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In the modern baseball world, small ball and working counts is a lost art at the plate. Hitters swing big, looking for maximum exit velocity with little regret if and when they strike out.
Springfield Cardinals second baseman Nick Dunn is something of a throwback, the personification of a scrapper who wants to drive pitchers crazy by working a count and getting on base any way he can.
“He’s got the ability to make contact,” Springfield manager Jose Leger said last week, during a homestand against Wichita. “He puts the barrel on the ball and hits it the other way. He’s been really good of late, using the whole field, attacking the fastball and getting good pitches to hit.”
Plate discipline is key
Dunn, a 25-year-old left-handed batter, hit .302 in June to raise his season average to .262, with three home runs, 19 RBIs and 29 runs. Standing out more, he’s drawn more walks (30) than he’s struck out (21) this season.
How rare is that? Dunn is the only Springfield Cardinal with more walks than strikeouts and only two other players in the top three levels of the Cardinals’ minor leagues (Evan Mendoza at Triple-A Memphis with 33 walks and 29 strikeouts, and Noah Mendlinger at High-A Peoria with 26 walks and 24 strikeouts) have done so.
Dunn said discipline at the plate is something he takes seriously.
“That’s always been something I’ve tried to take pride in, for as long as I’ve played,” Dunn said. “All through high school and college, that was always one of my stronger points.”
Dunn was a fifth-round draft choice by the Cardinals in 2018 out of the University of Maryland, where he started all 172 games in his three seasons. He was named first-team all-Big Ten Conference as a junior.
During his career at Maryland, Dunn struck out just 67 times to 85 walks in 684 at-bats.
Leger said he understands the current philosophy of so many hitters that a high-strikeout rate is a tradeoff for an aggressive, hit-it-hard approach. But the manager said making contact is something he still values.
“The only thing you get out of a strikeout is you go back to the dugout,” Leger said. When you put the ball in play, the defense has to make the play and, even if you hit it soft, you might get an error every now and then.
“I know there’s value to hitting the ball hard, consistently and there is value to hitting the ball all over the yard,” Leger said. “When you are able to put the ball in play, it is a good asset to have. He is doing that at a high rate and there is value to that.”
Dunn said there is a balancing act between being selective and being ready to pounce on a pitch to hit. That is a part of his game that seems to have matured this season, especially since a slow start in April in which he hit only .125.
“You’re constantly making adjustments in trying to refine your approach,” Dunn said. “It’s a lot of work in the cage and mentally visualizing what your zone is and where you could really do damage with pitches.
“Sometimes, it’s being able to take pitches that maybe are strikes or borderline strikes and waiting for your pitch. When you get it, you try not to miss it.”
Dunn has been sharp with his glove, too
While he’s worked on the hitting aspect of the game, Dunn said his biggest strides have come with the glove. With only four errors in 214 chances at second base compared to 11 in 321 chances there in 2021, the work appears to be taking root.
“We work on everything and hitting is something that everyone has to put a lot into,” Dunn said. “But, for me, I work a lot on my defense. Last year in the offseason and this year, too, getting work in every day to be as sharp as we can.”
Some of that work involves getting to know shortstop Masyn Winn and third baseman Jordan Walker. Both 20-year-olds are among the top prospects in the system.
Dunn’s veteran experience is something that he offers to the youngsters on the left side of the infield.
“He’s one of the quiet guys and not the biggest vocal leader, but you notice how hard he plays and the way he plays every day,” Winn said. “For me, looking over at him at second base and seeing him stay cool, calm and collected, it keeps me going throughout the game.”
Dunn said it’s fun to work with Winn and see the team achieve some recent success. Springfield has won nine of its last 13 as a road series against the Arkansas Travelers continues on Wednesday night.
“It’s always more fun when you’re winning,” Dunn said. “There are ups and downs during a long season, but we’ve been playing well. We’re just kind of rolling with that.”
Cardinals upcoming games
The Springfield Cardinals continue a road trip against the Arkansas Travelers through Sunday. Springfield returns home on Tuesday, July 12, to open a six-game series at Hammons Field against the Tulsa Drillers.