(Photo via Maryland Athletics, The Daily Item)
Second baseman Nick Dunn has been an everyday player for Maryland from the moment he set foot on campus. A strong offensive performer from the beginning of his college career, Dunn has added a new element to his game this year. After hitting a combined six home runs in 545 plate appearances his first two years in College Park, with slugging percentages below .400 in each, Dunn has morphed into a slugger in his junior season. He has doubled his career total in homers already, with six in 112 plate appearances, en route to a .330/.438/.604 slash line. While he will likely not retain that level of power output as Maryland enters play in the Big Ten Conference, Dunn’s offseason work gives reason to believe that he may be legitimately improved. His emergence as an elite hitter would be a boon to a Maryland team with aspirations of reaching the NCAA tournament. It would also go a long way toward elevating his draft stock, with Dunn in the conversation as the second-best (behind potential top-five pick Nick Madrigal) second baseman in this year’s class.
While Dunn’s power output this season is unprecedented for him, he has been one of Maryland’s top players since the outset of his college career. Dunn led the team in batting average and on-base percentage his freshman year. While Maryland failed to make the NCAA tournament that season, they did feature two other players (Kevin Smith and Andrew Bechtold) who went on to be top-five round draft choices. Dunn followed up his impressive debut by slashing .311/.372/.402 with Brewster in the Cape Cod League, where he faced the nation’s top college pitchers, many of whom were had just finished their sophomore seasons. Most noteworthy was his control of the strike zone; he had an even 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio his freshman season at Maryland, and he nearly matched that mark in summer league play. His surface numbers declined in his sophomore season with the Terrapins, but Dunn continued to make strides as a hitter. He cut his strikeout rate from the year, he slightly increased his walk rate, and, most notably, he began to hit for some power, swatting five home runs (compared to one his freshman season). That improvement carried over into the summer, when he returned to the Whitecaps and slashed .333/.424/.431. He experienced team success on both fronts as well; Maryland reached regionals in 2017, knocking off in-state rival UMBC during the tournament, while the Whitecaps went on to win the CCBL championship.
Unsurprisingly, Dunn’s track record of reaching base was front and center in his scouting report at the time. Baseball America lauded his all-fields approach and hands in the box, although they predicted that such an approach would always suppress Dunn’s home run totals. Because of his reputation as a hit-over-power player, Dunn’s home run barrage to start his junior season undoubtedly surprised some observers. Maryland Head Coach Robert Vaughn claims not to be one of them. In a February interview with the university newspaper, Vaughn offered two explanations for Dunn’s power surge. For one, Dunn is in better physical shape; he established a weight training program over the fall, and Vaughn noted that it is common for college players to naturally develop power as they age.
A subtler effort that Dunn made, though, was in working on what was already his biggest strength: his plate discipline. He made it his goal to “own” his strike zone, per the February report, and his results have borne that out. That improved pitch selection has shown up in Dunn’s career-high walk rate, but that change in approach may also be responsible for his power output. Dunn’s contact skills and willingness to use the whole field, while attractive components of his plus hit tool, could work against him as a power hitter, since he was talented enough to turn pitchers’ pitches into base hits. A better approach, one where he focuses on pitches that he can drive, has likely played a role in his newfound power. Indeed, all six of the left-handed hitter’s home runs this season have been to right field, potentially a sign that he is moving away from that spray-oriented approach.
If Maryland is to return to regionals for the second consecutive season, they will need a strong performance in conference play, which kicks off March 30 with a three-game set against Northwestern. Dunn remaining a legitimate power threat would go a long way towards achieving that success. No one should expect Dunn to continue to slug .600, but his potential change in approach and early-season results give room for optimism. Skeptics could point out that Dunn has never hit for this level of power in conference play. However, Dunn has done more than victimize mediocre teams this year. Five of his six homers have come against high-level competition, including Tennessee, Coastal Carolina and a dominant Stetson pitching staff.
For much of his college career, Nick Dunn has been a contact hitter, propped up by his ability to reach base but lacking in impactful contact. Thus far in his junior year, he has combined the best of both worlds, drawing more walks while hitting for personally-unprecedented power. That production may be related to a subtle approach change; Dunn’s “owning” his strike zone may consist of his attacking more hittable pitches and becoming more able to pull the ball. If Dunn can sustain those gains into Big Ten play, both he and the Terps stand to benefit. College position players who have a track record of success in power conferences tend to rise on draft boards as the season progresses, and Dunn would certainly qualify. If he emerges as one of the conference’s elite hitters, Maryland has a chance at a repeat berth in the NCAA tournament, and Dunn may end up the second college second baseman off the board come June.