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March 9, 2012

Inside The Park

American League Horror Story

by Bradford Doolittle

"He spent hours fretting whether to ask for help or wait it out. Some day the slump was bound to go, but when? Not that he was ashamed to ask for help but once you had come this far you felt you had learned the game and could afford to give out with the advice instead of being forced to ask for it. He was, as they say, established and it was like breaking up the establishment to go around panhandling an earful. Like making a new beginning and he was sick up to here of new beginnings. But as he continued to whiff he felt a little panicky. In the end he sought out Red Blow, drew him out to center field and asked in an embarrassed voice, 'Red, what is the matter with me that I am not hitting them?'"

| Bernard Malamud, The Natural

You know that queasy feeling you get when you're watching a movie and you know a character you like is about to get caught doing something fraught with irreversible regret? It's a strange sensation that makes you want to crawl under the carpet, or close your eyes and plug your ears. That's what it was like watching Adam Dunn last year.

White Sox general manager Kenny Williams signed Dunn late in 2010 to be the missing piece in the everyday lineup. Chicago won 88 games the year before but faded down the stretch after leading the AL Central for a month during the middle of the season. There was a glaring hole at designated hitter, where occasional appearances by Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin couldn't make up for the lack of production by the rest of a revolving DH cast that included Mark Kotsay, Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones, and Mark Teahen. The hole was opened the previous offseason because, at the behest of former manager Ozzie Guillen, Williams allowed beloved slugger Jim Thome to leave as a free agent. While the White Sox searched all season for that one additional big bat that could get them over the top, Thome went out and hit .283/.412/.627 for the division champion Twins.

Dunn was coming off his seventh consecutive season with at least 38 home runs. In six of those seasons, he drew over 100 walks and slugged over .500. In his last season in Washington, Dunn posted a career-high strikeout rate, a career-low walk rate and reached 30 years of age. It's easy to say that Williams should have heeded those red flags before handing Dunn a four-year, $56 million contract. But no one really knew what was to come. In Baseball Prospectus 2011, Dunn's comment addressed the strike zone indicators, saying, "The concern is that these developments might be symptoms of slowing reflexes, not just a change in approach, but as long as he's slugging for an isolated power in the .270s, questions won't get asked."

It was a reasonable comment, and it seemed like even if Dunn's production was on the ebb, he'd still be an upgrade for a White Sox team that harbored division title aspirations. What happened instead will forevermore be fodder for baseball history books, featuring events too fantastic not to retell.

***

Other players have failed in spectacular fashion, even some who had played at All-Star levels, but Dunn's failures were singular and unprecedented. That's what makes it so difficult to know what to expect from him in 2012. Certainly, concepts like regression to the mean and player aging patterns tell us that statistically speaking, he should bounce back to a certain degree. That is to say, his numbers should move towards his career standards. He's just 32 years old, and there was no physical reason for his problems. Yet, because we've never encountered a case like this before, we just don't know what to make of it.

There have been 1,122 big-league seasons in which a player slugged at least .536 over in least 400 plate appearances, which is what Dunn did in 2010. Aside from Dunn, who hit .159/.292/.277 last season, just two others have also posted a season with a .300 slugging percentage, or worse, in 400 trips. The first was Ron Santo, who hit .221/.293/.299 in his only season with the White Sox. It turned out to be his last year in the majors and came eight years after his last big slugging season. The other player on the list is Brady Anderson, author of one of the game's all-time fluke seasons. He slugged .637 in 1996 when he hit 50 homers for Baltimore. Five years later, at the age of 37, he hit .202/.311/.300 in 430 plate appearances for the Orioles. He played in 34 games for Cleveland the next year, and then his big-league jig was up.

As much as we want to look to history as a bellwether for Dunn, we can't do it. Santo and Anderson were on their way out of the game when their numbers cratered, and it happened several years after they had produced at a high level. Last year, it was as if Dunn had been thrown from a plane without a parachute, only the thud wasn't quite so pleasant. There just hasn't been anything exactly like it.

One hopeful comp for Dunn may be the case of Jimmy Wynn. "The Toy Cannon"— as he was known because he was just 5'9", 170 lbs.—had a four-year stretch from 1967-70 when he hit .267/.384/.476, averaging 31 homers and 104 walks per season. He was 28 years old in the last of those campaigns. When you adjust for the fact that at least the first two of those seasons were played in extreme pitcher-friendly contexts and he played his home games in the cavernous Astrodome, those four seasons rivaled anything Dunn has accomplished.

In 1971, Wynn's age-29 season seemed to come out of nowhere: .203/.302/.295 in 404 plate appearances. He went deep just seven times. Wynn was fine physically but claimed to have personal problems that had been dragging him down. Entering the 1972 season, he told Dick Peebles of the Houston Chronicle, "I was just going through the motions. But I've got myself straightened out now. There are no problems. Everything is beautiful."

What else was he going to say? But to Wynn's credit, he bounced back with a season that was right in line with his peak years. He began to decline after that but still displayed plenty of power and patience in his last four years as a regular. White Sox fans can only hope Dunn does as well.

***

Dunn's season actually got off to a nice enough start. He doubled and homered in Chicago's 15-10 Opening Day win in Cleveland. After four games, he had four hits, four walks, five RBIs, and a 1.045 OPS. Then on April 6 in Kansas City, he underwent an emergency appendectomy. It didn't seem too serious at the time, and Dunn said he was still hoping to play in the White Sox's home opener two days later.

Instead, Dunn didn't return until April 12, making his home debut against Oakland. Five days later, the White Sox had dropped the last four games of their homestand, and Dunn had gone 2-for-19 with 11 strikeouts in 22 plate appearances. He'd missed five games because of his medical procedure and then gone straight into the lineup. Everyone just figured that he needed a few games to regain his timing. After the season, Williams said the decision not to send Dunn out on a rehab assignment was his biggest regret of 2011. Still, there were no alarm bells sounding at the time for Dunn.

"It’s weird. I don’t feel bad," Dunn said. "I feel fine, I just stink. I have no reason for it. I looked at film, and I’m swinging at a bad pitch at the wrong time and taking the right one. I’m not worried. I know it’ll come around. Hopefully it’s tomorrow."

***

If you trim the full-time middle infielders and catchers from the list, there have been very few sub-.600 OPS seasons posted by players who at one time or another were selected to an All-Star roster. Twenty-one of them, in fact. Dunn made the NL squad once, for the infamous tie game in 2002. Many of the rest of the players on the list were excellent glove men like Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair, and Ed Kranepool.

One player to earn his way into this group was Eddie Joost, a utility man for the early part of his career when he played for the Reds and Braves before World War II. Joost had a number of rotten seasons to begin his time in the majors, and it seemed like he would never amount to much. Through the age of 30, he had a career average of .225 with 13 home runs in over 600 games. He walked quite a bit, but after he spent the entire 1946 season in the minors, where he posted solid numbers, it seemed like his big-league career had run its course.

Surprisingly, Joost got a call from Connie Mack in February of 1947. According to Danny Peary's excellent oral history We Played the Game, Mack told Joost that he'd purchased his contract and planned to use him as his starting shortstop and leadoff hitter.

Mack kept his promise at first, but after Joost struggled to start the season, he was dropped in the batting order. Joost was hitting under .200 well into August when he decided to tell Mack about something he'd kept carefully hidden: he needed glasses. At the time, players were terrified to let their teams know about vision problems, because it was assumed that once a player donned spectacles on the field, the next stop was the minor leagues. Instead, Mack simply said, "So?"

Despite discovering the miracle of clear vision, it was too late for Joost to salvage his 1947 batting average, but he led the AL in walks, and his career took off. Over the next five years as Philadelphia's regular shortstop, Joost hit .257/.399/.423 with 96 home runs and made two All-Star teams, earning himself a spot in Dunn's test group.

Yet unlike Dunn, there was an explanation for Joost's two-sided career. He couldn't see. As Dunn's season grew increasingly dire, he was often asked if he needed to get his eyes checked. He scoffed at the inquiry every time, saying at last check he had 20/10 vision. Somebody should have told him about Eddie Joost.

***

By the time Chicago returned from its 3-7 road trip in late April, Dunn's line read .162/.305/.279, almost exactly what his season-ending numbers eventually looked like, which gives you an idea about how long his torment persisted. There was a theory going around that he was having trouble adjusting to the DH role, so one day Ozzie Guillen decided to give him a start in the field. The day before, he had a walk and two hard-hit outs against Baltimore, surely signs that he was about to break out.

"I’ve been feeling good the last five or six games," Dunn said. "At least I’m going up there having some competitive at-bats to where I feel like I can do some damage. It’ll come. If I can continue to do this, it’s just a matter of time."

That's the way it was for Dunn, and Chicago fans, for most of the summer. Despite his numbers, he really wasn't booed that much at U.S. Cellular Field until late in the season. Every time he would stroll to the plate, it felt like he was one big swing from getting it going.

One big swing that never came, or when it did it didn't lead to anything. Dunn was given a "mental break" by Guillen in early June, then returned to the lineup and hit a two-run homer against Oakland in Bob Melvin's first game as the Athletics' manager. Before the game, Guillen told reporters about his advice for Dunn: "I asked, 'Could you please have a good day so then they don't have to ask me any more questions about you? Please have a good day so (hitting coach) Greg Walker doesn't have to drink a bottle of wine to forget about your bad night?'"

Dunn homered again in the Oakland series, and a couple of days after that, he raised his OPS to .671, the highest it would be for the rest of the season.

"I feel good now, after the two benching days that I had," Dunn said. "I've felt good since I've been back."

Like everyone else, he was looking at every remotely positive result as a false harbinger of glorious days to come. After that day against the A's, Dunn hit .133 and struck out in 38 percent of his plate appearances over the rest of the season. More often than not, it seemed like he emerged from the dugout with two strikes on the scoreboard.

The terrible numbers just kept piling up. He struck out 16 times in 25 at-bats in one stretch. At one point, he was 1-for-52 against lefties. In the pressbox, some started counting the strikeouts, trying to figure out if his whiff total would eventually exceed his batting average points. It did—177 to 159.

No one could remember seeing anything quite so painful to watch, but to his credit, Dunn answered the questions dutifully game after game. The same questions and the same baffled responses. By August, however, it became increasingly difficult to find Dunn before and after games. He often disappeared into the back to watch his young son while he played in the Jacuzzi. He even grew a scraggly beard, which under the circumstances just looked like another form of hiding. When he went onto the field, he looked slump-shouldered and defeated. Dunn earned a chief place in Jay Jaffe's dreaded Vortices of Suck and even become a target of Stephen Colbert.

So no one blamed Dunn for becoming a bit more scarce, but he really didn't need to be. In what was probably the upset of the year, the Chicago media eventually tired of asking him the same questions and simply stopped.

***

Until early August, Guillen continued to write Dunn's name in his lineup in the middle of the order, even against lefties. Finally, someone asked him if at the very least, he might want to consider dropping Dunn down a few spots.

"What I have behind him is not better," Guillen said. Then he challenged the gathered media to come up with a better solution. "Send me the lineup. Please."

It's wasn't exactly a glowing endorsement by Dunn's skipper, who also said, "He makes the most money, so he's supposed to be 'The Man.'"

Sometimes, Guillen would make jokes about Dunn's performance—off the record, of course—but that was part of the Ozzie Show. He made off-color jokes about his wife, kids, and just about anything else that popped into mind and slipped out of his unfiltered mouth. Once, Guillen made a crack about Dunn, then looked quickly over his shoulder to see if his 6'6", 285 lb. DH was standing within earshot. He wasn't.

Dunn's playing time eventually was usurped by guys like Alejandro De Aza and Brent Lillibridge. During the season's last days, Dunn would wander into the clubhouse kind of late, unshaven, very quiet. He looked more sluggish than slugging; more menaced than menacing. He'd pull on his pregame attire—a t-shirt, shorts, flip-flops—and slog through his ritual ablutions in preparation for a game in which he almost certainly wouldn't appear. He'd chat briefly with Gordon Beckham, his clubhouse neighbor, who habitually did crosswords puzzles before each game until Dunn arrived.

Since Chicago kept holding Dunn out of the lineup, his season was at least saved from historical database searches based on the "qualifier" parameter, but that was a small consolation. Once, Guillen used him as a pinch hitter in a key spot. After Dunn struck out, a fan in front of the press box yelled, "Ozzie, you should be fired right now!"

No silver lining emerged to give Sox fans hope heading into the winter. Over his last eight games, Dunn went 0-for-22 with 13 strikeouts. It just never got better. On the last day of the season, the media were lined up outside of the clubhouse, waiting to get the go-ahead to enter. Many of them talked about wanting to get some final comments from Dunn before he headed out of town.

Dunn was the first player to emerge from the clubhouse, fully dressed and carrying his bag. He walked across the corridor over to where his wife and kids were sitting with the rest of the players' families. They rose together and walked away. They passed by the line of hungry media and didn't say a word.

***

Here's a player to give Dunn some hope: Scott Brosius.

Brosius posted a career-best .909 OPS for the A's in 1996. The next season, at the age of 30, he put up a .576 OPS. His strikeouts skyrocketed, his walks plummeted, and after the season, Oakland sent him to the Yankees for Kenny Rogers. In an interview after he retired, Brosius told Prodigal Magazine about his thoughts following his miserable 1997 campaign.

"I can’t do this again," Brosius told his wife.  "I can’t play like this. If this is what baseball’s going to be, I’m going to walk away from it."

Brosius didn't walk away and instead hit .300/.371/.472 in his first season for the Yankees and made the AL All-Star team. In the postseason that year, he hit four homers and drove in 15 runs in 13 games, helping New York to a World Series victory. He was named MVP of the Series. He won a Gold Glove the year after that and remained a regular for Joe Torre until he retired after the 2001 season.

Brosius scraped bottom during that last season in Oakland, but no one is really going to remember that. They'll just remember the home run off Trevor Hoffman in the 1998 Series, or the Game Five game-tying homer against Arizona in 2001.

Unlike Fitzgeraldian American lives, ballplayers can enjoy a second act. Adam Dunn certainly hopes so.

***

It was a winter of change on the south side of Chicago, with Guillen heading for Florida and the White Sox parting ways with stalwarts like Mark Buehrle and Carlos Quentin. Dunn didn't go anywhere, of course, because you're not going to find a taker for the last three years of a $56 million deal when a player hits .159.

Dunn went home to Texas for the winter, where he worked out on his own. Williams said his advice to Dunn was to stay as far away from baseball as possible and to prove his point avoided calling him all winter.

Dunn returned to Chicago for the club's annual fan convention in late January. After missing the opening night festivities, he arrived the following day and faced the media for the first time since the previous season. He looked svelte, and while he still wore a beard, it was at least well manicured. He was shepherded into a back room where the gathered media awaited, carrying a tall coffee in a paper cup. He took his place in front of a White Sox backdrop that had been erected and set his coffee on the carpet, off to the side.

"If the season started today, I'd be ready," he said. "I'm just ready to get back on the field and quit talking about it. The first week after the season, I can't even put into words how much it was needed (to get away from baseball.) After a week, I was ready to get back to doing stuff. I thought I wouldn't. It's not exactly how I thought I'd handle it.

"I thought I'd be able to shrug it off like I do with everything, but I wasn't able to do that. It was hard. For one thing, I couldn't go anywhere without someone asking me what was wrong or what happened. Once the offseason went by, all can say is it's over and I can't wait for the season to start."

When Dunn finished talking, he exchanged handshakes and pleasantries with the reporters, who began to sneak away to type up their reports or edit down their sound bites. When Dunn found himself with room to breathe, he leaned over to pick up his coffee. The cup was on its side, the contents pooled on the carpet.

What can you say? It's been awkward for Dunn in Chicago from the start, but they could have at least let the man drink his coffee.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here

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