around in June, Dunn's name is now projecting into the top 60 prospects overall, something that places him on a potential collision course with the first or second round.
This season alone, Dunn's shown his versatility and the potential of his lively arm. In 13 appearances, he's made four starts and is now fully transitioned from his closer role in which he started the season. With two saves to his record, he's now 2-1 following Saturday's win with a 1.31 ERA, a team lead. With 34.1 innings on his arm, he's allowed only 28 hits, six runs (of which one was unearned), with 36 K's and 12 walks. Opponents are only hitting .222 against him.
On deeper statistics, he's the SABRmetric's equivalent of a Barbie's Dream House. He has a 1.41 Power-Finesse ratio, a stat in line with Juan Nicasio, Steven Matz, and Stephen Strasburg. His strikeout ratio per nine innings is 9.50, also in line with Matz and Strasburg while adding Robby Ray to the mix. And because he's been so powerful on the mound, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is completely inflated to .300, an indication of just how dominant he really can be and a direct correlation to the ratio per nine innings.
From a velocity standpoint, Dunn is capable of hitting anywhere from 95-98 miles per hour on his fastball, something that forces hitters to make adjustments as they foul off or hit balls the opposite way because they're behind his pitches. He combines the fastball with a slider in the low-to-mid 80s and a changeup that simply rolls off the table. Even late into his outings, when he would normally be tiring, his velocity stayed up in such a way that he was throwing just as hard against late inning hitters as he was against opening inning hitters, an impressive feat considering he was a relief pitcher one month ago.
"We built him up (in pitch counts)," said head coach Mike Gambino. "We went sort of 70 to 80 to 90 so we could get him up to a soft 100. He was throwing the ball great (late into his game), and he still had his fastball. He still commanded his breaking stuff, and he only ran out of gas at 105. At 105 pitches, we even said to give him one more guy since there were two outs and we had the right guy for a matchup."
Each time Dunn pitches, the scouts clear out once he's done, having seen what they need to see. What they've seen is a pitcher who made a transition from reliever to starter almost effortlessly as his coaching staff stretched him out over the past four weeks, culminating in a 110-plus pitch performance against the Hokies on Saturday.
"It's tough," said Dunn. "There are definitely some times where I look over at Mike (Gambino) and I'm like, 'Am I supposed to feel this way in this inning?' and he'll have to say, 'Yeah that's about right.' Then you get to the other innings and you start to feel good again. There's a point in the game where you'll start to feel dead, and then you just have to break past it and get right back to where you need to me. It's a learning curve, but I feel like I'm where I need to be."
"His stuff is electric," said Gambino, "and you saw when he was tired, his delivery started to open up and it got away from him a little bit. But even then, those were borderline calls. That's not to say that they were the wrong calls (by the umpire), but those were 'flip a coin' pitches that could have gone either way. And that could've changed how many walks he had (when he was tiring)."
With the draft looming in June, the question becomes not if Dunn will stay or go but to whom he will go. D1Baseballrecently said that nobody in college baseball has a "more rapidly rising stock" than Dunn and that he will "likely be gone by the second round." That means for the third consecutive year, Boston College will lose a star player for his final season, something that's both a compliment and a challenge for a program building itself as the Eagles are.
That said, we'll be forced to settle and enjoy the show while we can. Next week, there will be more scouts scribbling, more radar guns measuring, and another game where Justin Dunn is, as his intro song says, fresh out the fryin' pan / into the fire.