Former Baseball Prospectus cover boy Adam Dunn has long been known for his incredible combination of power and patience at the plate, but none of that seemed to matter much in the second half of 2006 when Dunn’s performance at the plate helped the Reds miss out on an easily attainable playoff spot. After all, the NL Central champions St. Louis Cardinals only won 83 games, and the Reds finished just 3.5 games back. Dunn’s precipitous decline in production from August onward-only .176/.307/.346 in his last 188 at-bats-was a significant part of the offensive problem for a Cincinnati team that traded Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to the Nationals mere weeks before Dunn’s struggles.
Hitting that poorly after a .263/.394/.563 start that is consistent with your past production should be cause for concern. How Dunn will fare in 2007 with new hitting coach Brook Jacoby in what is still a weak and winnable NL Central is one of the hot topics heading into the spring, one sure to generate a slew of articles about how detrimental striking out is to the future of our nation’s children, and how back in so-and-so’s day, walking was a sign of weakness and the lack of a killer instinct at the plate.
Adam Dunn was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the second round of the 1998 amateur draft out of New Caney High School in Texas. He was offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas for his football prowess-Dunn completed 282 passes in 544 attempts for 4,792 passing yards and 44 touchdowns in high school-but eventually chose to play baseball full time instead. The Reds placed him in Rookie ball at age 18 with Billings of the Pioneer League, where he would do what you expect from Adam Dunn: draw a bunch of walks, and strike out just as often.
Dunn was not long for the minor leagues: he would move up to Low-A Rockford in the Midwest League in 1999, repeat the level at Dayton the next year, and then find himself splitting time among Double-A Chattanooga, Triple-A Louisville and the big league club in 2001:
AB AVG/OBP /SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Billings (Rk.) 125 .288/.404/.424 .328 22% .186 4 14.6% 15.2% Rockford (A-) 313 .307/.409/.476 .355 30% .169 18 12.8% 17.8% Dayton (A-) 420 .281/.429/.469 .471 39% .188 30 18.6% 18.8%
From the start, Dunn showed great power-on-contact potential, and his walk rates were fantastic, especially for a young player who had just recently stopped his 1998 season at Billings in order to go to football practice at the University of Texas. Dunn ranked second in walks in the Midwest League in 2000, and eighth overall in the minor leagues. His progress at the plate did not translate to his defense though, as Dunn still looked like someone who had just been playing football in the outfield. Baseball America summed it up quite nicely in 2001:
Reading balls off the bat and taking the proper routes when tracking balls sometimes challenges him. His arm isn’t what you would expect from a former quarterback, which is why he has been playing left field.
What followed in 2001 was the year that would make everyone go a little crazy over Dunn, as he would hit 51 home runs across three levels, with 19 of them at the major league level:
AB AVG/OBP /SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Chattanooga (2A) 140 .343/.449/.664 .514 44% .321 9 14.3% 18.5% Louisville (3A) 210 .329/.441/.676 .548 49% .347 13 15.0% 20.1% Cincinnati(MLB) 244 .262/.371/.578 .480 59% .316 19 13.3% 25.9%
The higher the level, the more he’d strike out, but his walk rates were fairly consistent, and his power continued to develop. His .262/.371/.578 line translated to a .304 Equivalent Average, well above the positional average and noteworthy for a rookie, especially a 21-year old. Saying Baseball Prospectus 2002 was enthused about Dunn is something of an understatement:
Dunn is the best young hitting prospect in the game right now, because he has the sense to wait on a pitch and the wrists to catch up to anything and drive it. Called up in July after Alex Ochoa was traded, Dunn totaled 51 home runs among Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors. His time on the gridiron as a quarterback shows up on the diamond, in that he’s not yet a natural outfielder. He flashes a good arm at times, but he also takes poor routes to the ball. Experience and patience will help him improve.
In 2002, Dunn was not quite the same prolific source of power that he had been in 2001, but it was a successful follow-up campaign nonetheless. He was just 22 years old after all, and .249/.400/.454 in the majors is nothing to be ashamed of at that tender age. With the boost in his walk rate, Dunn’s EqA was only .010 lower than it had been in 2001, but his defense was basically the same with a Rate of 96. Dunn’s home run power would bounce back in 2003, but he suffered a season ending ligament injury to his left thumb after hitting just .215 in 381 at-bats:
AB AVG/OBP /SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 535 .249/.400/.454 .464 42% .205 30 18.9% 25.1% 2003 381 .215/.354/.465 .459 49% .250 13 15.8% 26.9%
Besides the drop in batting average and thumb injury, Dunn was still pretty useful at the plate. His .286 EqA was above the positional average, and 49 percent of his hits were for extra-bases; Dunn had a problem hitting singles and maybe could have used a few more doubles, but his season is far from the disaster it appears to be. This was still a learning stage for Dunn, who had the year before been a bit too tentative at the plate, “too often passing on meatballs early in the count” as Baseball Prospectus 2003 said. During the 2003 season, his power spiked again, but it may have been at the expense of his walk rate and other hits. None of this mattered in 2004, as Dunn went out and gave Reds’ fans the season they had been waiting for since they first caught a glimpse of his potential:
Dunn found some of those doubles he was missing the year before, as his BABIP jumped from a well below average .241 all the way up to a somewhat above average .321. This resulted in some eye-popping rates, like his Secondary Average of .502, a .303 ISO, and over 50 percent of all of hits for extra bases. Baseball Prospectus 2005 was all over this season, as it helped counter some of the criticism Dunn had received for his “excessive” strikeout totals:
The BP2002 cover jinx continued for Dunn, as he set a major league record with 195 strikeouts, embarrassing himself and the org…wait, what? He was actually good? Yes, turns out that striking out a lot is okay, if you’ve got a well-rounded set of other skills. The Paul Bunyan-like former football star raised his power game to another gear, bashing 46 homers, including a bomb off Jose Lima to dead center that flew out of the stadium, bounced into the Ohio River, and came to rest somewhere in Kentucky-literally. But Dunn also cranked 34 doubles, raised his average 51 points and continued to show solid athleticism for a man his size. The Reds need to forget about nickel-and-diming and get him inked to a long-term deal, because Adam Dunn is The Franchise.
Speaking of strikeouts, Dunn has four full seasons under his belt, and they are all in the top forty single-season strikeout rankings. He also has 198 career home runs and 574 walks, but who’s counting?
Dunn’s 2005 season was basically the same as his 2004 campaign, and 2006 started out that way before his season-ending slump derailed his age-26 season:
AB AVG/OBP /SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 543 .247/.387/.540 .506 57% .293 37 17.0% 25.0% 2006 561 .234/.365/.490 .433 49% .256 24 14.9% 29.0%
In all honesty, his 2006 was not all that bad; his Secondary Average-which is on the same scale as batting average-was still right around ridiculous, and he was getting plenty of extra-base hits as always. He walked in just shy of 15 percent of his plate appearances, and his EqA was .284. It’s sad that Dunn has had awful things written and said about him for performing so “poorly.” He was awful from August on as was previously stated, but two months’ performance shouldn’t detract from the rest of the season, considering that portion matches up with everything else he’s done in the past three years, as well as his minor league numbers.
Dunn’s real problem is his defense, which has become pretty awful, even for a left fielder. John Dewan rated Dunn 30th among 31 qualifying left fielders from 2003-2005, at -38, with only Manny Ramirez-at -69-trailing him. Considering he’s only going to get older, slower, and potentially bigger-he’s listed at 275 now, years removed from weighing 230 at age 19-the Reds probably should not have re-signed the light-hitting Scott Hatteberg to return at first base. If Dunn moves to an American League team after his deal with the Reds is up, this most likely won’t be a problem; the designated hitter spot was invented for guys like Dunn, who can be worth 5 or 6 wins with the bat alone.
Dunn’s offensive trouble in 2006 might be explained with his batted-ball data and some hit charts:
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. 2002 4.4 39.7% 20.9% 39.4% 17.1% 17.8% .316 .329 +0.13 2003 4.3 50.4% 18.6% 31.0% 17.7% 20.8% .241 .306 +0.65 2004 4.3 48.0% 19.8% 32.2% 11.2% 25.7% .321 .318 -0.03 2005 4.2 47.2% 17.5% 35.3% 14.0% 22.5% .281 .295 +0.14 2006 4.2 48.6% 23.5% 27.8% 8.3% 22.2% .278 .355 +0.77
Adam Dunn has two years where the difference between his BABIP and expected BABIP (eBABIP) are well past the realm of significant; eBABIP is derived from adding LINERD% to .12. Adding in the .065 points of difference from 2003 would give Dunn a line of .281/.419/.530, which fits in well with his career lines and would have in fact been his initial breakout season. For 2006, the .077 difference puts Dunn at .311/.442/.567, which would have been his most productive season so far. These figures assume all of Dunn’s missing hits were singles; playing this game all the way out to its full level of detail, you could throw in a few more points of slugging to that line.
Of course, there is a little bit more at work here than fluke low BABIP seasons. Dunn is an extreme flyball hitter, which is about the last thing you want to be if you’re looking to have a consistently high-or consistent at all, for that matter-BABIP. Dunn’s high flyball rate, combined with a bout of poor luck on line drives, led to his second half problems:
As you can see in 2004, in a year where Dunn’s BABIP and eBABIP basically matched up, he had hit quite a few singles to right field. The next year, he grounded out quite a bit to the right side of the infield, but he also hit a few long doubles. In 2006, we don’t see any of those doubles to deep right center, and the number of singles has certainly been cut down. Dunn also grounded out in shallow right field often enough that a lot of those red “g” symbols are overlapping; this would certainly contribute to some of his loss in production. Remember that these hit charts above are only for games played at Great American Ballpark, meaning that there were plenty of these types of outs in other parks to go around.
Dunn has hit anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of his grounders to the right side since 2003, and it looks as if teams finally started to play the shift on him–hence the very deep groundball outs in right field. Add that to the increase in flyball and line drive outs Dunn experienced in 2006, and you have part of the answer for the discrepancies between BABIP and eBABIP.
Dunn has been working on trying to hit the ball to all fields to counter the shift teams are now employing to keep him in check, which caused him to hit quite a few more liners and flyballs to center field than he normally does; the results of this are seen in the hit charts above, where all those little red “f” symbols reside in Great American Ballpark’s center field. Dunn should not worry about hitting the ball to all fields if it is going to sap him of his non-homer power to the degree it did in 2006. He hits groundballs at a very low rate anyway, and if it is negatively affecting his approach overall, it’s probably not the best idea going forward.
Dunn is an offensive force who PECOTA expects a rebound from in 2007, to the tune of .267/.390/.574. He has his negative points-he is a poor defensive player, doesn’t move quite as well as he used to thanks to the size he’s added over the years, and he can occasionally be a bit too passive at the plate-but those flaws pale in comparison to his positive contributions. This can’t be repeated enough, as there are plenty who still don’t understand his value. Sadly for Dunn, it seems some of those people call the shots where he plays.