JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dane Dunning’s path to the big leagues is a lesson in perseverance.
He was a first-round draft pick and then traded months later. Dunning had what he thought was a minor elbow injury turn into major surgery and he didn’t pitch in a baseball game for more than two years.
And now, the former Clay High School and University of Florida star is one of the better stories in Major League Baseball since making his debut last month for the Chicago White Sox.
Dunning, 25, is 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 20 innings for the AL Central-leading White Sox.
“I mean there’s really no words to describe it. It’s something I’ve been working my entire life just to be able to get to this level. It’s every kid’s dream to be able to play at the professional level. It was definitely my dream,” Dunning said.
“I told my dad, day one when I played baseball, I want to be a Major League Baseball player. And it’s funny, my dad said go to college first and fortunately I was able to do both. Words can’t describe the feelings and emotions I went through during that time.”
The path to the mound in Chicago was a challenging one.
The former Clay pitcher was draft pick out of high school in 2013 but opted instead to sign with Florida. Three years later, Dunning was a first-round pick by the Washington Nationals but traded that winter to the White Sox.
There, he was widely regarded as one of the top prospects in the Chicago farm system before running into issues with his right arm.
That’s where Dunning’s path began to twist.
Dunning initially had what was diagnosed as a right elbow strain after leaving an outing early on June 23, 2018.
He didn’t pitch again that year. He didn’t pitch the next year either.
The following spring, Dunning’s elbow still wasn’t cooperating and he wound up undergoing Tommy John surgery. That procedure reconstructs the ulnar collateral ligament — the connective tissue that links the upper arm bone and the forearm bone — with a ligament from another part of the body.
For a pitcher, that surgical procedure immediately means a year or more out of baseball. Dunning said that, like most players, he had doubts if he would be the same pitcher post-surgery as he was before it.
According to several databases that chart Tommy John surgeries, Dunning is one of 1,919 baseball players to undergo that procedure since John’s in 1974. In literature from the National Library of Medicine that was published in March 2014 and looked at a 15-year sample period, it cited the procedure as leading to noticeable improvement in performance.
“After surgery, pitchers showed significantly improved performance versus before surgery,” it said.
Still, that’s a tough road for a pitcher to travel.
“I mean the hardest thing on my path is really when I got injured last year, when I ended up having to go get Tommy John surgery,” Dunning said. "Just because when you’re going to do those surgeries, you don’t know if you’re going to come back. There’s that if factor. If it’s not working and stuff like that. And it’s definitely a lot of ups and downs and a lot of a lot of mental grinds that you have to get through.
“But fortunately, I had some really good teammates to help push me through it and now I’m fortunate enough to be here.”
Dunning said that he caught a fortunate break with the season scrambled up due to COVID-19. He would have likely been in the minors to start out but the minor league season was canceled due to the coronavirus. Dunning was placed in the White Sox major league player pool roster and called up for the first time on Aug. 19. He went 4.1 innings and struck out seven in his big league debut.
“The whole coronavirus thing, in my opinion, kind of helped me out a little bit, just because like breaking out of spring training like a regular spring training thing, I would have been still in Arizona, finishing up my throwing program and everything,” Dunning said.
“So, with the whole coronavirus kind of delay kind of helped me get further along in my throwing program which allowed me to be in games when the season started. That benefited me a lot.”