Dunning adjusting mechanics as he vies for bullpen spot

March 24th, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The last time came out of the bullpen with any type of consistency was in 2016, his junior year at the University of Florida. That year, the right-hander thrived in a relief role, posting a 2.29 ERA in 78 2/3 innings. 

Then, he was a starter for the majority of his Minor League career and has been a starter for the Rangers for two seasons, since he was the headlining piece in a winter 2021 trade that sent Lance Lynn to the White Sox. Dunning has only come out of the bullpen twice in his admittedly short big league career, both early in the '21 season. 

But after a trio of free-agent signings this offseason -- , and -- Dunning has found himself at the bottom of the rotation depth chart. In the final week of camp, Dunning is looking to earn a spot in the Rangers’ bullpen. With down with arm fatigue, the opportunity is right in front of Dunning for the taking.

“I'm very open to [relieving],” Dunning said. “Obviously I would love to start, but it's whatever the team's decision is, their best way to utilize me. If that's coming out of the 'pen, so be it, it's coming out of the 'pen. If it's starting, it's starting. But either way, as long as I can benefit the team, I’m happy.”

But for Dunning, coming out of the bullpen isn’t exactly like riding a bike. 

“I definitely have to get used to it, because you’ve got to be used to being up multiple times,” Dunning said. “You can get called to pitch and then the starter gets out of the inning. And it's like you’ve got to sit back down and the next inning, the same thing happens. You kind of have to  get used to it. We know, I mean, starting and relieving definitely have pretty different roles. So it'll take some getting used to, but I feel like I can do it.”

This spring, Dunning has allowed 11 runs (10 earned) in 19 1/3 innings. During that time, he has made four starts -- most recently powering through six complete innings against the Guardians -- and has come out of the bullpen once. He should make one more appearance out of the bullpen before the club heads back to Arlington. 

But Dunning’s results this spring aren’t telling the full story. After a season-ending hip injury in September, Dunning spent his early outings getting used to his “new hip.” That included adjusting his mechanics to what they should have been the entire time instead of what he was doing with the injured hip

“I wasn't able to hold my weight back on the mound,” Dunning said of his injury. “I wasn't able to stay on my back leg and be able to drive down the mound that way. I know we talked about that a lot last year. It was something I kept trying to get to and it was just -- I was never able to do it." 

In 2022, Dunning posted a 4.46 ERA over 153 1/3 innings (29 starts) with 137 strikeouts and 62 walks. Some of the struggles can be attributed to the hip injury, but there’s no doubt that Dunning taking another step forward will be beneficial for his position on the roster and the team’s success as a whole.  

The Rangers don’t need him to start in the immediate future because there’s a group of veterans, including returnees and , along with the trio of newcomers, holding down the rotation. But Dunning's length and experience out of the bullpen will be a plus. 

“This whole purpose, at least for me this spring, is just trying to work on body mechanics, pitch shape and stuff like that and obviously just being comfortable on the mound,” Dunning said. “For me it's just showing that I'm healthy, showing that I'm in a competitive state and being ready for the season, especially after the surgery that I had last year. I think that one of my biggest goals was just showing them that I'm ready.”