Deserving Dane: Dunning needs to be third starter in the playoffs

Sean Williams

It's official. The White Sox will be in the postseason once the 60-game regular season comes to a close. For the club, this marks the first time they will play postseason baseball since 2008. Only this time, the postseason format will look slightly different than it did back then.

Aside from the expanded playoff pool, the opening round (Wild Card round), will be a best-of-three series. The series begins on Tuesday, September 29 and goes until Thursday, October 1 if necessary.

If the White Sox are able to finish out the regular season strong and win the AL Central, or finish with a top-four record in the American League, they would have home-field advantage for the entire Wild Card round.

While home field advantage is slightly different with no fans this year, it would at least give the White Sox the opportunity to be familiar with the ballpark and its dimensions, as well as the clubhouse. 

It's clear that the White Sox will be rolling with Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel for the first two games of the opening series. However, the next man up is a competition between Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning.

There is no definite answer as to who will get the ball yet, but the White Sox will have to work on making adjustments to the rotation through the end of the regular season, allowing the club to line up their playoff rotation to their desire.

Dunning is a rookie, coming off Tommy John surgery, who hasn't pitched above Double-A until this year. However, he is making a strong case to be the third man in a playoff rotation — and he deserves the opportunity.

This year, Dunning has made five starts and owns a 2.33 ERA and 0.92 WHIP with 28 strikeouts and nine walks in 27 innings. He's done a great job of not giving up a ton of hard contact, with his average exit velocity of 86.2 mph being below league average.

In addition to the primarily weak contact, Dunning has been keeping nearly half of his balls in play on the ground, with a 44.3% ground ball rate this season. He doesn't have overpowering velocity, but his ability to locate all of his pitches well has helped him find success in his first taste of the big leagues.

Another aspect working in Dunning's favor is his ability to throw strikes consistently. Throughout the minors, he was always known as a guy who can fill up the strike zone. And in his time with the big-league club, he's continued to show that ability.

When it comes to a playoff rotation, obviously the White Sox will want to go with the guys they can trust the most. With no off-days during the first three rounds of the playoffs, the White Sox will need to get innings out of their starting pitchers. Sure, rosters are expanded for the playoffs, but there's potential for a lot of stress to be placed on bullpen arms.

Despite Cease having more major league experience to date, it would be risky running him out there as the third man in the rotation. 

There's no denying his pure stuff, some of the best that the rotation has to offer. However, his inability to throw strikes consistently, lowered strikeout numbers per nine, increase in walks per nine, increase in hard hit % and average exit velocity all could haunt the White Sox if he's the third man up come October.

For example, if the Wild Card round goes to Game 3, that could be a win-or-go-home scenario for the White Sox. Would you feel more comfortable with Dunning or Cease on the mound in that game?

The answer here seems pretty simple: Dunning would be able to go out there and at the very least, you know he will give you a good amount of strikes. That proves to be pretty important when factoring in the no off-days as well.

Even if Dunning does get hit around a bit in a scenario like this, he would be able to continue to eat up innings and put less stress on the bullpen to get a lot of outs. 

With Cease, there have been many times this year where you look up and suddenly he's walking guys, working a high pitch count, and struggling to retire hitters when he's ahead early in the game. Yesterday's debacle in Cincinnati — seven walks in just 3 ⅔ innings — was just the worst example of this, coming at a time when the starters should be tuning up for the playoffs.

It would seem like a risky move for the White Sox to go with Cease over Dunning at this point — a risk they shouldn't be willing to take.

This isn't a knock on Cease, either. He's still very young, and could still pan out and become a good pitcher. He has some things to work on, and the White Sox should worry about that in the offseason instead of trying to fix him before the postseason.

At the moment, however, Dunning has shown he can handle big-league hitters and get them out consistently, despite not pitching in a regular season game since 2018 and making the jump from Double-A to the majors.

Even with less experience than Cease, Dunning needs to be the third guy in the playoff rotation. He has earned that opportunity, and so far has shown that no moment has been too big for him.

Dunning's performance this year is giving him an edge in Chicago's future plans for their starting rotation. Him getting experience in the middle of the rotation during the playoffs would be valuable for him and the club, as they have their eyes on multiple postseason appearances over the coming years.

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