As June became July yesterday, Adam Dunn’s numbers looked rather familiar. His batting average was once again below the Mendoza line, at .198, and he had 21 home runs through his first 312 plate appearances. A bit encouraging is that he had only struck out 95 times, putting him on pace to strike out about 50 fewer times than his league-leading 222 last season. He is also on a decent pace to hit 40 home runs for the seventh time in his career.
The move from the National League to U.S. Cellular Field was supposed to be one that would likely help Dunn’s offensive numbers, yet he has just a .187/.313/.401 slash line in 1,457 plate appearances on the South Side of Chicago. Quietly, as the White Sox continue to have a disappointing season, Dunn had his best June ever and his best single month since changing leagues. Dunn was so red-hot in June that his MLB.com player card has over 50 highlights of him either driving in runs or crossing the plate in June alone!
Dunn’s final slash line for June 2013 was a robust .274/.402/.589 in 117 plate appearances. He had 12 extra-base hits that included nine home runs but, more importantly, he struck out just 22 percent of the time. That rate is a 36 percent reduction from Dunn’s strikeout rate from 2011 until the beginning of June 2013.
Early last month, Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com wrote an insightful piece that reviewed everything Dunn and the coaching staff has gone through with him in recent months. Hitting coach Jeff Manto made the following statement to Greenberg:
"The thing with Dunn that people don't realize is that he's so athletic," Manto said. "He made a comment the other day, and I truly believe it, he said no matter what he tries, he feels comfortable. So I can ask him to hit with an open stance and he'll go ‘okay, fine.’ Hit with a closed stance, ‘okay, fine’ and he'll feel comfortable. Just a matter of him barreling the ball up."
Greenberg reported that the coaching staff asked Dunn to be more aggressive at the plate and break from his habit of working deep into counts and being willing to take a walk. Essentially, they told someone who just led the league with 222 strikeouts to be more aggressive at the plate. The thought process behind the theory was that Dunn hit just .118 in full counts, walking 55 times and striking out 65 times; only one of the three true outcomes he showcased at 3-2 was a desirable one.
The process was anything but smooth, and Dunn limped through the first two months of 2013 with a .156/.246/.387 slash line, striking out 35 percent of the time while walking just 10 percent of the time. Once Dunn was able to just be himself, things started to click for him. The reduction in strikeouts came from a combination of him returning to fewer swings and not coming up empty when he did swing. Dunn swung at just 37 percent of the pitches he faced in June while swinging at 44 percent when he was encouraged to be more aggressive. He came up empty on 33 percent of the pitches he swung at during the aggressive phase, but did so only 25 percent of the time in June. The percentage of balls he put in play went from 29 percent through May to 37 percent in June.
Dunn is overshifted by defenders nearly every time he is up at the plate, so any reduction in ground balls off his bat will help, and dropping from 40 percent to 34 percent last month also helped to increase his batting average. Another difference is where Dunn was hitting those baseballs: He was less pull-happy in June than he was through the first two months of the season.
In recent years, Dunn has been one of those players that tend to stay on a single fantasy team because his batting average makes him nearly untradeable. Teams want the home runs, but fear the drag on the batting average. If Dunn can continue this recent run of improved contact along with improved patience, he could put the Mendoza line in his rearview mirror over the final three months of the season. He may hit 40 home runs again, but he is not going to hit .260, as he did in his final two seasons for the Nationals. Even a final average of .230 would be a big improvement over what he has done the past few seasons, and he could be more of an asset in the second half than fantasy owners thought he would be.