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March 15, 2012

The BP First Take

Thursday, March 15

by Daniel Rathman

For most players, spring training stats are meaningless. As long as they are healthy, their swings or deliveries are in order, and their bodies are conditioned for the 162-game grind, all the March 0-fers and five-run duds will be forgotten come Opening Day.

That’s not the case for Adam Dunn. No one in baseball needed a clean slate after last season more than the 32-year-old Dunn, who hit an awful .159/.292/.277 and was worth –2.7 WARP, making him the absolute worst player in the league. Prior to 2011, Dunn had been remarkably consistent, slugging between 38 and 40 home runs in six consecutive seasons. It was hard to believe that all of his talent could have slipped away so suddenly, but after an impossibly bad 597 OPS in the first half of the season, Dunn somehow managed to drop even further to 519 in the second.

At some point last season, struggles that may initially have been physical or mechanical became mental. A 6-for-94 mark against left-handed pitching can’t simply be attributed to a string of bad luck. Dunn himself admitted that the slump had gotten into his head, and that he sought out the team therapist in June. By August, his former manager, Ozzie Guillen, wanted to cry, empathizing with his player even as some fans could not overlook Dunn’s freshly-minted $56 million contract.

Dunn’s mental troubles may have been the result of his own self-criticism. Hecklers who relentlessly used his last name to suggest that his career was over may have caused them. Or they may have been a product of the pressure that came with signing his first long-term deal. Regardless, for a player who was once accused of “not really [liking] baseball that much,” they became too steep a hill to climb.

With a few months away from the field and a revamped off-season program, though, Dunn appears to have finally vanquished whatever ills plagued him last year, and he’s batting .308/.526/.846 this spring. Sure, it’s only 19 plate appearances. Sure, it’s in the hot Arizona air. But he’s taken two of the league’s hardest throwers—Neftali Feliz and Jordan Walden—out of the park, drawn six walks, and perhaps most importantly, struck out only once.

For most players, that’s meaningless, a blip on the radar screen, a contribution to winning efforts in games that don’t count. But for a player who strung together consecutive multi-hit efforts only once last season, who struck out at least once in 104 of the 122 games he appeared in, and who could barely figure out how to put the ball in play, that’s a sign of resurgence and a tangible reason to believe. 

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

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